Old High St Stephen’s, Inverness
22 March 2014, Fifth Sunday in Lent (Year A, Narrative Lectionary)
Gospel Reading: Matthew 25.31-46
In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
The Bible story we heard today is a parable- a story Jesus told his followers to teach an important truth about God and God’s Kingdom. Quite often we call this one ‘the parable of the sheep and the goats’ because of a simile, a comparison, Jesus uses- just once- in the story. He says that the people are separated, just a shepherd separates sheep and goats. That is a picture which those who heard the story for the first time would be well familiar with- sheep and goats often grazed together, and shepherds had to separate them out.
But the sheep and goats simile only appears once- it’s almost a throwaway line. For the setting of this story isn’t really the green fields of the countryside at all. And the main character isn’t a shepherd. The main character is a king, and the setting a royal court, and King is judging.
In the English language, it’s interesting that the place for a trial- a court- is also the word we use for the surroundings of a king. We talk about the Court of Session- a place for legal proceedings- but we also talk about the royal court- the courtiers are those who surround the Queen and the Royal Family. That’s because in Britain, all our courts are technically the Queen’s courts- and that goes back to a long tradition that one of the chief duties of a monarch was to see that justice was done. Already in the Bible, we have the story of the wisdom of Solomon- an ancient Israelite king faced with a difficult legal problem, and how he solves it. For in ancient times, the King himself would often have been the judge.
Jesus’ hearers were ordinary folk, often farmers, and they would be far more likely to have seen a shepherd separate out his flock that to have been in a royal palace, watching a king dispense legal judgements. But they would have known about royal judgements. They lived in a world where a few people had immense power to judge others. It was a power often used arbitrarily. There are many references to Old Testament prophets who condemned those in power for judging in favour of themselves and their cronies. The prophets cried out for righteous judgements, that would protect the weak and the powerless, not the strong and the rich, as so often happened.
But the greatest king and judge for the Jews was God. And so here is Jesus talking about the end times, the coming of a divine figure called the Son of Man, who comes as a king and acts like a judge. And in this story, there are two aspects which I’d like to ponder with you. This is a story which is about judgement. And it is about how what are judged on.
The king has before him all the nations of the world- for it was common on Jewish theology of the period to picture the world, at the end of time, being judged. This makes us uncomfortable (I suppose it’s supposed to). Jesus used the title ‘Son of Man’ to refer to himself, and so the Church has always understood that in this story, it is Jesus who is doing the judging. We are a bit unaccustomed to thinking of Jesus in that role, as king and judge, for that is not a role we usually see the historical Jesus taking in the Gospel stories. Indeed, in the next week or two of the Christian year, approaching Holy Week and Good Friday, we will be thinking of Jesus himself as a prisoner, put on trial and condemned in a set of unfair court cases. He is not often depicted as one with great power at his command.
Very often, when Jesus spoke of judgement it was to forgive. ‘Go and sin no more’, he says to a woman caught in adultery. ‘Your sins are forgiven’ he says to a man he’s just healed, causing a scandal. That Christ brings forgiveness is a the heart of our faith. And so he tells his followers to emulate him, ‘Do not judge others, for if you do, you will bring judgement upon yourselves’. And so we liberal-minded Presbyterians try hard to avoid being ‘judgemental’.
The Last Judgment (Weltgericht) cica 1435 Oil and gold on oak panel Stefan Lochner (circa 1400/1410–1451) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
But this parable is about judgement, and it is Jesus who is doing the judging. The parable speaks of splitting people up, as if they were sheep and goats, and some are sent to the right, and some are sent to the left. The people on the right are told they will possess the kingdom, and the people on the left are told they are being sent to an eternal fire with the Devil and his angels. We’ve all seen works of art which deal with this story- and probably, as we looked at the sufferings of the people on the left (for that is where our eyes are usually drawn) that there was something deeply unchristian about imagining that some people were to be condemned to eternal suffering.
It has to be said that this is a parable- a story, a word picture. It not a prediction of the future. Parables paint a picture- they are really saying, not that this is how it will be, but that it will be like this. Last week we heard that the Kingdom would be like a Jewish wedding. But the end of the world will not be an actual Jewish wedding. And this week, as we hear that at the end there will a King on a throne, sending one group of people one way and the others to another place- we know that this is picture language, don’t we? So we don’t take it literally. But we are meant to take it seriously.
Today we will celebrate the Sacrament of Baptism at the Old High Church (and next week at St Stephen’s). In the last few centuries, the baptism of children was so common that it became overlaid with traditions and customs which rather swamped its original meaning and purpose. It became a naming ceremony, or a time to celebrate the gift of a new child. And those things are fine, but they are not at the heart of the ceremony.
For the water in baptism represents a number of things. Yes, it is celebrating life- for we cannot live without water. But it also represents washing- the washing away of sins. The washing of baptism about the forgiveness of sins- not that, in a tiny baby, there is much to forgive, but a reminder to us all that we will all sin, that we all need forgiveness. For none of us goes through life without doing things that are wrong, that place us under the necessity of seeking forgiveness- from God, and from others whom we have wronged. None of us gets through life without having stained our clean sheet, blotted our copybook as the saying goes.
Baptism, because it speaks of forgiveness, therefore reminds us that there are things we need to be forgiven of. For, as today’s parable reminds us, we all stand under judgement. God can look at our lives and see where we have failed to come up to the mark. God can look at our lives and see where we have hurt other people. God can look at our lives and see where we have failed to do the right thing.
But of course, we can do that for ourselves, too. We all of us know that, in many respects, we have failed. We judge ourselves- we know that we are not perfect. Often, though, we try to avoid and ignore that. We put on a brave face, pretend to the world, and ourselves, that we’re not that bad. But in our most honest moments, we know, don’t we, that if there is an all-seeing God, we would deserve to stand under his judgement. So the first message of this parable is that judgement is real. God sees into our hearts and would be entitled to condemn us for those things which we have done wrong.
But the second matter which this parable about is we are judged on. What is the charge, what are we supposed to have done? What are the big sins that Jesus is interested in, the ones which are so serious that, in the picture language Jesus uses in this story, they could be said to make the difference between eternal life and eternal punishment? Is it that I stole some pencils from the office? Is it that I chose the wrong religion, that I am a Muslim or an atheist and not a Christian? It is that I once committed adultery? Is it that I like a beer too often? Is it that I got angry with my children the other day?
This is a parable- picture language- so we don’t get the entire law book. But what is listed fascinating. To those on his right, the King/Judge in the story says that they are to possess the Kingdom because, ‘I was hungry and you fed me, thirsty and you gave me a drink; I was a stranger and you received me in your homes, naked and you clothed me; I was sick and you took care of me, in prison and you visited me.’ And when the people on his right express astonishment: ‘when did we ever see you hungry or sick or in prison or homeless?’ the Judge says, ‘I tell you, whenever you did this for one of the least important of these followers of mine, you did it for me!’
Jesus once said of the scribes and the Pharisees- the strict religious teachers of his day- that although they liked to make laws for others, they would never lift a finger to help anyone (Matthew 23.3ff). They talked the talk, but wouldn’t walk the walk. We are judged on what we do practically for the sake of the ‘least important’. In the second part of the parable, those who are condemned are judged the same way- they didn’t feed the hungry, give water to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, visit the sick or the prisoner, and so they stand condemned. When people ask what a Christian should do, we often think it’s about going to church, studying the Bible, saying our prayers- and so we should. But this parable makes it very clear that what is important to God is the practical actions we take to look after those in need.
It’s interesting to me that the visiting of prisoners is in there. In the early days of the Christian church, I’m sure that would have been understood by the Christian community as meaning that the wider Christian community should care for those imprisoned for their faith- for persecution was very common. As it still is, in many parts of the world, today. We ought to do what we can, and support practically to the extent we are able, persecuted Christians around the world (for what is happening to the Christian communities of the Middle East in Syria and Iraq is horrifying).
Yet closer to home there are prisoners as well, and not all of them in prisons for the kind of thing we would think of as a crime. It is no wonder that there are so many people trying to come to live in the comparative peace and safety of our own country, when the alternative might be rape, murder or torture in their own countries. The wars and violence which affect so many place around the world affect our own country- the reason why there are so many seeking asylum here.
This week there has been a hunger strike by inmates at the Dungavel detention centre in Lanarkshire. If you hadn’t heard it, don’t worry, because it’s not been reported much in the media (presumably they had run out of space, what with budget and everything). Dungavel is, effectively, a prison, though those who are there have never appeared in an ordinary court. Their ‘crime’ is that they have failed to prove to the authorities that they have a right to asylum or refugee status, and they are kept there until they can be taken home. Many of them are there for months, and the conditions are not pleasant. The detainees include women and children.
Their plight has brought a call from the Church of Scotland, and others including the Scottish Trades Unions Congress, for a delegation to visit to hear about the detainees’ concerns. The Rev Sally Foster-Fulton, Convener of the Church and Society Council, has said: ‘As a nation we must be deeply concerned at the news that a number of asylum seekers being imprisoned at Dungavel have become so desperate that they are refusing to eat in an effort to bring attention to their plight’. But I wonder if, as nation, we are all that concerned? A million people have signed a petition to get Jeremy Clarkson back on the telly. But Dungavel has hardly made the news. ‘I was sick and in prison and you would not take care of me’. What a judgement.
And in Holy Week, we see Christ himself under judgement, imprisoned, tortured and condemned to die. What’s fascinating about this parable is that it begins by asking to imagine Christ as a Judge and King- the person who decides what happens to the least of these. But by the end of it, we are seeing Christ in the sick and hungry- and even in the imprisoned. Our judge is one of the judged. For our sake, he chooses to be judged as one of us. At the start of his preaching career, Jesus was himself baptised by John the Baptist in the River Jordan. It was as if he was saying, ‘I’m going to stand alongside these imperfect, broken, hurting human beings who absolutely deserve God’s judgement, and be judged alongside them’.
And there, I think, is what our baptism represents, the heart of the Gospel- the possibility that Jesus, life, death and resurrection both judges us, and makes forgiveness and renewal possible. We can only lose our sense of guilt if we let God take care of it. And then we will be set free to serve the world- ready, joyfully, to look after the stranger who needs a home, and prisoner who needs a visit, the sick person who needs our care. For now we know that when we see their face, we see the face of Christ, who is both our judge- but is also judged in our place, to make forgiveness possible.
Ascription of Praise
How deep are the wealth
and the wisdom
and the knowledge of God!
How inscrutable God’s judgements,
how unsearchable God’s ways!
From God and through God and for God
all things exists-
to God be glory for ever! Amen!
Romans 11.33,36 (alt)
Biblical references from the Good News Bible, unless otherwise stated
© 2015 Peter W Nimmo