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Christ the King

Christ the King

If you want to try and justify the idea of hell and eternal judgement this is one of the passages which is used. Preachers throughout time have used this to threaten people they regard as goats that if they do not adopt the beliefs they are told then they will end of burning in the fiery pits of hell for all time. It is all quite sordid because the impression is given that such ideas are biblical truths. Actually there is not such justification at all and categorising people as sheep and goats on such a basis has no more justification than me claiming that all Everton football supporters are goats and Liverpool supporters are the sheep.

Jesus is not weaponising evangelical preachers with the ultimate threat to enable them to convince unbelieving souls. Indeed it is one of the most ungodly things to imagine that Christians of one group or another are the special ones who Jesus wants for a sunbeam and ones who are of other faith are bound for eternal damnation.

You could blame Jesus for this because he started it all off with the way that he spoke. He often spoke in hyperbole to make big points. He said to chop off bits of your body if they cause you to sin and he said there was more chance of rich people being able to go through the eye of a needle than go to heaven ! But we know that Jesus spoke like this and we know if we are honestly reading this passage of scripture this morning that Jesus was not promoting a doctrine of eternal damnation.

We have to be so very careful whenever we speak of how God will judge anybody anyway. Not being God I find it presumptuous to comment on what measure of judgement God may use in any future reckoning. I feel profoundly uncomfortable especially when scripture itself is so conflicting in what happens when we die, whether we sleep until the day of the rapture when we float through the skies or whether we go with Jesus straight to paradise and all the other ideas. The largest body of Christians across the world are Roman Catholics who believe in some form of purification after death. Christians are divided and the best we can do is take a guess and wait to be surprised. As the Apostle Paul said, we see through a glass darkly.

It is true that there has been a theology of heaven and hell around which see God as some kind of monster. Jesus tells us to love even those who hate us, but the picture painted of God is sometimes that of somebody who holds grudges. Indeed such is the nature of God presented it is hard to imagine why anybody would want to spend eternity with him or her.

Jesus tells us to forgive seventy times seven but this nasty God doesn’t. Indeed most humans are more loving than the kind of God found in some Christian doctrines of heaven and hell. We need to realise that these idea come not from scripture and the most common notions of hell come not from scripture but rather from medieval times, religious art, Dante and many other places.

So lets’ look at what Jesus is talking about today - what was Jesus talking about when he spoke of sheep and goats ?

As a parent you are not supposed to have favourite children. However so many parents actually do. A study last year found that over 70% of parents had a favourite child. Guess which child was the favourite ? It is apparently usually the eldest one.

Of course if you ask a parent if they have a favourite then they will deny it but there are apparently subtle ways to catch them out. If you ask them to show you photos of their children there will usually be dozens of the eldest and then not so many of the next one which comes along.

The Jews believed that they were like God’s favourite child

The Jews always believed that one day the Messiah would come as judge and when Jesus today uses language about separating the sheep from the goats this would have been instantly familiar to his hearers. Often that work of judgement was thought of as the Messiah being like a shepherd (Ezekiel 34:11,23).

The Jew of course believed that the separation for God would be an easy one…….

  • the Jews went on one side
  • and the gentiles went on the other!

The Jew was special, marked by things like circumcision and the law. God was like a parent who had favourites, and they were the first children. Language was used like 'chosen people.' Today in this passage Jesus would have had his Jewish hearers on his side when he started speaking

Jesus said to his disciples:
‘When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for ……..

But then Jesus surprises everybody by turning the tables, as he often did, figuratively and otherwise. Sheep and goats are not separated by virtue of Jewishness. Jesus makes it clear that it will not be a case of Jews on one side, separated from everybody else. The Jewish leaders are in for a shock because they are being told that all the rules they believed in were wrong. Of course in one sense they should not have been shocked because what Matthew does in placing this episode here in the Gospel is to show Jesus draw to a conclusion all of his teaching which we have been going through before the material starts about the crucifixion journey.

Remember this is the end of chapter 25. The sheep and the goats is the culmination of Jesus teaching which has seen him speak about the failure of the Jews to live up to expectations of them

  • The destruction of the Temple, not one stone will be left standing on another
  • He had overturned their money tables
  • The hypocrisy of the Teachers of the Law and the Pharisees who sit in Moses seat 23:2. Remember he called them whitewashed tombs, blind guides
  • The parable of the wedding banquet. Those who had refused to attend were going to be killed and new guests invited. Who had been invited Jews - who was going to be invited anybody you can find !
  • He had reduced their beloved Law to just two commandments 'Love God and Love your neighbour'
  • He told the parable of the two sons one said he would go and didn’t, one said he wouldn’t and did
  • He told about the vineyard where the tenants had behaved most badly. Having been left a beautiful vineyard they had beaten and killed the owners servants and his son.

 

  • Who were the ones invited to the wedding banquet who failed to show up ? - The Jews
  • Who were the hypocrites the Jewish leaders ?
  • Who was the son who said he would do it all for the father and didn't the Jews

I could go on but I think you get the picture.

Sadly the image of sheep and goats has been take out of context in scripture and not seen as part of Jesus teaching towards the Jews, but rather as a means for one of Christians to have a go at another group of Christians or indeed any other faith or people who do not hold the exact same views. The sheep and the goats is the culmination of Jesus teaching which has seen him speak about the failure of the Jews to live up to expectations of them. No wonder then that when Jesus speaks about the sheep and the goats the Jewish leaders were fuming with Jesus and want him dead. Chapter 26 starts with the plot against Jesus

When Jesus had finished saying all these things, he said to his disciples, 2 “As you know, the Passover is two days away—and the Son of Man will be handed over to be crucified.”
3 Then the chief priests and the elders of the people assembled in the palace of the high priest, whose name was Caiaphas, 4 and they schemed to arrest Jesus secretly and kill him. 5 “But not during the festival,” they said, “or there may be a riot among the people.”

Jesus had already said

“Therefore I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit.

So this image which Jesus about the sheep and the goats turns Jewish expectation on its head
It will no longer be God separating the Jews from Gentiles. Instead the nations will be judged on an entirely different measure. The Jews will not be a favourite child, God wants peop,e who bear fruit, not people who have been born into one faith community or another.

So who are the ones who are producing the fruit of which Jesus speaks?

Well clearly Jesus is saying that God does not have the Jews as favourite people who as a matter of birth will be given special treatment. I suggested that God does not have favourite children but that is not actually accurate. If we read scripture and what Jesus taught carefully we find out that actually God does have favourites

Who are God’s favourites?

I was listening to Adrian Plass on my ‘be a better vicar’ course recently and he said something very simple and very profound, as only he does, and it was along the lines of God is never happier than his least happy child. It wasn’t exactly that but the point he was making is that God cannot be jolly and cheerful if his children are suffering.

Poor and vulnerable people have a special place in God’s heart. And those who help them do as well. As Christians, we are called to respond to the needs of all our sisters and brothers, but those with the greatest needs require the greatest response. This gospel teaching reminds us that ultimately, we will be judged by how well we live out the social teaching of Jesus Christ. We will be judged by whether

  • We have responded to the call to feed the hungry
  • Give drink to the thirsty
  • Shelter the homeless
  • Welcome the stranger
  • Serve those who are ill
  • Visit those who are in prison

These are the ones who will find blessing. Once we understand that we can make sense of what Jesus says next. The sheep are the ones who do God’s work of looking after his needy children.
What we can really say about the passage today is that it shows that Jesus wants his hearers to take his words with great seriousness. His warning is this.
‘His favour rests upon those who decide to do the work he has given us to do.’

Very often Christians have taught that when we stand before God, we will be asked what we believed, how true our theology was, or how often we worshipped in church. Jesus sounds a warning today that rather we will be confronted with a record of how well we cared for others.

The first Christians understood this and they took it to heart.

Paul met with the Christian leaders in Jerusalem, he says that
"the only thing they asked us to do was to remember the poor, the very thing I was eager to do" (Galatians 2:10).

Paul organized a famine relief effort for the people in Jerusalem. In Acts, Luke describes the "daily distribution of food" to widows.

James says that "true and undefiled religion" is to care for widows and orphans.

A hundred years later, Tertullian wrote how God had a "peculiar respect" for the lowly, and that caring for the poor was the "distinctive sign" of believers.
The Roman Emperor Julian the Apostate tried hard to oppose and crush Christianity in the fourth century. But he said
‘the godless Galileans (Christians) feed not only their own poor but ours also.

Ambrose of Milan wrote
If thou clothe the naked, thou clothest thyself with righteousness; if thou bring the stranger under thy roof, if thou support the needy, he procures for thee the friendship of the saints and eternal habitations. That is no small recompense. Thou sowest earthly things and receive heavenly’

We should not be surprised that God is so concerned about social justice. We have a Messiah who was born in stable. Seeking justice is not an option for the Christian it is our inescapable duty. Charles Royden