Sometimes Jesus surprises me. Sometimes he confounds me. In his parable of the sheep and goats (Matthew 25:31-46) he both surprises and confounds. I grew up an orthodox Evangelical. At the centre of my faith was the conviction that I am a sinner saved by grace. So what do I do with Jesus’ story of the sheep and goats, because it sure doesn’t sound like salvation by grace through faith.
The story goes like this. At the end of time humankind is gathered before Jesus. People are separated into two groups, just as a shepherd might separate sheep and goats. Jesus turns to the sheep and says
Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.
The sheep protest. They can’t recall ever feeding Jesus or inviting him into their homes. To which Jesus replies
Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.
Then he turns to the goats – you know you’re in trouble when you’ve been labelled a goat – and says they are to depart into eternal punishment for they didn’t feed, clothe, welcome, or visit him. Like the sheep they protest. They can’t recall ever neglecting Jesus in this way! To which Jesus replies,
Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.
This story seems to suggest we are saved on the basis of our compassion and generosity toward others. That’s a scary thought!
To bring this passage into alignment with evangelical orthodoxy some suggest that the key is the reference to “these brothers and sisters of mine”. They are Christian missionaries and to clothe, feed, visit and welcome them is a sign that a person has accepted their message about Jesus. This would bring this story into line with Matthew 10:40-41, where to receive the disciples is to receive Christ. On this reckoning Jesus’ story is just another way of saying salvation comes to those who embrace the message that Jesus is the Lord who forgives our sins.
But does this really resolve the problem? It seems to me that all this does is shift the focus from how we respond to the marginalised and poor to how we respond to missionaries. In both instances it is the ‘works’ that are significant. Nor does the story of the sheep and goats naturally lend itself to this reading, for the emphasis is on caring for those who are in need rather than identifying Christian missionaries as the needy.
I think the solution is far simpler. In Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time Marcus Borg points out that Jesus and the Pharisees had radically different ideas about how their communities should be shaped. The Pharisees interpreted God’s call to “Be holy as I am holy” in terms of purity. Purity systems identify what belongs and doesn’t belong to any given space. For example, we tend to think dirt belongs in the garden and not on the carpet or that swimsuits are appropriate attire at the beach but not at the office. The Pharisees had crafted an extensive purity system that not only identified what belonged but who belonged, justifying the exclusion of the poor, the disabled, the sinful, women, etc. Jesus, Borg argues, read “Be holy as I am holy” in terms of compassion. Understood through this lens community was to be constructed around inclusion, service and love.
The story of the sheep and goats is then a contrast between a purity centered approach to life and a compassion centered approach. The sheep are those who are following the way of Jesus, the goats the way of the Pharisees. Feeding the hungry, welcoming the stranger and visiting the oppressed are the signs that we have placed our faith in Jesus. As Jesus says in Matthew 7, “By their fruit you will know them.”
I am saved by grace, but the indelible evidence of that will be an effort to live out a politics of compassion. Grace assures me that though I do this imperfectly I am welcomed by my Creator; judgement assures me that grace is more than an idea, it is a force designed to change me and my world.