One of the most confronting parables Jesus told was his account of the sheep and goats (found in Matthew 25). The end of the age has come and humanity is gathered before Christ for judgement. Humankind is sorted into two groups: sheep, who the king claims fed him when he was hungry, gave him a drink when he was thirsty, provided hospitality when he was a stranger, clothed him when he needed clothes, looked after him while he was sick, and visited him while he was imprisoned; and goats, whom the king says failed to do these things.
Both groups are bewildered. They cannot recall ever seeing the king in a state of need, to which the king replies “whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did it for me.” The sheep are then welcomed into eternal life, while the goats are condemned to eternal punishment.
The story is difficult on a number of levels. First, it seems to set a standard for belonging to God’s kingdom that is impossible to meet. Who among us cannot recall a time we walked past a homeless person in the street; expended money on truly discretionary pursuits when we could have donated more to a charity helping people living in poverty; or let an opportunity pass to care for somebody who we know needed it at the time? If we are honest with ourselves it would seem that pretty much all of humankind would be goats.
Second, there are divided interpretations on whom Jesus is referring to when he speaks of “the least of these brothers and sisters of mine”. Some interpreters believe the phrase identifies followers of Christ, with the parable then speaking of the community of believers caring for one another at the same time that they are vilified and rejected by those outside the community of faith, or to itinerant missionaries who travel from town to town depending upon the goodwill and hospitality of those who embrace their message. Others argue that the least of these is a reference to all people in a state of homelessness, hunger, poverty, or victims of unjust treatment.
Here’s my take.
First, in telling this parable Jesus buys into a debate taking place during his time. As best we can tell, in the day of Jesus almost all Jews affirmed the notion that the time would come when the nations would be gathered judgement. The debate was on what grounds judgement would occur. Some argued that the sheep would be the Israelites and the goats the Gentiles. Others argued that the sheep were Israelites who were faithful to the law, and the goats were all others. Some allowed that there may be gentiles who were faithful to the law and so were part of the kingdom. Jesus subverts all of these interpretations, suggesting that the key issue is how they were related to him, the king.
Second, it seems to me almost certain that “the least of these brothers and sisters of mine” should be understood as a reference to human beings in general and not to the followers of Jesus in particular. The reason for this is that the one who speaks is identified as “the King”. He is clearly king over both the sheep and the goats, that is over all humankind. In the biblical tradition of kingship it was the sacred duty of kings to secure the rights of the poor and vulnerable groups such as widows and orphans (see Proverbs 30:1-9; Jeremiah 22:1-24; Daniel 7). The king is not to see his subjects as people to be exploited and oppressed, but as neighbours to be loved. The parable sets Jesus up as King over all humankind, so that “the least of these brothers and sisters of mine” are those subjects of low status who were pushed to the fringes of society and left hungry, homeless, exploited, and oppressed.
The point of the parable is not to suggest that entry into the kingdom of God is a reward merited by a life of virtuous behaviour, but to point out that those who belong to the kingdom are those who have identified themselves with the King and the King’s mission to bring kindness, justice, and mercy to those commonly denied it.
Moreover the parable calls us to much more than serendipitous responses to those we meet who are in need. In the culture of the biblical eras and particularly of Israel, people were hungry, homeless, physically weak, and imprisoned because the political and economic systems were designed to exploit them and the rich and powerful colluded to appropriate their wealth and labour. Read the Old Testament prophets and they don’t identify hunger, homelessness, and disadvantage as bad luck, an inevitable part of life in a broken world, or because of the laziness of poor. They consistently sheet the issue home to a failure of the rich and powerful to recognise the claim of the poor to land, to loans, and to debt relief.
The parable is a call for us who know the King to see ourselves as the king’s hands and feet in creating a world in which our fellow human beings are freed from violence, greed, exploitation, oppression and the evils these bring.
Finally, we need to be careful to read this parable in the light of the whole corpus of Jesus’s teaching. It would be a mistake to see this as suggesting any single failure to love those in need disqualifies us from belonging to the kingdom of God. Jesus speaks about the patterns of our lives as an indicator of the direction of our hearts and the nature of our faith (e.g. Matthew 7:15-23). This informs how we read the meaning of his parable of the sheep and goats. He is not suggesting that the sheep have never failed to love the hungry, the naked, the weak or the imprisoned, but that the pattern of their life is one of investing in those who are disadvantaged and oppressed. A comparison would be how we think of our parents. My parents were extraordinarily good parents to me because the pattern of their life was one of grace, love and generosity. This did not mean they were perfect. There were times of course when they failed to act with wisdom, grace or generosity, but these were not the pattern. Moreover Jesus’s relationship with his disciples was one of extraordinary grace as they learned to take the journey with him. Indeed in the Gospels are seen to stuff up more than they get it right, but the overall direction of their lives was one towards the way of Christ rather than away from it.
The parable and is not designed to induce anxiety over some lapse we may recall from our past, but to shape us as people who identify with the mission of King Jesus to bring hope, healing and deliverance to all human beings who are suffering exploitation, oppression and persecution.
Two weeks ago I attended the funeral of an old friend. I hadn’t seen Bazza for many years, but my memories were fond. I met Barry when I was the youth pastor at Caringbah Baptist Church and he starting seeing one of the women whose daughters were in the youth group. I had long had a soft spot for Lyn and her three daughters. For many years Lyn had been a single mother who knew some tough times but met them with courage, a raucous laugh, and who was always helping out in the youth ministry. Barry and Lyn would go on to marry and it was my honour to perform the ceremony.
Barry was a rough diamond, one of those people for whom the phrase “schooled in the university of hard knocks” was true. I enjoyed his company and felt humbled to be part of his journey to faith. But it wasn’t until the funeral that I really understood how profound a change Christ brought to Barry.
I had never pried much into Barry’s past. At the funeral Barry’s son gave us a glimpse of a man with many admirable qualities, but for whom life had been difficult and who could be difficult. After Barry and his first wife split up Barry disappeared for a number of years and it took some time for his relationship with his son to mend.
Barry’s son, who is not a follower of Jesus, then went on to describe how his dad changed dramatically and for the better when he met Lyn, discovered Jesus and got involved in Caringbah Baptist Church. He noted that the change was permanent and that he was very grateful for it.
I do not think I have ever heard a more powerful witness to the power of faith than the words delivered by Barry’s son. In an era when religion is often maligned, and often justly maligned, it reminded me that when faith functions as it ought it can make us into better people than we might otherwise be. It certainly did that for Barry. Knowing the love, grace and forgiveness of God was deeply and permanently transformational for Barry. In Christ he found nothing less than the reality of a new life. I am thankful that I knew him and for the legacy he left.
RIP old friend.
I recently revisited Rodney Stark’s The Triumph of Christianity and was once more struck by the power of the early Christian movement. He describes first century Rome where, for most people, life presented serious challenges. The city was crowded. It is estimated that population density in Rome was almost three times that of modern-day Calcutta. Buildings were incredibly close to one another, and were known to fall down regularly. Cramped living conditions and the use of open braziers for cooking meant that fire was a constant danger, and coupled with poor understanding of hygiene and the emptying of toilet pots in the streets, sickness and epidemics were common. Crime rates and interpersonal violence rates were extraordinarily high. Around one-third of the population of Rome were slaves, who were commonly subjected to violence, loss of freedom and sexual abuse by their masters. For Christians there was the added opprobrium of being thought a threat to the welfare of the state because they refused to worship the city gods and Caesar himself.
To this existence Christianity brought neither escapism nor fatalism. Rather it brought hope and love.
It brought the message that God loves people. Stark points out that
almost everywhere on Earth the gods were thought to be many and undependable. Aside from having some magical powers, and perhaps a gift of immortality, the gods had normal human weaknesses, concerns and shortcomings. They ate, drank, loved, envied, fornicated, cheated, lied, and otherwise set morally “unedifying examples”. They took offence if humans failed to properly propitiate them, but otherwise little interest in human affairs
The God revealed by Jesus was remarkably different, a God with a passionate interest in the lives and affairs of people, who loved them with a depth that is almost unfathomable, valued them when nobody else did, and had hopes and dreams for them. God, Paul assured the Roman Christians, “works for the good of those who love him” and is for them, so much so that nothing could separate them from the love of God – “neither death nor life, angels nor demons, the present or future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation” (8:37-39)
The Gospel also brought a message of hope. With soaring rhetoric chapter 8 of Paul’s letter to the Romans assured the Roman Christians that God was committed to transforming the universe. The creation will be liberated from all that prevents it from being a place of abundance and safety (8:18-22); people will receive bodies that are not susceptible to suffering and vulnerability (8:23-25); and as we wait for that day the Spirit helps us pray (8:26-27) and to be conformed to the image of Jesus (8:29-31). Paul does not respond to suffering by declaring God will remove us from the location of suffering – our bodies and our world – but transform us and our world so that suffering is no longer the human experience.
And the Gospel brought a new way to live, gronded in compassion and mercy, qualities that were seen as weakness within Greco-Roman culture but as virtues in the early Christian community.
Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
These were the practical counsels of love not unachievable aspiration. Stark’s book describes how Christians set about showing love and mercy to one another and their neighbours, often in the most difficult of circumstances, and through the power of their love society was transformed. For example, Stark describes the panic that set in when deadly epidemics wreaked havoc through ancient cities. The elites would flee to their country properties, the infected would be pushed into the streets and piles of dead bodies would accumulate. The Christians however took the sick into their homes and cared for them, often at the cost of their own lives. Yet those acts of compassion had rich dividends, for what we know now that they did not, was that even basic care during times of epidemic lifts the recovery rate, so that many more survived than otherwise would have and rumours spread of the magical powers of Christians.
Of course Christians did not always live up to their lofty ideals – the New Testament letters provide ample testimony to that. But in the midst of their own brokenness and the brokenness of the world around them the gospel message of God who loves and will transform our world was life-giving to those who embraced the message and those with whom they came into contact. As our society becomes less religious and more secular, there is great angst amongst many Christians as to the future of the church and its place in society. The New Testament takes us back to a time before there were cathedrals, a professional priesthood, and prior to the entanglement of church and state, and perhaps holds the key to our future. Let’s grasp the extraordinary message of a God who loves us deeply, who is committed to the transformation of our life and our world, and get serious about showing love and mercy to our neighbours, our community and our world. And perhaps like those first Christians we will see love, hope and mercy transforming us and our communities.
A series of reflections on challenges facing the Christian church as we move into 2017.
We are witnessing a dramatic decline in belief in God in Australia. Since 1991 the number of Australians who believe in God has declined from 78% to 55%. When this is broken down on by age it is evident that young people are growing up in a world that they experience as increasingly devoid of belief in God.
Philosopher JP Moreland comments that
A culture has a set of background assumptions—we can call it a plausibility structure—that sets a tone, a framework, for what people think, to what they are willing to listen and evaluate, how they feel and how they act. This plausibility structure is so widespread and subtle that people usually don’t even know it is there even though it hugely impacts their perspective on the world.
The plausibility structures of our culture are being shaped profoundly by the embrace of science as the only path to certain knowledge and the rise of religious pluralism. These create a perspective that religion is irrelevant to knowing reality. Religion appeals to revelation, which is scientifically not verifiable and therefore cannot be trusted, while the presence and visibility of many religions in Australia reinforces the arbitrary nature of their claims. Religion may prove useful to some as a system of meaning, but as a system of truth it is worthless.
In view of this, I expect that belief in God will continue to plummet in Australia.
How should churches respond? I’d be interested to hear people’s thoughts, but I suspect we need to do the following:
1. Provide members of our churches with coherent arguments that show that belief in God is plausible and beneficial. This needs to go beyond the intellectually flimsy stuff we get out of places like the creation science movement that expose Christians to ridicule. Rather we need to draw on resources such as leading scientists, philosophers, and commentators who embrace faith and articulate the case for it.
2. Encourage Christians to become involved in and express their faith through culture forming areas such as the arts, literature, and science.
3. Cultivate in our churches a culture of deep personal, experiential engagement with God. We need to re-engage with spiritual disciplines adapted for the modern age, so that we are not simply articulating a set of beliefs, but a lived reality of engagement with the divine.
4. Cultivate in our churches a lifestyle that is built on values with sharp points of distinction from those of our wider culture. At the moment our distinctiveness seems to lie in our sexual ethics, rather than a much more profound distinctiveness at the level of values. If we can cultivate lifestyles grounded in extraordinary love, deep generosity, forgiveness and reconciliation, passion for justice, and the like then we offer a faith that is worth believing in and embracing.
I am holidaying with my family on The Gold Coast. We are staying in an apartment with spectacular views over the ocean. We have swum in the surf, laid on golden beaches, screamed with a mixture of fear and thrill on roller coasters at Movieworld, laughed ourselves hoarse as we share meals. We have dined and seen movies at Pacific Fair shopping centre, a massive complex that includes supermarkets, cinemas, food courts, restaurants, designer stores such as Gucci, and is beautifully decorated for Christmas.
Absent from all this is any reference to religion. There are simply no references to God in the public space. No cathedrals, no annoying street preachers, no nativity scenes in the shopping malls. By faith I apprehend the world as a temple, with the beauty of the sun, ocean and beaches pointing me to God, but that is something only seen through the eyes of faith.
The only visible sign of faith I have observed is the head coverings worn by Muslim women enjoying a day out with their families at Movieworld.
I am not in the hand-wringing brigade of Christians scandalised by the absence of nativity scenes or the presence of Muslims. I can see no reason why the temples of consumerism should nod toward a faith held by a minority of citizens. I love living in a country where it is our common humanity that sees people of no faith, Muslim faith, Christian faith, and other faiths not only living peacefully but expanding each other’s horizons as they interact.
I follow Jesus in a society that is now almost completely secular in its public expressions. It strikes me that in the absence of public symbols and rituals I need to find rituals that bring God, Christ and the lifestyle of Jesus-following into my everyday. Yet I belong to a stream of Christianity that has systematically rejected its daily rituals. I have long ago abandoned things such as the daily “quiet time” which had been tainted by legalism, and my church tradition doesn’t follow the church calendar. My Muslim friends have their head coverings and hours for prayer. I sense a need for Christians to find some new rituals for daily living or to reinvest in some old ones, lest we find faith swallowed up by secularism.
I am currently watching the TV series “Vikings” and it gives me insight int o how it is that God loves human beings.
The series tells the story of Ragnar Lodbrok, a Viking who initiates the first raids on England. The Vikings are mindnumbingly violent. People are slaughtered without mercy and others enslaved all in the name of ‘plunder’. Back home, violence is never far away as Vikings compete for power, honour and wealth.
Yet it is not the English perspective we are told but the Viking. I see not only a bloodthirsty warrior but a man who loves his family, even to the point of risking his life for them; a friend who is intensely loyal to his companions; a believer, who seeks the will of the gods; a man of great ambition but personal doubt; someone who has moment of extraordinary tenderness. I find myself hoping for him, wanting him to succeed, and feeling for his pain.
It’s a vivid reminder that I cannot simply divide the world into goodies and baddies, monster and heroes; that human beings are complex, capable of terrible evil and astounding good.
It gives me insight into how it can be that God loves us. We can do some despicable things, yet God sees all of us. God may be angered by the harms we do to one another and the planet, yet God also knows us as people who hope and dream, love our families, enjoy our friends, and have our strengths and weaknesses. In short, God is drawn into the drama of our lives, is filled with empathy for us, and longs for our best.