Did Jesus just say, “Be nice or go to hell”?

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Snark MeterrealMID.003

A leader’s final address always warrants a close listen. The Sheep and Goats judgment in Matthew 25:31-46 is just that: The final section of the final sermon in the five sermons Matthew organized his Gospel around.

A laundry list of subjects to avoid at dinner parties

The sheep and the goats is a difficult passage: Heaven and hell and judgment and the poor and imprisoned…a virtual laundry list of topics to avoid in polite circles. When reading this passage religious conservatives tend to take Jesus’ words concerning the afterlife literally and his words concerning the treatment of our fellows figuratively (and often with some sheepish embarrassment and a desire to explain their earthy literalness away), while progressives tend read it seeing Jesus’ words about our fellows literally, glossing over the words about the afterlife with a grain of (embarrassed) salt. The principles of literary interpretation would indicate that the passage is either figurative or literal. In this passage, Jesus, usually the master of parable and simile, uses none of his usual indicators for figurative language, leaving all equally unsettled by his unswerving literalness.[2]

Jesus is sitting on the mount of Olives. The twelve are with him.[1] It is Wednesday, two days before he would be crucified. Jesus shocks them with a description of the way things will play out. Let’s look at the passage:

31 When the Son of Man comes in his glory and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Jesus will be leading angels. His glory” and “his glorious throne” a repetitive emphasis of Jesus’ deity – God alone sits on the heavenly throne.

32 Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.

The question everyone wants answered: Who are sheep and who are goats? There are two theories: A theological view, proposed by those wanting to avoid a conclusion that Jesus is teaching salvation by good works…a conclusion the arc of Matthew’s Gospel and the rest of the New Testament would argue against.[3] In this view the sheep are Christians and goats are non-Christians, and judgment is based on how non-Christian goats treat Christian sheep. The other theory is the grammatical view – that the difference between sheep and goats is, as the text says, the way “the nations” treat “the least of these.” I can give a plethora of reasons for the grammatical view, including it making little sense that Jesus, on the heels of a series of parables about disciples remaining alert in their faith, would abruptly introduce a new subject in a way he hasn’t done in any of his four previous sermons in Matthew, and besides, the normal grammatical reading leaves us without the necessity of textual gymnastics. Let’s look at the passage, letting the text speak for itself…

33 And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left. 34 Then the King will say to those on his right, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” Notice the passive voice: “have been blessed by my father,” and “inherit the kingdom prepared for you.” Grace is always a gift, always received. But what have the recipients of God’s grace been up to? Jesus tells us:

35 …I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’  Notice what the sheep give: Food & drink. Hospitality & clothing. Visitation & friendship. First, basic needs. Second, shelter and clothing. Finally, existential needs: time and attention. Abraham Maslow wasn’t the first to notice a hierarchy of needs.  “Sheep,” Jesus points out, “open hearts and hands.” When we open heart and hand to those around us, we open our hearts and hands to Jesus. Or as Henrietta Mears said, “Every person we meet is dying for a drop of love.”[4]

Stunned by the personal pronouns… 37 Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink?38 And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? 39 And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’  40 And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’ Jesus describes all humanity standing before Him, the risen Lord in glory, the leader of the angelic host, a savior who sees all and knows all. 41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. In Ephesians and Colossians Paul tells us the final judgement will bring a blessed reunion. Jesus tells us, that for some, it will also be a time of awful separation.

42 For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ 44 Then they also will answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’ 45 Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And the final shocking sentence: 46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”

A few observations

-Jesus’ first and last sermons tie together. The Sermon on the Mount began with “Blessed are you when you…” The Sermon on the Mount of Olives ends with, “receive now your blessings!

-Judgment is Jesus’ job. Some we think are sheep, apparently are not. Some who appear to be goats, apparently are not. It is not given to us to figure that out. Anyway, other’s status is usually a red herring for our true question.

-Our true question is, “What about me?” What is my responsibility? Answer: To love. Tertullian said, “Have you seen a brother, you’ve seen your Lord.”[5] Do you want to find God? The Lord most high is found in our lowest fellow.

Matthew’s Gospel was written to encourage his Jewish brethren to faith in Jesus. This is not saved by works,but ratherhow faith works.” The formula of scripture is not works lead to grace but grace leads to works.[6] The obvious fruit of receiving grace is to become gracious!

-Our culture’s idea “God accepts everyone as they are” sounds nice, it is just not supported by scripture. God is a holy lover. Jesus welcomes us allAnd bids us all be changed. The difficult truth is that “Depart from me” is part of Jesus’ vocabulary that he says some will hear. As Dale Brunner said, “The Gospel has a two-edged nature: it brings salvation to the repentant and damnation to the obstinate.”

-How does judgement work?[7] I once watched a Palestinian shepherd call his animals out of a pen in the West Bank. He had sheep and goats. As they left the corral they separated themselves. Although mixed in the pen, when the shepherd called them out to take them to pasture, the sheep and the goats naturally separated toward their own, right and left. The shepherd didn’t say, “Sheep, over here. You goat get over there.” They self-selected. I think the disciples would have known that. We will appear before the shepherd/king, and at his glorious presence self-select for eternity based on who we have become. You and I are becoming now, today, who we will be for eternity.

– It is trendy to say, “I can’t believe in a God who would force people into an eternity apart from God.” That does sound like a bad sort of a God. There is only one alternative, one that is infinitely worse: A God who does not trust us to make our own decisions and would coerce folk to spend all eternity with him against their will. Such is the nature of God: His holy love, deep and wide enough to make a path for you and I through his son, yet never coerce us to walk it.

Martin Luther wrote, “O dear Lord God, how are we so blind that we do not take such love to heart! How could we have thought it up that God himself throws himself so deep down into our midst and accepts the works of all those who give themselves to the poor as though they had been done to him. Thus, the world is full of God – in every lane you meet Christ. You find him at your door.”[8]

So did Jesus just say, “Be nice or go to hell? Nope. More, “Become like me now and enjoy me forever.”

 

[1] Matt 24:3

[2] There is no parable language. See Matt 25:1, 14 for examples.

[3] Held by Augustine and many Reformed theologians

[4] Dale Bruner, The Churchbook: Matthew 13-28. (Michigan: Eerdman’s Publishing, 2004) p. 571

[5]Tertullian, Writings Vol. III, Ch 26, Of the Parting of Brethren

[6]Eph 2:8-10, Titus 3:4-7

[7] V. 32 “…as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.”

[8] Luther, Sermons from the year 1526

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