So, what does it mean for Matthew, that the one big, long discourse of chapters 24-25 ends with the a judgment story- or, more correctly, with this particular judgment story, familiarly known as the story of the sheep and goats? My reading is that the entire discourse is fulfilled in this story, found in Matthew 25:31-46.
‘When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” Then he will say to those at his left hand, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.” Then they also will answer, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?” Then he will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.’
What's odd about this story, especially as the culmination of an 'end-time discourse'?
- There is no emphasis on grace alone, faith alone, or anything else that Protestants typically insist on.
- There is no emphasis on the mediating role of the church, or anything else that Roman Catholics typically insist on.
- There is no emphasis on professing any particular faith in Jesus at all.
- There is not emphasis on having an advantage for knowing the 'signs of the end times' better than anyone else.
- There are, however, sheep and goats, destined for eternal bliss or eternal torment, not a general salvation that universalists typically insist on.
- What distinguishes sheep from goats is how they treat 'the least of these.'
- 'The least of these' refers to the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick and the imprisoned. If that is not an exhaustive list, it is a well-rounded one to signify people in need of the resources that the sheep shared, but the goats did not.
- The sheep and the goats are equally surprised that what they did or did not do to 'the least of these' was done to Christ. There is no insider knowledge among the righteous here. There is only whether or not one fed, gave a drink, etc.
Isn't this a disturbing story? Honestly, whose category does it fit? Even folks who generally hold to a 'works righteousness' approach to salvation grit their teeth because of the ignorance of both the sheep and the goats.
Remember, this is the culmination of one big, long discourse that was prompted by the questions of when the temple would be destroyed, what would be the signs of its coming, and of the end of the age. So, here's my proposal:
If you want to know when Christ will return, look down, not up. Look down at the downtrodden, serve them, and you will meet the Christ. If you want to know the signs of the coming of Christ, look at hunger, the lack of potable water, the maldistribution of essential goods, the causes of overpopulated prisons, the lack of health care for everyone, and the tragedies around indigent care for the sick, the disabled, or the elderly. Those who insist that we work out modern-day identifications of Gog and Magog will gag and may gag at the thought of it, but they are simply missing the point: Matthew is fine with ignorance. Jesus not only insists that "about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father" (24:36), but the references to remembering Noah, and how 'one will be taken, the other left' are used to demonstrate how rampant ignorance and 'unexpectation' are. Now, in this final story, it turns out that ignorance is spread out equally among the good and the bad, the saved and the damned, the sheep and the goats.
All of the emphases on understanding the fig tree's way of indicating the season, of not falling for this or that false messiah, of being vigilant and ready, of weathering the wars and rumors of wars, of external persecutions for one's faith, of internal strife among families and disputes within the church, ALL OF THESE EMPHASES CULMINATE IN A STORY WHERE SERVING THE POOR IN IGNORANCE IS THE TICKET TO SALVATION.
Dang! That seems to take the wind out of the sails of almost every Left Behind Theology book ever written doesn't it? Who would have thought that a soup kitchen was a better expression of eschatalogical readiness than reading Tim LaHaye's fiction, or listening to yet another ranting end-time radio preacher?
I guess the right response to the bumper sticker that says, "In case of rapture, this vehicle will be driverless" should be, "Good, then we can give it to someone in need." I don't know where the driver thinks he'll be, but Matthew is fairly sure that if you want to meet Christ, it happens on the ground and not in the air.
I'm going on and on, but that is because Matthew throws everyone a curve with his one big, long discourse about the signs of the times and the end of the age culminating with the story of the sheep and goats. And if THIS is where the earlier parts of that one big, long discourse were heading, it might make us go back and revisit all of the parts of that one big, long discourse and see them differently.
We might do that tomorrow, or we might move on to Luke. Since it's election season, let's put it ot a vote. Do you want to see how this ending changes the earlier parts of this one big, long discourse? Or, do you wnat to move on to Luke? Cast your vote at firstname.lastname@example.org by 8:00pm central time tonight!