Matthew 25:31-46

A reflection by Dan Spragg

Well, well, well, I have a few questions about this text! The most important one is, ‘Do you remember Keith Green?’[1] (we watch – Keith Green, The Sheep and the Goats) A slightly eccentric singer/songwriter active in the Christian music scene of the late 1970’s. Green had quite a social conscience. He and his wife would often bring needy people into their home and would often not charge to attend his concerts and adopted a ‘pay what you want’ approach to selling records. Green also was highly convicted that as many people as possible needed to hear the gospel in order to come to know the God of unconditional love as he himself had come to know. He was passionate, we could say, as the theatrical overtones of this song portrays, that as many people as possible come to believe in the way of Jesus. The parable of the Sheep and the Goats was a perfect choice for him. It is quite a drama of events! I quite like Green’s almost satirical portrayal of this passage, it is a drama indeed, it requires us to imagine the theatre of it. It is most likely the best way to read it as all Jesus’ parables contain an element of drama which without a doubt was done on purpose. There is the ridiculousness of the amount of debt owed by the unmerciful slave (Matthew 18:21-35) and the unheard of behaviour of the Father in the story of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32). But this story, of the sheep and the goats, the finale of Jesus’ stories really takes us to a new level of drama. The Drama of Jesus parables is too often forgotten. Too often they are attempted to be understood at face value. Many of the elements of scandal or ridiculousness are lost on us of course because they made a lot more sense in that context, and we are here in our context. We too easily forget that metaphor is such a large part of the biblical literature. Our franciscen friend Richard Rohr says, “The Reign of God is Jesus’ message, but he never describes it literally. He walks around it and keeps giving different images…”[2] We must work hard to keep this in mind.

This brings me to my next question: Is the ‘least of these’ conversation at the heart of this story really then about good deeds and the state of our morality? If this story is drama and metaphor then something else is going on here, it never was intended to be taken literally. Unfortunately it’s the easiest conclusion to come to. That our fate is determined by our good deeds, or not. Nevermind that it goes against the majority of Christian history and certainly the protestant proclamation that we are saved by grace alone, rather than, being saved by the good works that we do. You will notice the title of today’s reflection is, ‘Lord, when did we [even] see you?’ An interesting thing is that both the sheep and the goats ask this question. Both groups actually had no idea about when they had or had not seen Christ. Which means that they actually had no idea that they were or were not doing what they were or were not meant to do. To be honest it feels a bit ambiguous, at best. It would be much clearer to say that the sheep had seen Christ and responded accordingly and on the other hand that the goats had seen Christ and chosen not to respond. There would be clearer lines of separation then to base the consequences of their decisions on. But this isn’t the case. It appears as if both groups were blissfully unaware of Christ’s presence. Are we meant to believe that we are to be judged on the consequences of our unconscious decisions and actions? The other interesting thing is that throughout all of the other parables of Jesus he never makes morality a deciding factor. The only descriptor Jesus ever puts on whether anyone has ‘got it’ or not is faith. So why would this story be any different? Faith – having ‘eyes to see’, ‘ears to hear’ among other metaphors. Trust is a good word we could use too. Do we trust in the way of Jesus? Do we trust that the presence of Christ is among us? Even when we can’t see it? If we keep a wider view of Jesus’ teaching and what we know about God in our minds then we will remember that we are recipients of the grace of God, freely given and all we have to ‘do’ is accept that we’ve been invited to live in the joy and life of God. Maybe that’s where the difference between the sheep and the goats comes in. Perhaps behaviour is an indicator of whether or not there is a lived sense of trust in the presence of God? Perhaps the failure on the goats part is that they failed to trust that Christ was present.[3] Perhaps the sheep were those who had simply lived trusting that the way of Jesus was the way of life… they trusted in the presence of Christ and the life it called them to even when they didn’t or couldn’t see it.

Remembering what we know of God already is a solid way to go. We could call it, ‘building on a solid foundation’. So, what do we know? I’ve already mentioned the gift of our acceptance and our being found in the presence of Christ. This gift of course is enough in and of itself. It contains all that it needs in order to achieve what it needs to. We also know that God only wants the best. The ‘with God’ life is all about a party, joy, festivities, abundance, delight, wonder. Not that this minimises that life sometimes is really hard and contains some terrible things that no-one should ever have to experience. But rather these are our hope. That despite life containing its fair share of mess and pain, these things are not the end and they most certainly aren’t all that is meant to be. Because of this there is no need to fear, no need to fear God. The idea that we are to be afraid of God is preposterous. There are no restrictions on God’s joy and God’s desire that all experience the freedom and healing of grace and love.

Which brings me to my final question for today. We must ask the question reading this parable, do we believe God would actually ship some people off to suffer in eternal torment? Some might want to argue that this is a complicated question. I disagree. Logically the idea that God does this does not make sense to me. As far as I’m concerned it is simple. If God is Goodness, if God is Love, if God is all-powerful and almighty and the creator of all, would God exclude some over and above others? Would God give in to allowing ‘evil’ to prevail? Or is God only partially able to include us, or only partially able to defeat fear and death? And, would God really send some to eternal (as in never ending, ever…) anguish as a punishment for some known or even unknown temporary (in one lifetime) sin? Even if that sin is horrendous and awful and caused many pain and anguish in this life the arguement for eternal, never-ending torture comes up really short as far as I can see! There is on the idea of eternal punishment enough evidence to support that if there is any sort of judgement after death, then it is a purifying process, a sort of rehabilitative encounter. Which is what an encounter with pure unconditional love, goodness and grace would be wouldn’t it? What else, at the end of things, would the presence of unconditional love and acceptance do? The Greek word used in Matt 25:46 with reference to the goats is kolasis, which refers to ‘remedial chastisement’ rather than timoria, which refers to retributive justice.[4] Finally, if Christ truly is reconciling all things, and humanity is lifted up to God ‘within’ Christ as much of Paul’s writing teaches us[5], then why would Christ then turn around and do what appears to be otherwise? If we are found ‘in Christ’ then we are found ‘with God’ and God is all about abundance, unconditional love and acceptance, and about inviting everyone to the party. Why then would we even consider any other explanation? Even in judgement, nothing is excluded from Christ ‘drawing all things to himself’. All this to say that there might be some distinction but there is no exclusion from the party. People handle the invitation to the party differently. Some initially might refuse to acknowledge their own presence at the party but I don’t believe that would last for very long at all.

This really is a fascinating parable full of many angles. We could imagine a bunch of different questions and go down many rabbit holes! What we should never do is get caught up in perpetuating stories that seem more to be ruled by fear and judgement on our part of who is worthy and who isn’t.

By way of summary here’s an idea. Today – ‘Christ the King’ Sunday. Or ‘Reign of Christ’ Sunday. The final Sunday of the church calendar. Next week we begin our advent journey towards Christmas (that’s a worry!). One more question we can ask this day is how we as the church here, but also globally, throughout time and history have made visible the way of Christ in the world? Which is what we celebrate on this day. We affirm the way of Christ, as opposed to the way of empires and regimes and all those who do not hunger and thirst for righteousness, justice and peace. ‘What you did to the least of these’ that Jesus describes in the parable could be the way in which we have made visible the presence of Christ, made visible the presence of the ‘reign of Christ’ by trusting in and living out that presence in day to day life.

In this story all nations are present, everyone is included. So what does the ‘reign of Christ’ look like? Well, the presence of God is made visible when all and especially the least and the last are experiencing the abundance of God and they are not held back from that by anybody or anything. Especially not by interpretations of such stories which seek to narrow and restrict the abundant grace and love of God.


[1] Keith Green, The Sheep and the Goats, watch this! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ix8ddosjg-k

[2] In a recent Daily Meditation entitled, ‘Jesus and the Kingdom of God: The Kingdom is like a Mustard Seed.’ – see https://email.cac.org/t/ViewEmail/d/AD181BCE8D2DB6ED2540EF23F30FEDED/43946EDDE64EA03FF039C523302FD418

[3] Thanks to Robert Farrar Capon for these insights in, Kingdom, Grace, Judgement: Paradox, Outrage, and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus, p502-12.

[4] David Bentley Hart, That All Shall be Saved: Heaven, Hell & Universal Salvation, p116.

[5] See Colossians 1:13-20, among others.