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.
The Space Between Hope and Disappointment. Or Why Following Jesus Is Gloriously Frustrating
I live in the space between hope and disappointment.
I am a hoper. A few weeks back I stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, at the very spot Martin Luther King delivered his “I have a dream” speech, and it was profoundly moving. It was a place of hope, a shrine to the possibility that humankind can be amazing.
This same hope explains why I am a sucker for TV shows like Undercover Boss. I love the idea that a CEO can work alongside her employees, see the world through their eyes, and then respond with acts of generosity that leave the employees feeling valued. I am a sucker for good news stories like these, for however artificial some of the construct may be (the producers always manage to put the CEO alongside people with hard luck stories), it remains true that there is a genuine moment of connection and realised humanity. And I want as much of that as I can get. My spirit soars and my heart melts whenever I witness human beings showing compassion, kindness, love, grace, justice.
But when you’re a hoper you also get disappointed. When moments are filled with possibility for good and people choose against it, it cuts like a knife. I was filled with hope when Malcolm Turnbull became PM. He inspired me with talk of this time as one of possibilities, but then he failed to rise to the standard of his rhetoric. He could have changed the story on refugees, climate change, marriage equality, homelessness, and more, but he has simply surrendered to conservatives in his party. Hope collided with ambition and hope lost.
I see something similar in myself. Too often I have the intention of doing good only to choose the easier path.
I blame Jesus. I am prisoner to his breathtaking vision for our world; I am in inspired by his courage, generosity, grace and love; I am held breathless by the possibilities of resurrection.
But then I remember that his dearest friends abandoned him, his countrymen mocked him and in an act of cold and cynical ruthlessness Pontius pilate had him executed.
I guess this is the way of things. We can soar to dizzying heights of courage and love and plunge to shameful depths of selfish expediency.
But here is my hope. Jesus is risen. All the disappointments of history will one day surrender to hope.
Today is Maundy Thursday, the day on which Christians remember two great symbolic acts of Jesus: the celebration of the Passover and the washing of his disciples feet. Passover festival was a celebration of the liberation of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, a liberation that was accomplished through the means of violence that I find almost incomprehensible when attributed to God. The text of Exodus suggests that God and Pharaoh, representing the gods of Egypt, went to war, culminating in God killing the firstborn child of every Egyptian family and then drowning the Egyptian army in the Red Sea.
I don’t know what to do with that. I cannot explain how it fits with what Jesus shows me of God, that God is loving, gracious, compassionate, kind, merciful, and just. What I do comprehend is that when Jesus celebrated the Passover with his disciples that night he invested it with new meaning. For Christians the meaning of Passover is now associated with the death and resurrection of Jesus, in which God accomplished salvation not by violently subduing his enemies but by taking on himself all the hatred, violence, anger, and brutality that they could muster, and responding with grace and forgiveness. God triumphed not by proving himself more powerful in violence than the Romans, nor more vindictive than the powers of evil, but having exposed himself to the full force of their violence such that the life of Christ was extinguished, God did something extraordinary, something that injected a new possibility into reality. God raised Jesus from the dead, signalling that after evil has exhausted itself to the point of death God has created a new way to life.
It’s therefore significant that on the same day Jesus invested the Passover with new meaning, he knelt down and washed his disciples feet. In the Israel of Jesus day dust would accumulate on people’s feet as they travelled, so a bowl of water and a towel would be offered to guests when they arrived at a house to allow them to wash the dust from their feet. If the house had a servant, the servant may have been required to play this role, but never the master of the house. By washing his disciples feet Jesus reinforces the truth that his life, and the life of his God, was grounded in service of others.
I still don’t know what to do with the story of the Exodus. I celebrate the liberation Israel from slavery. I can even bring myself to recognize that at some level evil such as slavery and oppression have to be met with some measure of force. But the slaughter of the firstborn child of each household? The drowning of an entire army? I cannot explain these, and in one way I don’t need to, For Jesus took the memory of violence perpetrated by God and turned it into a memory of violence perpetrated against God and of God responding with nothing but a kindness, generosity and grace, and carving the new possibilities of resurrection into the hard walls of reality. That I can and will celebrate.
Reading the Christmas story in Matthew one has a sense of déjà vu. A violent regime that shows no hesitation in slaughtering innocent people for political purposes forces a family to flee for their lives. We could be describing Syria under Assad, but instead we’re describing first century Judea under King Herod.
2000 years have passed since Jesus walked the earth. The Middle East remains mired in violence while superpowers play geopolitics with the lives of its people; refugees continue to stream across the world; children still die of cancer; husbands still beat their wives; large swathes of the global population continue to be mired in hunger; natural disasters continue to disrupt and destroy.
Sure, some things have changed for the better. We’ve seen the rise of the global middle class which means a country such as Australia has extraordinarily low levels of extreme poverty; we have technologies that allow us to live far more comfortably than ever before ; some of the virtues taught by Jesus, such as mercy and compassion have come to be admired; there is greater respect for human rights than at any other point in history. There is indeed much to be thankful for.
Yet one can’t help but ask where is this kingdom of justice and peace that Jesus proclaimed?
I suspect it is where it has always been. This kingdom of which Jesus spoke is not like a stone thrown into a pond that ripples outwards until it covers the entire surface. It’s more like a series of stones thrown into a lake, each creating ripples that spread out for a short distance before disappearing. Every time somebody is inspired to choose the way of love over hatred, forgiveness over vengeance, welcome over rejection, peace over violence, service over self-aggrandizement, words that build up over words that tear down, they become a pebble thrown into the lake, sending ripples of goodness, joy and hope.
This kingdom of which Jesus spoke in an invitation, a quiet whisper in the midst of a cacophony of evil that there is another way, another possibility. Jesus was God’s pebble thrown into history subverting the logic of violence, greed, hubris and narcissism with the logic of love, grace, humility, and servanthood. His invitation is to follow his way, to start making our own ripples.
The kingdom won’t come in fullness simply by increasing the number of people seeking to be pebbles that spread ripples of faith, hope, love. For the kingdom to come in its fullness something new and extraordinary is required, something God alone can do, something foreshadowed in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. Until then there will be only pebbles and their ripples. Like a kid standing on the shore throwing pebbles I get excited every time I see the ripples.
On Sunday, 8 July 1741, in Enfield Connecticut, Jonathan Edwards delivered one of the most famous sermons of history. “Sinners In The Hands Of An Angry God” painted a vivid picture of the unending and unbearable torments of hell. It is said that as Edwards preached the members of the congregation were so terrified that they repeatedly interrupted with cries of “what must I do to be saved?” An excerpt from the sermon gives an idea of its tone.
The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked: his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire; he is of purer eyes than to bear to have you in his sight; you are ten thousand times more abominable in his eyes, than the most hateful venomous serpent is in ours. You have offended him infinitely more than ever a stubborn rebel did his prince; and yet it is nothing but his hand that holds you from falling into the fire every moment.
It’s a terrifying image. God, says Jonathan Edwards, is filled with revulsion for us. God finds us abhorrent and abominable. So offensive is our sin that he cannot bear our presence and he sees us as worthy of nothing than eternal torment.
It is rare to hear preaching such as this today, yet the legacy of centuries of such preaching still lingers. As a young teenager I remember being struck through with fear every time we celebrated communion. The person leading the communion service invariably quoted selectively from 1 Corinthians 11, that “whoever eats and drinks in an unworthy manner, eats and drinks damnation upon himself”. I was taught to take this seriously, and would rack my memory for any unconfessed sin, convinced that if I did not come in a spirit of genuine, heartfelt repentance I would be subject to God’s judgement. I had no idea what that might look like, but I did not want to find out.
The classic evangelical response is to argue that, yes our sin does make us offensive and abhorrent to our Creator, but that in dying for us on the cross, Christ took the penalty we deserved for our sin upon himself, and critically, transferred to us his righteous standing in the eyes of God. So when God looks upon me, he sees not Scott Higgins’s unrighteousness, but the righteousness of Christ and so is favourably disposed towards me.
I never found this terribly satisfying. It gave me righteous standing before God on the basis of what seemed to be a legal technicality, and created an impossible tension between God actually seeing me as I was, which was to be thoroughly disappointed, offended and aghast at my sinfulness, and God seeing me as I was in Christ, which was to be thoroughly pleased, delighted and excited at my righteousness. This left me with a God who may well have loved me deeply, but who did not like me, could never be pleased by anything I did, and could only bring himself to look upon me by actually looking at Jesus and pretending it was me.
There was a time I was deeply thankful for this, but as the years have gone by I have become convinced that this is a hateful, vengeful, psychopathic God, who bears no resemblance to the God revealed to me by Jesus.
To begin with, take the notion that God is so pure that he cannot stand to be in the presence of sinners. Surely the incarnation of God in Christ puts paid to that. Unlike the Pharisees, whose obsession with holiness saw them separate themselves from anybody who was “unclean”, Jesus surrounded himself with notorious sinners such as tax collectors and prostitutes. He did not recoil from their presence, but on the contrary appeared to thoroughly enjoy them. He surrounded himself with disciples who repeatedly failed to understand his mission and at times even opposed it, yet John is described as the disciple Jesus loved. Not tolerated. Loved. He had friends outside the disciple group, such as Lazarus, Mary and Martha, whom he loved with such depth that he wept when Lazarus died.
Or take the assumption that God is perpetually angry with us. When the Pharisees muttered about Jesus welcoming tax collectors and other “sinners” he told them three parables: the parable of the lost sheep; the parable of the lost coin; and the parable of the lost son. The God Jesus knew was one who was grieved that his sons and daughters had wandered from him, who longed for their return, and when they did return embraced them with wide open arms. The prodigal son had broken almost every social taboo of his culture, yet the only angry person in the story is the older brother who is offended that his father welcomes his scandal plagued sibling.
As I read the Gospels I struggle to find the rage filled God of Jonathan Edwards. I certainly see religious figures who are grossly offended and angered by sin. When an angry mob of them drag a woman caught in adultery before Jesus and stand ready to stone her to death, it is Jesus who shames them and says to the woman “neither do I condemn you. Go now and leave your life of sin.”
Jesus certainly is opposed to sin, but he doesn’t appear to be offended by either sinners or their sin. It leads me to think that God gets angry at the ways we destroy and harm one another, but the notion that he is somehow personally offended seems to be off the mark.
When I read the story of the crucifixion of Christ I don’t see an angry God pouring his vengeance upon Christ in order that he may not need to pour it upon me. I see God present in Christ being subjected to the most violent, abusive behaviour and rather than striking back in anger, absorbing the very worst that is done and then crying “forgive them”. I don’t see a God who merely tolerates us because of some abstract, impersonal legal technicality, but a God who longs for us so deeply that he will go to hell and back in order to bring us to himself.
Jesus came to Israel proclaiming a kingdom founded on faith, grace and love and was executed by a kingdom founded on idolatry (the Roman emperor was worshipped as a god), violence (Roman armies had conquered the world and rebellion was ruthlessly crushed) and state-interest (Rome stripped conquered countries of their wealth). Roman crucifixions were intentionally public events, a powerful warning that rebellion would be crushed. As he slowly died on that Roman cross it appeared that the way of state-sanctioned idolatry, violence and self-interest had once more crushed the utopian vision of yet another hippie dreamer.
The resurrection turned the tables. Without resurrection Jesus’s life and death would have been tragic and no more. The resurrection was God’s declaration that the ways of Rome were not ultimate, that the future would not be an endless rerun of one violent kingdom after another but resurrection, the triumph of a world built on faith, grace and love.
As a follower of Jesus I am called to live the way of Jesus not the way of Rome. Surely this has both personal and political implications. Surely it means experiencing God’s grace and love for me and responding with faith, living the way of faith, grace and love in my personal relationships, and asking what the way of Jesus might be toward those who are refugees, impoverished, enslaved, homeless and exhorting my government to embody these ways rather than the ways of Rome.