23 November 2014
Last Sunday after Pentecost
The Reign of Christ
Proper 29A (RCL)
Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24
The parable of the sheep and goats is another passage from Matthew’s Gospel we’ve heard so many times, that we almost can’t hear it anymore. Like the beatitudes, we hear it with centuries of sentiment behind it. “Inasmuch as you have done it to one of the least of these, my brothers and sisters, you have done it unto me.” we pat ourselves on the back for giving canned good to the food pantry, toys for the children and coats to the homeless. I don’t think that is why Matthew is telling the story. The parable is about recognition and failure to recognize: both sheep and goats ask, “When did we see you?”
I think this passage forms a perfect bookend with the Beatitudes. The Beatitudes are the first public words spoken by Jesus, and Matthew is careful to tell us that with this parable, Jesus finished his public teaching. The beatitudes (not really beatitudes, but makarisms) tell us what kind of people we ought to honor in this new community Jesus is establishing. The parable tells us how to continue to do that when Jesus is no longer in our midst. The vocabulary of the parable echoes that of the beatitude: hungering, thirsting, being poor, etc. Again, these are not the people we would ordinarily choose to hang out with, let alone honor.
The vocabulary of the parable also echoes the vocabulary of the parable of the talents. The sheep are invited to enter the kingdom prepared for them from the foundation of the world; the first two slave are invited to enter the joy of their master. The goats, and the last slave, are shut out into outer darkness and eternal punishment. This parable interprets the previous one: What is it we have been given in such amazing quantities, and what does investing it look like?
If Matthew does intend us to read the Beatitudes and the parable of the sheep and goats as bookends, then the gift we have been given is the honor of the community, and the investment we make of it is to share it with others. Because honor is not a zero sum game, the more we give away, the more we have. If we bury it in a hole, keep it to ourselves, we lose what we have. No one will honor us, because we haven’t used the honor we have to honor others.
The sheep are invited into the kingdom prepared for them from the foundation of the world. This is not the kingdom we are expecting. We are expecting a kingdom as dominion, land, power over (a zero sum game). We have also located it out in the distant future. The kingdom we are invited to enter is already here (potential, waiting to be actualized). It happens when we recognize the king.
Interestingly, the parable begins with a subjunctive future clause, rather than an indicative future. We might translate the opening, “If and when the Son of Man returns,” or “should the Son of Man return,” or “whenever the Son of Man returns.” There is not fixed future point at which something will certainly happen, but a sense of uncertainty is involved.
The activities listed then become ascetic practices in which we engage in order that we might recognize the Son of Man whenever he comes. These practices are how we participate in the kingdom now. And the lack of recognition is key to the responses of both the sheep and the goats. We are not doing these things to gain entry into the kingdom. We are not feeding the poor because they might be Jesus. We are including them in our community so that the kingdom is now. We have to learn to see it when to all appearances, things are otherwise. It surprises us every time it breaks in upon us.