Sheep and Goats and Judgment, Oh My

Emilie Bouvier, "Springing"(Cowling Arboretum; Northfield, Minn.)Image © Luther Seminary Fine Arts Collection, St. Paul, Minn.

Dear Working Preacher,

Do you ever read a passage and just want to say, “Yikes!” Truth be told, I think that’s how a lot of us feel when we read the dreaded “Sheep and Goats” passage. Not only does it feel more than a tad threatening but it also seems to run contrary to much of our inherited theology about grace. Perhaps for these reasons, few passages have elicited such a wide variety of interpretations. Briefly considering four in particular may provide us with fruitful homiletical possibilities.

1) Perhaps the most popular interpretation is to note that, indeed, judgment is connected with what we do. Whether sitting on the left or the right of the theological spectrum, numerous commentators have delighted in looking to Matthew 25 as a check on an unwarranted, or perhaps exaggerated, confidence that we are justified by faith apart from any works of the law. It would seem, at least according to this passage, that our fate in the world to come depends at least in part, if not wholly, on how we treat others here and now. A sermon that takes this tack might urge us to take more seriously God’s manifold injunctions to care for those in need because it is upon these actions that God bases God’s judgment.

2) Following a similar but distinct approach, many have suggested that what’s at stake in this oracle is not eternal judgment but rather the delight of meeting and recognizing the Lord right now. Jesus, as it turns out, comes not as the sovereign king we might expect, but instead appears to us only and always in the need of those around us. For this reason, before we can “be Christ” to our neighbor we need also to “see Christ” in our neighbor. Leo Tolstoy’s famous story “Papa Panov’s Special Day” captures this very well and, given we’re just shy of Advent, may prove a useful illustration. Where do we look to meet Christ, a sermon following this line of interpretation might ask, and then go on to invite us to see God in unexpected places.

3) Another popular interpretative trajectory notes the element of surprise that permeates this story. Neither the “sheeps” nor the “goats,” as it turns out, had any idea of what they were doing. Echoing a popular Reformation era theme, this reading suggests that perhaps we are justified by our faith after all, as our “good works” do not justify us but rather flow unconsciously from the love of God that has been freely poured into our hearts. Such a sermon might point to all those things already being done in the congregation to help others and allow those signs of God’s grace and presence to spur us to even greater good. We each have been chosen, a preaching following this path might promise us, and therefore we will leave this place to do the work of the one who has chosen, called, justified, and now sent us into the world God loves so much.

4) A minority opinion notes that anytime Matthew uses the word translated here as “nations,” he implies those who are not Christian. Might this parable, therefore, have come as comfort to an early Christian community suffering from being the religious minority, perhaps assuring them that God will actually judge the nations in accordance with how they treated this beleaguered community? While it is difficult to transpose this message to a church that is no longer a minority but rather has wielded power for centuries, perhaps a sermon in this vein might note that God always favors those who are most vulnerable and invite us to similarly take our side with those most at risk.

So given all these possibilities, what’s an honest working preacher to do? I honestly don’t know, but reading the passage again this year, I did notice something curious: Jesus begins his story by saying, “When the Son of Man comes in glory….” Jesus has talked about the Son of Man at various points throughout the gospel, of course, but when is this “coming in glory”? Interestingly, the very next verse, 26:1, offers a clue: “When Jesus had finished saying all these things, he said to his disciples, ‘You know that after two days the Passover is coming, and the Son of Man will be handed over to be crucified.'”

So could it be, Working Preacher, that the Son of Man comes in his glory in the crucifixion? Might it be that the place we see Jesus revealed most clearly is in the cross? I think it might. And if so, then maybe this passage, while still complex, isn’t quite as fearsome as we thought. For while I don’t know which of these four interpretations is best, I do know that whatever route we take, we should keep in mind this promise: the one who will one day come to judge us is the same one who first came to be judged for us. So however we might preach and teach this passage, we do so trusting that Jesus — the one who came, the one who comes, and the one who is coming again — is undeniably and unalterably for us…and all the world. And suddenly our “yikes” is transformed into “thanks be to God.”

Yes, thanks be to God — for the One who cares about the needs of all; for the One who comes always in justice in mercy; for the One who both judges and is judged for us; for the One who meets us in the need of our neighbor; and for the One who works in us and through us in surprising and unexpected ways. Yes, thanks be to God for this One, and for all those who proclaim him.

Blessings on your work and ministry this week and always, Working Preacher.
Yours in Christ,