Eternal Father, whose Son Jesus Christ ascended to the throne of heaven that he might rule over all things as Lord and King: keep the Church in the unity of the Spirit and in the bond of peace, and bring the whole created order to worship at his feet; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
SHEEP and goats are so entrenched in English idiom that it is easy to forget their significance in Matthew’s parable of the judgement of the nations (Matthew 25.32). The flock of Israel; YHWH, its chief shepherd; and its shepherd kings are repeatedly evoked by the prophets and psalmists (for example, Psalms 23, 80.1, 95.7, 100.3; Isaiah 40.1).
Ezekiel develops the metaphor for an audience that might have included exiles like himself. He writes of a flock abandoned by greedy shepherds, prey to wild animals, and internally divided into bullies and victims. It is to the fragile sheep that God promises peace and protection in their own land (Ezekiel 34.11-end).
When Jesus introduces sheep and goats, he speaks against a backdrop of a long relationship between a faithful God and a people chosen, accompanied, and brought home, even when they have been unfaithful and disobedient.
His story of judgement invites the disciples to imagine themselves before the Son of Man, or the king, as part of the last great homecoming into eternal life (Matthew 25.46). Surprisingly, the king starts not with a record of his subjects’ good deeds in the world, but with what they have done for him. Dale Allison traces this to Proverbs 19.17: “Whoever is kind to the poor lends to the Lord, and will be repaid in full” (”Matthew” in The Oxford Bible Commentary, edited by John Barton and John Muddiman, Oxford University Press, 2001).
What Matthew introduces is “the Son of Man’s identification with the needy”. The simple acts of mercy which he lists lie within the capacity of almost any human being, and they are a clue to what the Son of Man will want to know in the final judgement. “Supernatural feats”, Allison says, can be “easily counterfeited”; ordinary, unspectacular charity cannot. For this reason, it is the authentic “test of faith”.
If there is something missing from Allison’s explanation, it is motivation. The parable implies that neither those on the left nor those on the right can understand how they could have seen the Son of Man in another needy person (Matthew 25.37, 44).
That some of them responded compassionately to human suffering, irrespective of the status of the sufferers, speaks of more than duty. In living out the two great commandments (Matthew 22.34-40), they have seen the Son of Man in the poor without knowing that they see him. They have been the Son of Man to people without the strength or the hope to recognise this sign of the promise of Emmanuel, God-with-us (Matthew 1.27). Their actions count towards the salvation and liberation of the most vulnerable and helpless of God’s people.
Would the second group have acted differently if they had recognised the Son of Man? This is the key question in a narrative that looks towards Jesus’s arrest, trial, and crucifixion. The story locates it in the future, but, for the disciples whom Matthew places in the audience, it is an immediate challenge. Very soon, Jesus will be handed over to authorities, who will strip him of dignity and authority, treat him brutally, and reduce him to near-unrecognisability. His followers’ faith will be tested to the limit.
Jesus is preparing them to imagine his agony, because it will be the only picture that makes sense of what he calls them to do in his name.
There is another audience and a third time-dimension: the Gospel-writer’s own community had witnessed or heard of the events that Jesus predicts. For them, and for us, the focus shifts to the return of the Son of Man in glory. The pressing question is how to use the indeterminate time in between.
John Fenton plots a trail already laid by the Gospel-writer (The Gospel of Matthew, Penguin, 1963). The Beatitudes single out the meek, the merciful, and those whose hunger is not physical but expressed in a longing for justice. Their reward will be great in heaven (Matthew 5.1-12). The Parable of the Ten Bridesmaids is a warning to be ready (Matthew 25.1-13). The Parable of the Talents is a reminder that, until the Son of Man returns, there is work to be done (Matthew 25.14-30).
The writer of the letter to the Ephesian Christians also looks towards the age to come as he salutes the community’s faithfulness and the love that binds them (Ephesians 1.15, 21). The “hope” to which Christ has called them, Muddiman writes, is not so much “eschatological” as “vocational”. It has to do with their lives as disciples (John Muddiman, The Epistle to the Ephesians, Continuum, 2001).
Until Christ comes in glory, what will keep the faithful going is a deeper vision, dependent on the “eyes of [their] hearts” (Ephesians 1.18), of what they are called to be and to do. This Sunday balances on the cusp of the Passion and the Second Coming, and the King it presents is crucified and glorious. He comes with no accusations. Looking at him is enough:
Every eye shall now behold him
Robed in dreadful majesty;
Those who set at nought and sold him,
Pierced and nailed him to the tree,
Shall the true Messiah see.
(Charles Wesley, “Lo! he comes with clouds descending”; Revelation 1.7)
Announcement: WITH today’s column, Dr Bridget Nichols completes the three-year cycle of Bible readings. Her successor is to be Canon Angus Ritchie, director of the Centre for Theology and Community, and Priest-in-Charge of St George-in-the-East, London. He has ministered in east London since 1998, and writes and teaches on the place of faith in public life, with a particular focus on Christian engagement in community organising. He is an Honorary Canon of Worcester Cathedral.
Among Canon Ritchie’s published works are: From Morality to Metaphysics: The theistic implications of our ethical commitments (Oxford University Press); Just Love: Personal and social transformation in Christ (with Paul Hackwood, Instant Apostle); and Prayer and Prophecy: A Ken Leech Reader (co-edited with David Bunch, DLT).
His first column, on the readings for the First Sunday of Advent, is available now online, and will appear in print next week.