The Politics of Surprise (Matt. 25: 31-46)

This is the text to the message I gave at Camas Friends Church on Jesus Sheep and Goats parable in Matt. 25.

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Matthew 25 (From Clarence Jordan’s Cotton Patch Gospel):

When the son of man starts his revolution with all his band around him, then he was assume some authority. And all the nations will be assembled before him, and he will sort them out like a farmer separates out his cows from his hogs, penning the cows on the right and the hogs on the left.

 Then the leader of the movement will say to those on his right, ‘come you pride of my father, share in the movement that was set up for you since creation; for I was hungry and your shared your food with me; I was thirsty and you shared your water with me; I was a stranger and you welcomed me; ragged and you clothed me, sick and you nursed me; I was in jail and you stood by me. Then the people of justice will answer, ‘Sir, when did we see you hungry and share our food, or thirsty and share our water? When did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or ragged and clothe you? When did we see you sick, or in jail, and stand by you? And the leader of the movement will reply, ‘When you did it to one of the humblest brothers or sisters of mine, you did it to me.

 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Get away from me, you fallen skunks, and into the flaming hell reserved for the Confuser and his crowd. For I was hungry and you shared nothing with me; I was thirsty and you gave me no water; I was a stranger and you didn’t welcome me, ragged and you didn’t clothe me, sick and in jail, and you didn’t stand by me.’ Then these too will ask, ‘Sir, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or ragged or sick and in jail, and do nothing about your needs?’ Then he’ll answer, “When you failed one of these humblest people you failed me.’ These will take an awful beating, while the just ones will have the joy of living.”

I am drawn to a number of “surprises” in this parable. In fact, I think that more than having to do with judgement the surprises are what make this story turn.

Jesus’ parable here is a warning and a call back to the roots of the Jewish faith which was caring for others. In the Gospel, this parable comes in a long line of parables just after Jesus and his disciples leave the temple. So we can assume that these parables are motivated by that container in the story.

Here are some of the surprises:

The first surprise is that the nations are the ones being judged.

It’s not just his disciples or those who are not his disciples who receive judgement. It is “the nations.” Jesus is likely saying that even though the temple stood for one group’s way of worshipping, everyone, every nation Jewish and Gentile will be held accountable for how awesome their beautiful buildings are. For how strong their economy was? For how well they sang at game openers? For how intricate their taxing structure was? No, Judgement for all the nations will be based on how they cared for the “least of these.”

The nations are gathered before the cosmic judge, the Son of Man. Some are sent away to eternal punishment.  Why? Not because they failed to observe the distinctive cultic practices of the Jews (circumcision, kosher food laws, Sabbath observance, and the like), but because they did not feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome, the stranger, clothe the naked, care for the sick, or visit the prisoner.  Others are welcomed into the eternal kingdom. Why” Because they did all these things.  For Matthew, entry into the kingdom means living for others, loving others as yourself, treating others as you would have them treat you.  (Bart Ehrman)

A second surprise is about why they are judged.

The distinction between the sheep and the goats in those times was difficult to discern but for the eye of a shepherd.

The twist here is that Judgement is based not on your theology, where you stand on the hot political issues of the day, how well you’ve got your bible memorized, or how many sermons of mine you’ve heard [I do think that surely it has to help at least a little, right?]. Judgement is based on works of mercy. The caring for the most vulnerable and outcast in society. And so those who thought who may have thought they were on the right side are surprised to discover themselves standing on the left. I assume they were not the ones who were the loudest about being right about their theology, but the quietest when it came to helping others unlike themselves. And of course, in good Jesus fashion those who perceived themselves as being out are actually the ones who are in.

This should remind us of the Good Samaritan inasmuch as it was the Priest and the Levite who we expected to act well, and the Samaritan badly, but we learn that the reverse is true.

It is easy to get smug about our rightness and lose all humility. The church today seems to be constantly in the media about something related to wanting to be right (while being really loud about it). How often are we in the paper for helping others? Or for saying we were wrong? Or that we don’t know? I can’t help but think that part of the surprise here in this passage is by those who thought they were sheep but are actually goats, and vice versa.

This parable is meant to challenge our assumptions about what God finds to be most important? The why of judgement is surprising here. This parable is really about what is okay to get hung up on, and that we will be surprised by how basic and rudimentary God’s deepest concerns are. We often reverse all of this when we think about judgement.

A third surprise is about solidarity.

A final surprise is not that the sheep didn’t know they were doing “works of mercy,” so much as they didn’t know who they were doing it too. I don’t think this is a parable saying you can only do good things if you don’t know you’re doing them, which is how we sometimes think of it. The real surprise for them comes in the fact that Jesus identifies as those who were in need of the works of mercy. What he is saying is that he was in fact that hungry person, he was in fact the person dying of thirst, the one called stranger and feared, or that person in jail with no outside support or love. I think the surprise for the sheep and the goats is in who Jesus has solidarity with.

In this parable we gather that for Jesus each person we meet holds the possibility of being a stand-in for Jesus. As though, in this unlikely person you will have your chance to meet Jesus. This is a turning of the tables, where we often say to ourselves, “I could be the only Jesus people might meet.” This parable challenges this presumption. It says there is an unknown quantity in the people we meet or “that of God in every person.” It suggests that this person might be the only Jesus I ever get to meet.

How does this little twist change our perspective, our attitude and our practices towards others? If the “Other” is perhaps the only Jesus I will ever meet, am I ready. Especially, if Jesus comes in the form of a person that makes it really hard to notice it is in fact Jesus.

And how does it change my perspective to know that Jesus identifies with me if I am indeed one of those suffering, hungry, thirsty, alone, or in jail? Jesus equating himself with the vulnerable, the suffering and oppressed should have enough teeth to challenge all of us, regardless of where we are at. It is a call to vigilance, generosity, tenderness and a responsiveness that does not come naturally. And yet, we are told that if we are not these things, we are in our own unawareness and unwillingness neglecting Jesus himself.

So I might venture to say that the central surprise for me in this passage is not that we are waiting for Jesus to come and judge, but that Jesus is already here and in the least likely of people (and that’s the point!). The surprise is not that I have to wait for Jesus to come, but that I have to be willing to recognize him now.

Therefore the “surprise of future judgement” is actually the surprise that we are being judged by our concern for others in the present.