Proper 29 Year A
Christ the King Sunday
Okay people, it’s sheep and goats day! Are you ready for this?
Reading this passage, I was thinking back to my first year of seminary, when we were studying for our final exam in New Testament. I was part of a regular group that helped each other prepare for Bible exams. In this instance, there were many quotes from various passages that we had to label – sort of a “spot identification” challenge. One of the rules of thumb we developed as a group — an informal quick sorting method — was “if it sounds nasty, it’s probably Matthew…” My personal favorites were the ones about weeping and gnashing of teeth. But being cast into the outer darkness was right up there too. And this sheep and goats passage definitely fell into that category as well.
Because, honestly, who doesn’t have a moment or two of panic when we hear this image of a great and definitive sorting? Am I going to be a sheep? Or a goat? This past week, I’ve been doing a lot of reading about this parable, and finding a lot of different interpretations. Of course there is the one that we hear all too often — the “us against them” interpretation that says only Christians can be sheep, and even among Christians, whenever we don’t happen to see eye to eye with someone, they must also be a goat. Off to the outer darkness with the likes of you! Oh and “thank you very much Jesus for making it so clear.” The reward and punishment, us against them interpretation is quite tempting isn’t it? The need to put up barriers is just so endemic to human nature. Circle the wagons around my immediate family and all those who agree with me, and oh gosh, too bad for the rest. Surely, they are only getting what they deserve.
Another common interpretation comes to the diametrically opposite conclusion that this is a passage about universal salvation. It is about the judgment of all of humanity — and the answer is that all of us will be saved. All of us have an obligation to help those in need — to see Christ in all persons, most particularly those in distress — and to assist them as best we can. Because all of us, at some time in our lives, will be the one who assists — and, all of us at some time in our lives, will be the one in need. In this reading, our responsibility towards others is nurtured by our experiences as the one who requires help.
Following, as it does, hard on the heels of several parables that speak of watchfulness for the coming of God in glory, this passage thus serves as a blueprint for how to live life in community here and now — a roadmap of how we are to live as we maintain watchfulness. It’s a call to live each day as if it were our last — and to make the decision every day to choose to live life as abundant. This interpretation rejects the self-interested instinct to see life as scarce. It also rejects the tendency to harbor our resources and to only “watch out for number one.” We just heard that last week in the parable of the talents, didn’t we?
In this interpretation — that which will be rejected — the goats, as it were, are, in the words of theologian Christopher Morse, not specific people, but instead: “the opposition, in whatever personal and corporate form of denial, betrayal, and crucifixion it takes, to being loved into freedom.” Dr. Morse continues: “The eternally ‘rejected,’ the ‘unsaved,’ and the ‘lost’ is all that is within us and within the world which denies, betrays, and crucifies the love that comes to set us free.”
So again, it’s not about individuals or even groups of people. Instead, it’s about individual and systemic acts and attitudes that reject God’s love.
To me, that interpretation makes more sense. Because the Christian hope is founded on the acclamation that Christ conquers all brokenness — all evil, even the evil of death. Nothing can separate us from the love of God.
This is why, in the burial service, we say:
Thou knows, Lord, the secrets of our hearts; shut not thy merciful ears to our prayer; but spare us, Lord most holy, O God most mighty, O holy and merciful Savior, thou most worthy Judge eternal. Suffer us not, at our last hour, through any pains of death, to fall from thee.
Thou shalt show me the path of life; in thy presence is the fullness of joy; and at thy right hand there is pleasure for evermore.
All we go down to dust; yet even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia.
Let’s just sit with those thoughts for a moment.
Doesn’t that interpretation make more sense in the broader context of the gospels? And doesn’t it sit easier in our hearts — doesn’t it give us more room to breathe?
Because, despite the short term satisfaction in the first interpretation of seeing someone we think is less deserving “get theirs” — is that really what we want? When we circle the wagons, how does it really make us feel?
And if we are truly honest and look into our hearts — who are we actually least likely to forgive? If we condemn others — are we not also condemning ourselves? Just speaking about that first interpretation causes my chest to constrict.
So instead, I offer you another line from the burial service:
Breathe into that one for a moment.
As a closing thought, I’d like to reference a final interesting interpretation of the sheep and the goats that comes from Daniel Harrington, a professor of New Testament at Weston Jesuit School of Theology in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It’s an adjunct to the 2nd interpretation we just heard, and it speaks quite poignantly to the rampant nationalism that seems to be on the rise across the globe, as well as here in the United States. Harrington argues that the Greek phrase panta ta ethne (all the nations) in this passage, which is usually translated as “all of humanity” is actually, in the context of other examples of its use in Matthew’s gospel, a reference to the gentiles alone. So those who are being judged in this particular passage are the gentiles only.
This does not mean that those in Matthew’s community who were originally observant Jews were not also judged — we hear in Matthew 19 that the Son of Man will judge the twelve tribes of Israel. What is significant here is, if we follow Harrington’s reading, this passage quite deliberately reaches across the divide to actively include those who were not originally Judeans — to include everyone else — all of the nations. Such an interpretation is an even more pointed response to those who would say salvation is for Christians alone — and one must attain “sheep status” by accepting Jesus as one’s personal savior. Indeed, it is specifically saying that there is no one special “in” group. This passage is pointedly saying that ALL who engage in acts of mercy and giving are saved. No matter who or where or when.
Today is Christ the King Sunday — the day we celebrate that Jesus came to us — as one of us — to bring us Truth. Christ’s kingdom — the kingdom of God, which is open to all of us — is not one of domination or empire. It is a kingdom of love. A kingdom that speaks to the reality that we all experience, that reality of being broken open by the human condition, and of God’s creative and healing love in response to that brokenness. Love has come to abide with us, now and always. And this love – this Jesus – understands the full spectrum of our existence, because he has lived it himself.
Where do we find Christ? We find him where he has chosen to meet us. We find our king in the faces of the hungry and thirsty. We find our king in those who need shelter and clothing. We find our king in the strangers who need us to welcome them. We find our king in those who are in prison. We find our king in the natural world that needs our protection. We find our king in the faces of those who are killed by gun violence in our country every day. We find him in the voices of women speaking up about the sexual violence that has distorted our lives. We find him in the courage of the Black Lives Matter movement. We find him in the faces of transgender persons seeking to be seen as who they truly are. We find him in the distress of those without jobs or prospects for employment. We find our king in the faces who ask for justice in the face of racism, sexism, gender based violence, poverty, and all other forms of systemic oppression.
And most of all, we find him wherever the brokenness of humanity calls out for the justice and love promised by God.
God’s promise to every creature on the planet is that the brokenness will not prevail.
All we go down to dust. Yet even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia.
The Rev. Posey Krakowsky
November 26, 2017