The Sheep and the Goats

Matthew’s gospel comes in waves. The Sermon on the Mount builds up until the wave breaks with three hard hitting concluding statements in chapter seven that come crashing down with maximum rhetorical force. These are instructions, not advice.

Our deeds will reveal all: like a tree’s fruit, the ability to forgive others and in 7:21-23 we are left in no doubt of the importance of living the Kingdom, rather than just speaking about it. We’re in sink or swim water, all or nothing. We are known by the “Lord, Lord”, or we are not.

By the time readers of Matthew’s Gospel get to chapter 25, as opposed to the little nuggets we read every week, they will realise that they are at the peak of another wave and should not be surprised to find themselves surfing the same breaker as found in chapter seven. We are back in an all or nothing parable. It reads as if Matthew is saying all over again, “Okay, you are with Jesus so far. You like the words and they are lovely to receive, but now what about living it out.”

The parable is not hard to understand. It is too easy to read what is being said. We do not need to experience kings who sit on the throne of judgment, waiting for their subjects to bring them petitions, supplication and cases for adjudication. This would have been familiar to Matthew’s readers, not just from the stories of Solomon but from general practice, at a time when a king, or the Roman Emperor, would spend hours doing this every week. That is why Paul could appeal to the Emperor. But this parable refers to a practice we no longer experience. The nearest example from today might be when a judge has to decide on some complex libel case, which might make or break people’s reputations, and everyone awaits the verdict.

The parable of the goats and sheep can really challenge us as to which side are we sitting on. Have we been like the sheep, caring and interacting with those around them with the example of Christ before them, or are we like the goats who have found excuses to take the action that Christ wants us to? I think if we’re truthful we’ve been both sheep and goats at times.

This parable reminds us of Christ’s presence with us at all time, and that is presence is not necessarily in the rich and mighty but more often in the needy and outcast. He calls us to be present with him in the needs of a broken and suffering world.

Jay Robinson

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