Sunday, December 16, 2012

The Parable of the Sheep and The Goats (Matthew 25:31-46)... Until the end of the world (part 5)

There is a scene in ‘the Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey’ where the watchers and protectors of middle earth gather in Rivendell to discuss the rising trouble and disquiet in the east. Elven Lord’s and wizard’s grand wrestle with the rising darkness that will soon mark the end of that age…the great epic swirl of events that unfurl  in Tolkien’s ‘Lord of the Rings’ trilogy. After the gathering Gandalf and lady Galadriel, the greatest of elven women, meet for a private conversation. Gandalf speaks his mind and says “Saruman” the white, the head of Gandalf’s order, believes that you can only overcome great evil with great power,   but Gandalf believes that you overcome evil with simple acts of kindness and mercy.’ Of course as the story unfolds in the two towers … That is not really a spoiler as that movie has been round for a while now… Saruman is corrupted by power and the small courageous acts of kindness shown by the small and powerless ordinary folk have profound impacts at the most important of times.

As I sat in the theatre and watched that scene in Peter Jackson’s masterful telling of Tolkien’s story I couldn’t help but think of the passage we had read out to us today, the parable that Jesus chooses to finish his teaching on the end of the age in the Olivet Discourse and the last piece of teaching Jesus gives in Matthew’s teaching filled gospel. Somehow as Jesus had taught on the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem, his coming as king and the end of the age, judgment day… it comes down to small acts of kindness and mercy. A glass of water to the thirsty, food to the hungry, clothing to the naked, comfort to the prisoner, hospitality to the stranger. In the great turmoil and upheaval of history’s great current, in the judging of nations and the coming of Christ as King, Jesus somehow brings it all down to what we have done for the least of these his brothers and sisters.


One of the reasons I wanted to look at Jesus teaching on the end of the age was because as you are probably aware many people are talkn’ bout the end of the world, the whole Mayan calendar thing has got people thinking about it, some seriously and others maybe just a bit curious, wondering about things like earthquakes and tornadoes. I’ve had a few people out of the blue mention it in conversation this week. Maybe it’s not a major concern as Beth said her friends at school were talking about it one minute and the next were planning what they were going to do for Christmas and the holidays. It is a bit like Jesus said it would be… there would be earthquakes and wars and rumours of wars …great events happening, and people simply carrying on as they always have, no one will know the hour or the day, but you and I are to watch and wait.


Jesus talks of the time when he comes as king. And being seated on the throne and bringing all the nations together before him in judgement.  Maybe it’s like the last scene in an epic movie, a highpoint. But in typical Jesus fashion, he expresses it in the everyday and ordinary. Maybe as he sat with his disciples on the Mount of Olives at the end of a long day he was using the very things he saw round him as a visual aid. It will be he says like the end of the day in any rural setting where a shepherd will bring his flock together and separate out the sheep and the goats. In the Middle East even today, shepherds let sheep and goats graze together during the day, but need to separate them at night, Goats are less hardy than sheep and need to be looked after more in the cold. Our imagination is formed mostly by our own rural setting here but in the middle east of Jesus day sheep and goats were hard to tell apart. The only visible difference being that goat’s tails go up while sheep go down. The sheep were more valuable of the two and so were placed at his right hand, the goats to his left.


The king then says to those on his right that they are blessed and welcomes them into his Kingdom, the reason given is that when they saw Jesus in need they showed mercy and met that need. A simple glass of water, food , clothing, shelter, a welcome, a visit.


The righteous are surprised by what the King says, they are shocked to think that the king had ever been in those situations let alone that they had cared for him. The king Jesus says responses by saying as you have done it for the least of these my brothers and sister you have done it for me.  We shouldn’t be surprised by this as Jesus was the one who came to serve not to be served and  in the end it’s not the songs and the festivities and all this religious stuff that is close to Jesus heart it’s the reflection of the mercy and grace that Christ had come to give to those in need  that counts.


The second group is sent away to a place which is described in terms we equate with fire and brimstone preaching. A place that was not intended for them, but it seems their actions are seen as having led to it. Again the judgement is almost word for word the opposite to what the king had said to the people on his right. Again the people to the left seem totally surprised, when had they ever seen the king in need and not helped. The response is,  as you have not done it for these the least of my brothers and sister you have not done it for me.


Jesus finishes his teaching in Matthew’s gospel by saying… then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”  It seems to be totally consistent with what comes next. WE Jesus demonstrates that mercy for those in need by giving up his life, that we might have life, making a way for people to be forgiven and reconciled to God.  But I don’t know about you but it feels a bit like a top gear moment where they say at the end of each show…’ and on that bomb shell we say Good Night”.  We need to put it into its context to fully understand it.


Firstly, in the context of the Jewish understanding of things. There is a real sense that Israel’s expectation was that when the Messiah came and sorted things out that the nations would be judged by how they had treated Israel. The prophet Amos uses this understanding  to great effect in the beginning of his book as he pronounces judgement on Israel’s enemies and their neighbours, the crowd would have pricked up their ears and started to nod their heads, that is what they would have expected from their God, but he uses that in the end to show the people of the northern kingdom that they were in line for the same kind of judgement because their treatment of the poor, their record in terms of justice was just as bad as everyone else’s. Jesus turns Israel’s idea on its head , the focus is now on how the least of my brothers and sisters are treated. The poor, the hungry, the naked, the oppressed, the refugee. Some have seen the reference to brothers and sisters meaning Jesus followers, but it seems this is the very group that Jesus had come to call into his kingdom.

Secondly, we need to see it in the context of the whole of Jesus teaching.  Teaching which in Matthew’s gospel is book ended beginning and end by what Philip Yancy calls a Revolution of Grace. If you don’t mind a visual pun in anchors all Jesus says in grace. His teaching in the Sermon on the Mount starts with the beatitudes; blessed are the poor in spirit, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the meek; who will not be side-tracked from the common good, the peacemakers the merciful: This wonderful invitation to come to God, in our brokenness and our poverty. That we would have our hearts and lived renewed and transformed by this great mercy and live in the Kingdom of heaven. Now we see that in the end those who are blessed are those who allow that revolution of grace to do that and change how they see the world. To impact how they act… that the grace and mercy they have received is poured out.  That revolution of grace has shaped how they respond to those in need around them. They have received mercy they give mercy.  The thing about a revolution is that it revolutionises everything, everything changes, and this is what the King is looking for.  


In the context of theological discussion this passage is often seen in terms of the question about salvation by grace or by works. Yet when you read it there is no sense that people earn a reward here. Both groups of people seem oblivious to what they are and are not doing. Their actions come from their heart attitudes, and their relationship to king is reflected in how they respond and react.


What does it have to say to us?


Mark Woodley views this passage through the lens of Chaos Theory.  That is advanced mathematical theory that tries and quantify and understand how complex systems work… I don’t understand it either. One of the Mathematician most associated with this branch of maths Edward Lorenz helped everybody by using a metaphor. He said he was trying to answer the question what effect does the flap of the butterfly wing in Brazil have on tornadoes in Texas?’ … it’s still OK I don’t get it either. But here Jesus talks about a butterfly effect as well. While people may look for the Kingdom of heaven in the great moment and movements of history, in climactic endings, the reality is that is that the Kingdom of heaven comes now and will be assessed in small acts of mercy. The kingdom of heaven presences itself in this world in this neighbourhood in our lives as in response to the love of God we find ourselves caring for and loving the least. Yes Jesus will Commission his  followers to go and make disciples in all nations baptising them in the name of the father and the son and the holy spirit and teach them to obey all I have commanded them. But even the success of that will be shown in how that revolution of grace impacts on the world in small ways. In the sort of size pieces that you and I can comprehend and do.


A story from our families history is a great illustration of this. Granville Sharpe one of my mother’s whakapapa is known as the father of the movement for the abolition of slavery in England. His involvement started when he came across a runaway slave who had been beaten and left for dead by his owner in a London alley. In a good Samaritan way, Sharpe, took him to his brother, who just happened to be a consulting physician to the king, a helpful contact to make. Later Sharpe would teach himself the law and fight legal battles to see that Strong when he recovered could not be whisked off to the Caribbean and back to slavery.  He gathered others together to form a group to outlaw slavery, and well the rest is history. A butterfly effect.


Sadly, there is a reverse butterfly effect, as Mark Woodley puts it. Those who miss Jesus in this life, who do not respond to those in need with mercy, will miss Jesus in eternity. 

Lastly, It’s important to see this parable in the context of advent and Christmas. Jesus revolution of grace calls us to an incarnation. Mercy does not stand off and speculate, the Kingdom of heaven is not a spectator sport, if it is we may just miss the central character… Jesus. It does not call us to stand on the street corner with a sign that says the end is near.  It calls us to follow Christ into the everyday life of the least about us… It calls us to be ordinary everyday revolutionaries where there is a lack of mercy and grace in the world in which we live. To live expecting the end whether it happens this week or… well…it  calls us to be present in the present, not lost in the future, not longing for the past… but present  alongside the least.. Because ultimately and it’s where we started our journey together way back at the beginning of this year… to follow Jesus calls us to be where Jesus is.  To be fishers of men calls us to be enmeshed with Jesus mercy in the lives of people.

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