So, in my previous post I committed one of my own pet peeves, making a passing reference to the parable of the sheep and the goats (Matthew 25:31-46) in promoting social teaching. Verse 40, in particular, is a favorite verse to quote in order to add force to calls for social justice. I wonder, though, how often we really stop to consider how convicting this text really is. So here it is (please read a number of times reflectively):
31 “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. 32 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, 33 and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 34 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; 35 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, 36 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.’ 37 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? 38 And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39 And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ 40 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,[g] you did it to me.’ 41 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; 42 for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 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.’ 44 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?’ 45 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.’ 46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
Parables are meant to challenge. They are supposed to shake us up and make us ask questions. This story is more than a mere ethical exhortation to care for the “least of these,” as it is often used in contemporary discourse. A deeper reading of the text reveals that righteousness is not as tangible as we might like to think.
In the parallel verses 37-38 and 44, each of the two groups questions the judgment they have received. The sheep ask, “when have we…” as if they are not aware of their righteousness. They have served “the least of these” without thought or expectation of reward, or even awareness that they have done so. Perhaps something even more scandalous is going on here. Maybe some of these “sheep” have completely failed in service and receive the reward anyway.
The goats ask “when have we not…” as if they were practicing these acts of piety all along. Perhaps they see what the sheep get and expect a greater reward for their faithful service. As far as they know, they have served “the least of these.” Maybe their attitude about it has been wrong, or they did not serve with genuine solidarity. Maybe this is dual predestination and it never mattered how much good they could do.
It is all too tempting to try to separate the sheep from the goats before the appointed time, but the truth is that we lack the perspective to sit on the Judgment seat. Even on that day, the judgments may appear arbitrary from where we stand. Our own concepts of justice may be shattered by the verdicts that are handed down.
Perhaps I am reading a bit too much into the text and bringing in too many concepts from elsewhere in the canon. We can at least distill the message, “it is good to care for the least of these” and attempt to proceed from this truth with integrity and humility. Yet, we must leave room for scandalous grace and leave judgment up to God.