Matthew 25:31-46

Jesus is speaking in the Messianic third person again.  He does this often—someday I need to look through all the Gospels to see just how often—but here it’s especially appropriate.  The “parable” of the Sheep and the Goats, after all, is about what people do to the Messiah without realizing it is the Messiah they are dealing with.  And here is Jesus, the Messiah, surrounded by those who doubt his Messiah-ship (even his closest disciples will have moments where they’re not so sure he’s the Son of Man he’s been talking about) giving a lesson on how the Messiah will approach those who didn’t recognize him until he came in his glory.

But before I get to that, I’d better say why I’m uncomfortable calling this a parable.  Most of the parables we’re familiar with—the ten virgins, the talents, the prodigal son—are stories, specifically fictions, that teach us something about what the kingdom of heaven will be like.  This seems less parable and more prophecy. Jesus isn’t likening the kingdom of heaven to anything; he’s telling how it is.

There is that quick little likening, which we turn into a title. “[The Son of Man] will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left” (25:32-33).  This is the image of the Good Shepherd.  According to Robert Farrar Capon, it’s also a reminder of the universality of Christ’s Atonement and Christ’s Kingship.  Just as the shepherd is responsible for both sheep and goats, the Son of Man is responsible for both the righteous and the damned.  This universality is also emphasized when Jesus declares that “All the nations will be gathered before [the Son of Man]” (25:32).  But except for these two verses, Christ’s message is free of references to sheep, goats, shepherd:  He is not talking about livestock, he is talking about the Judgment.

And here is what he has to say:  All the people the world has ever known will be divided into two groups of people.  The first will be commended for doing good they didn’t realize they had done.  The second will be condemned for not doing good, and will complain that they would have done good if they’d only known how good it was.

But wait: I’ve described it wrong.  I forgot that whole part about non-recognition.  There are two kinds of people: both of them meet the Messiah, but neither knows it.  One kind gives him aid, since he’s in need, the other kind passes by (on the other side of the road, perhaps, like the Pharisee and priest in the “Who’s your neighbor?” parable.)  It’s like one of those fairytales about sharing a loaf of bread with an old crone who turns out to be a fairy.  Those who help Christ are rewarded; those who ignore him are condemned.

But there’s another catch: It’s not that these people met Christ once, or twice.  Because what the Son of Man tells them is that everyone they’ve ever met was him.  They don’t have to know that everyone they meet is him—in fact, it’s pretty clear that none of the righteous ever caught on, because they’re so surprised.  The wicked are surprised too, asking “Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?” (25:44).  And his answer is that they never needed to know to be saved, all they needed was to do.

And that’s what catches us about this parable.  Christ has already said that it’s pointless to try and please men.  Here, he says that it’s pointless to try and please God.  The wicked were just as concerned, perhaps more concerned, about pleasing the Messiah as the righteous were.  It’s just that none of them, saved or damned, knew him when they saw him.

He’s saying that what matters are good works, but that good works done to game the system, to please God or man, are missing the point.  It’s not about doing good to be seen by anyone, but doing good for goodness sake, doing good because good is good, even (especially) when you don’t know it’s the Messiah you’ve just met torn and bleeding by the side of the road.  And those who have got this goodness, who don’t even realize how much their goodness is endearing them to God, are the ones who will be surprised with the promise of his kingdom.

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