I said last week that a parable is not "an earthly story with a heavenly meaning," but is in fact, "an earthly story with an earthly meaning." This mornings story on the separating of the sheep and goats is a good illustration of the truth that the scriptures are most often concerned about this world, rather than the next. And even thought the images draw another-worldly picture it is the actions and the hidden presence of Christ in this world that really count in the end.
Judgement and punishment comes to us is many ways. Someone once said it is not the act of punishment or judgement that makes a person good, but rather its the threat of it that makes them consider their actions and choose the good ones over the not so good ones well sometimes at least. Of course it is more complex than that. Threats and the fear of punishment is really a last and rather inefficient approach to trying to make a person do the right thing. What really makes a person good; or rather act in positive ways is more likely to be:
Have you heard the story of the man who says he only has to softly whisper in the ear of his donkey and the animal will obey his every command? "So why are you carrying that big stick?" asks an observer, "Ah," replies the man. "Thats to get his attention before I whisper in his ear." Speak softly and carry a big stick, the saying attributed to Theodore Roosevelt.
While punishment and various forms of judgement are always with us and woven in the fabric of our society, we know that at our core we cant legislate to make people good or even make them act morally. By and large goodness and right actions are both taught and caught.
The Parable of the Sheep and the Goats:
Like all parables, this parable of the judgement of the righteous and the wicked is draw with strong language and images. Its an attention getter! And as I suggested last week, it is a parable, an imaginative story that calls you to live a particular sort of life - a life that makes a difference, not a life of indifference. And while the images in the story are projected into the future a future judgement where the King sits upon his throne it is in fact a story about the here and now.
When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne. 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; the sheep at his right hand and the goats at his left.
Its a rather difficult image for most of us in the 21st century, isnt it? First, the agrarian illustration using the metaphor of sheep and goats is rather foreign to most of us. We townies bring all our uninformed understandings of the relationship between sheep and goats and their life in Palestine 2,000 years ago. But we know from the tone of the story that the sheep represent the good guys and the goats the bad guys again strongly drawn. Remember it is a parable and the earthly things sheep and goats are pressed into service to make a point. There is nothing intrinsically bad or evil about goats. In the same way sheep are not a better or more superior animal. Nevertheless, sheep have often been used as a metaphor for the faithful in Israels history. So the hearer at the time would be well aware of the significance of the sheep.
However, its a rather weak metaphor in the 21st century. First, because most of us, as mentioned are so far removed from the land, but more significantly, we dont see being a good sheep as a desirable thing in todays world. Our culture tells us not to follow the herd (while spending most of its energy making us follow the crowd.) But we still have in this story a parable that is central to our understanding of what it means to be a Christian even now in the beginning of this century.
And this story is both powerfully and eloquently told:
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 I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.'
Im often surprised when I read this story how often the "for I was hungry I was thirsty I was imprisoned " formula is repeated. The king addresses the righteous; the righteous respond; the king addresses the wicked; the wicked respond always using the same words. It is quite clear by the end of the story that a persons actions determine their fate. It is not their good intentions as noble as they may be. Its not their beliefs as true as they might be. Its not the group they belong to, or the world view they espouse. It is what they do! Its their actions that speak louder than their words!
It reminds me of another parable in Matthews narrative, the parable of the two sons
"A man had two sons, and he came to the first and said, Son, go, work today in my vineyard. The son answered and said, I will not, but afterward he regretted it and went. Then he came to the second son and said likewise. And the son answered and said, Sir I go, but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?" They said to Him, "The first".
Why? Because actions speak louder than words, even when we take a bit of time to get there. But now, here is the in interesting thing about this story its that neither the righteous nor the wicked knew that they were responding to the King in their actions. The King, and as we know the Christ, was incognita. For the righteous, they just did what they believed was the right thing to do. When there was a need they meet it without fear or favour. The wicked also acted out of their nature and when the saw a need they were indifferent to it.
Matthew through this story is saying to those who did not have the advantage of meeting Jesus in the flesh, those who were born years or for us centuries later, you can still see and meet the living Jesus. You can in fact meet Jesus today in the flesh, in the here and now in the 21st century, perhaps not in his body as such, but Jesus, the Christ can be seen and met today in the bodies of those who are almost invisible to all of us - those on the Breadlines.
Fritz Eichenbergs picture titled Christ of the Breadlines that I have reproduced on the front of the order of service caused a sensation when it was first published. It illustrates one of the most important theological understands we have today. First, that Christ is present in our world in the 21st century. While there is a Christ consciousness, there is also the image and person of Christ walking the streets of our cities and towns today. Someone once said that the resurrection is Christ let loose in the world. No longer locked in one body, in one place, in one time.
Secondly, that the Christ is hidden from our everyday way of looking at the world. Surely the presence of Christ is in the grand cathedrals of the world; or in the celebration of the breading of bread in the Eucharist; or isnt the presence of Christ in the lives of us the religious people; or the presence of Christ seen in the great and holy people of history? Well the answer is yes. Christ is present in all these people, places and things. But this parable shakes up our thinking and puts a sting in the tail, "for as much as you did it to these you did it to me!"
Carl Jung tells the story of a king who receive gifts from his subjects every year. The gift bearers would come from the far corners of the Kingdom bringing their tributes of gold and treasures. Each year a poor holy man who lived in the wildest parts of the kingdom would bring his gift and every year it was the same gift a piece of fruit. The King knew that this man was to be respected so he would graciously accept the gift of the piece of fruit. When the old monk had left, the King passed the fruit to his courtier and ordered him to dispose of it.
This happened year after year until one year the monk passed the piece of fruit to the King and waited until he took a bite from it. Hesitantly the King bit into the soft flesh of the fruit until he found something hard in the centre. He broke opened the piece of fruit and there inside was the most beautiful gem he had ever seen. Realizing that the fruit contained a hidden treasure, he commanded the servant to take him to where all the old fruit had been disposed. The King ran to the kitchen window and gazed out onto the garbage tip below and there among the rotting food was the unmistakable glimmer of precious stones - treasure hidden in the most unexpected places. For Carl Jung this was an illustration that in the darkest places, in the shadow of ones own life, the greatest treasure is found.
In our world the Christ is hidden in the most unexpected places and among the unexpected people - among the poor and the broken; among the small and the forgotten.
Today is celebrated throughout the Church, Christ the King day. It is the last day of the Christian year. Next week we begin another liturgical year with the celebration of Advent. But today we dont end with crowns or political power; there is no need for pomp and ceremony. We end with a simple story that tells us that the presence of Christ the King is hidden within each of us and found in the most unexpected places.
What is often called the Franciscan blessing
May God bless you with discomfort at easy answers, half-truths, and superficial relationships, so that you may live deep within your heart.
May God bless you with anger at injustice, oppression, and exploitation of people, so that you may work for justice, freedom and peace.
May God bless you with tears to shed for those who suffer from pain, rejection, starvation and war, so that you may reach out your hand to comfort them and to turn their pain into joy.
May God bless you with enough foolishness to believe that you can make a difference in this world; so that you can do what others claim cannot be done.