The Most Disturbing Parable

MATTHEW 10 of 12

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.

“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’

“They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’

“He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’

“Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.” (Matthew 25v31-46)

This story of sheep and goats only shows up in Matthew’s gospel and it’s something of a climax in Matthew’s gospel. Jesus arrives in Jerusalem on Passover week in chapter 21 and the dominos are about to start falling quickly. After this parable he won’t be telling any more parables. After this teaching he won’t be doing any more teaching. The talky-teachy Jesus that Matthew tells us about is going to be silenced.

The truest climax of Matthew’s story is going to come over the next couple of chapters—in chapters 26 and 27—as Jesus is put on trial and executed and then surprises everyone in chapter 28 by walking out the tomb.

But this parable is a bit of climax itself. His teachings, his stories—theme after theme that Matthew made sure to include—they all come rushing together here. From chapter one and Matthew’s good news that Jesus is God with us on through to the centrality of love in the Sermon on the Mount and the truth that the people of God are a people of mercy (“I desire mercy not sacrifice”), from Jesus’s promise that he is king who will create a new kind of people to Jesus’s warnings of judgment for religious geniuses who have no place for love or mercy—all of these themes and threads come rushing together in this story.

In this story of separating—this story of splitting—this story of some being revealed as the king’s true people and others being told to depart from the king. Now, if we just say down and read Matthew straight through, this story wouldn’t be the first time we heard Jesus talking like this. He warned people of judgment throughout the Sermon on the Mount, explicitly using the image of fire at least three times.

And then—we don’t have time to read them but they’re here on the screen—in the middle of Matthew in chapter 13—Jesus tells two parables that only show up in Matthew. He tells a parable where the world is full of good and evil—it’s full of wheat but also full of weeds—but it won’t always be this way. One day everything evil is going to be weeded out and forever destroyed. Thrown into a blazing furnace. And then—just verses later—Jesus tells the same kind of story except it’s about fish this time. The world full of good and bad fish. But one day the good fish will be saved and bad fish will be tossed—they’re going to get pitched into a blazing furnace.

This story in Matthew 25 about sheep and goats is not the first time that Jesus has talked about separation and it’s certainly not the first time Jesus has talked about fire. And this talk of fiery judgment is certainly not bad news. If you’ve ever looked at the headlines—at a shooting at a nightclub in Orlando, or a bombing at a marathon in Boston, or the countless violences and injustices every single day, and said: “Someone should do something about that,”then these stories are not bad news. These stories of separation and fire are good news; Jesus assures us that good is going to outlast evil. That evil is going to be dealt with.

But this story about sheep and goats is troubling. It’s disturbing. It’s haunting. If you’re not disturbed by the story, I don’t think you really listened to the story. Or you didn’t take Jesus seriously.

This story is similar to ones that Jesus has already told but there’s a twist this time. This is story of separation and fire where nobody is winding up where they thought they would. It’s full of surprise and gives no easy answers. Everyone—literally everyone in the story—is surprised. The sheep don’t know they’re sheep. (They say as much in verses 37-39: “When did we see the king? When did we do any of this for the king?”) And the goats don’t know they’re goats. (Verse 44: “We didn’t ignore the king! When did we not care for the king?”) In this story, some of the people who thought they were “out” are actually “in.” And some of the people who thought they were “in” are actually “out.”

In a way entirely unlike any other story Jesus tells, you walk away from this story a little dizzy. A little disturbed. There have been a number of seasons in my life where for weeks or months at a time, I’ve had this parable rattling around in the back of my brain. For me personally, this parable can devolve into me asking, “What do I have to do confirm my reservation for the afterlife?” How do I confirm my reservations?

It’s the worst feeling to get to the airport or hotel and be surprised, isn’t it? (“I’m sorry, sir, I don’t see your reservation.”) That’s a terrible feeling. Back in April, we were in Georgia visiting my family, and on the day that we were scheduled to fly back to Denver this monstrous surprise blizzard-hurricane-thing was barreling over the Rockies. And I got an email from Southwest saying: “Surprise! Your flight has been cancelled”

Some people talk about getting surprised on a flight that somehow they got upgraded to first class. I have never experienced that. As far as my personal experiences go with reservations, any surprises is usually a bad surprise and not a good one. And this story from Jesus is so haunting—with the sheep getting upgraded to first class and the goats getting the worst kind of surprise—and this is the one place I don’t want any surprises. So—for me, personally—I can tend to start looking at the details of this story and asking, “Ok, how do I confirm my reservation?”

I start noticing that sheep and goats get separated based on how they cared for “the least of these” (v40 & 45). And then I start asking: “Ok… who exactly are ‘the least of these?’” Because I need to make sure I treat them really well.

Is Jesus talking about children in need? You know, the people who are literally “least.” Who are literally the smallest? Maybe I need to make sure I meet the needs of children.

But it’s hard to say for sure because verse 40 says “the least of these brothers and sisters of mine.” Back in chapter 10 and chapter 18 Jesus called his followers “little ones.” Remember, Peter has little faith? He’s one of those little ones. So maybe I need to make sure I meet the needs of Christians.

Or maybe Jesus is talking anyone anywhere who is in need. That is, after all, the way that most of the church throughout the centuries has interpreted his words. So maybe I need to make sure I meet the needs… of everyone everywhere?

That’s a tad overwhelming. What if this month I go visit someone in prison—in the prison of their sickness, in the prison of their loneliness, or maybe even in a prison made with actual metal bars, but then next month life is overwhelming and I can’t do it. What if in August I take a meal to someone, but then in September I’m barely able to make meals for my own family? And what about all those people with signs standing on street corners and in parking lots that I see but I don’t help feed? I just keep driving. I’m literally spoon-feeding my 6 month-old daughter—the least of these—but am I doing everything I can to help those poor people who have been reduced to holding signs in a Best Buy parking lot?

What counts?!

How much is enough to confirm my reservation? If this is about score-keeping, I’m pretty sure I’ve let too many people go hungry. And then the moment that I feel like I crack the code of whose needs to meet, and what to do, and how much is enough, the parable winds up biting me again… because the entire point of the parable is surprise.

As far as confirming reservations go—trying to make sure there are no surprises—the parable is a bust. If we make this parable primarily about confirming reservations for somewhere else in the future, it’s got almost nothing to helpful to say to us. The longer I sit with it, this parable is not aimed primarily at the future. And it certainly isn’t about how we can keep score and confirm our reservation for somewhere else. This parable is aimed primarily at the present.

When Jesus talks like this—when Jesus tells stories like this—when he uses this language of fiery judgment—he’s not talking in a vacuum. Jesus is standing in continuity with the long line of the prophets of ancient Israel. And the prophets of Israel were not primarily concerned with predicting the future. Oh sure, they would talk about it sometimes, but the prophets of Israel were primarily concerned with their present—with calling calling people to obedience and faithfulness right now.

A few weeks ago we mentioned that Matthew is the only gospel writer to include the detail that some people said “maybe this guy is Jeremiah” (16v14). If we want to understand the way Jesus talks—especially in Matthew—we should probably consider the way Jeremiah talks. Here’s an example of what Jeremiah sounds like:

Through your own fault you will lose
    the inheritance I gave you.
I will enslave you to your enemies
    in a land you do not know,
for you have kindled my anger,
    and it will burn forever.

(Jeremiah 17v4)

Notice the language of fire right there.

This is what the Lord says:
Cursed is the one who trusts in man,
    who draws strength from mere flesh
    and whose heart turns away from the Lord.
That person will be like a bush in the wastelands;
    they will not see prosperity when it comes.
They will dwell in the parched places of the desert,
    in a salt land where no one lives.
“But blessed is the one who trusts in the Lord,
    whose confidence is in him.
They will be like a tree planted by the water
    that sends out its roots by the stream.
It does not fear when heat comes;
    its leaves are always green.
It has no worries in a year of drought
    and never fails to bear fruit.”

(Jeremiah 17v5-8)

…if you are careful to obey me… this city will be inhabited forever… But if you do not obey me… then I will kindle an unquenchable fire in the gates of Jerusalem that will consume her fortresses.’” (Jeremiah 17v24,25,27)

Jeremiah paints the future with symbols and poetic language because he’s interested in changing the present. Some of the language is deliberately exaggerated. If you take Jeremiah 17v4 absolutely literally then it’s demonstrably not true. God’s anger does NOT literally burn forever against his people. Decades after Jeremiah, God rescues them from exile in Babylon. Eventually God goes so far as to become one his people to save them from their sins. (If that sounds familiar, it’s the first chapter of Matthew.)

When Jeremiah says that God’s anger will burn forever, he doesn’t mean that God is going to nurse a grudge forever. He means that God is super serious about their rebellion. The language Jeremiah uses in verse 27 wasn’t intended to be read in a flat-footed literalistic way. How do we know this, you ask? Well, Jerusalem is not still on fireat some point the fire was quenched. It wasn’t literally “unquenchable fire.”

When Jeremiah uses language about unquenchable fire, he doesn’t mean that the fire will literally never be extinguished. He means that people won’t be able to stop—they won’t be able to quench—God’s judgment. The language is white-hot—the images are fiery—to convey the seriousness of what is at stake. The images of burning forever and fire in the future are not Jeremiah’s primary point; he’s talking about something more serious than fire.

Jeremiah invoked every powerful image that he could because he was trying to change the present. The imagery isn’t always saying predicting exactly what the future will look like. For Jeremiah, the fire came in the form a foreign army. For Jesus, the fire warns us about an existence apart from God. And for both of them, the fire is about the present—the present is the point. The point is how will I live right now? Will I choose blessedness—to be like a tree planted by the water—to live true life right now? Or will I choose a cursed kind of life? A life in the wasteland? A life without thriving?

Jesus isn’t telling this parable to cause me anxiety about my reservation for the afterlife. Rather, Jesus is telling this parable—and Matthew includes it as something of a climax—so that we’ll choose a particular path in this life. Jesus tells a disturbing parable like this to make us dizzy, to haunt us, to wake us up.

He’s not trying to get us to start trying to keep score. The good news is that God has become one of us to save us from our sins, remember? God is already at work saving us. That’s the gospel. We’ll never save ourselves by doing anything or feeding anyone or keeping any kind of score. God is always the one who saves us.

With a story like Jesus—perhaps the most disturbing parable that he tells—Jesus is cutting to the heart of the matter. Jesus wants to make sure that we’re not fooling ourselves. We’ve said it from week one: it’s easy to read the story of that Matthew is telling and hear Jesus talking but never really commit ourselves to the following Jesus.

And so Jesus tells us a disturbing story. A story about sheep and goats—about rewarding the king’s true people and fiery judgment on those who live without mercy. It’s a story about Immanuel—about a God who is with this world more deeply than we can imagine, identifying with people we forget about.

He tells this story to get under our skin. Not so we can somehow reserve the afterlife, but so we’ll choose to enter into real life right now. Jesus is warning us about something more serious than fire; Jesus is warning us that it’s possible to miss him entirely. To miss God, to miss the king, to miss the meaning of life. To live in such a way that the king will say:

“Depart from me… you’ve really never wanted anything to do with me.”

I think what he’s saying is: If we care nothing about actually helping others, we care nothing about actually being with Jesus. In this life or any other. It’s not possible to care about the king and not care about for other people.

This parable is the place where we realize the full ramifications of the good news of Immanuel—of “God with us”—from Matthew 1. God is with us. All of us. This entire world. Down to the people we consider least. God with us also means God with them. It doesn’t matter what we know, what prayer we’ve prayed, what rules we keep—what kind of religious genius we are. If we’re not caring for others—practicing love and mercy—then we’re not interested in the king.

As we come to the table this morning, maybe we should ask ourselves: Who is the person—who are the people—that we count as least? The people we’ve written off? The people around me who are hurting? The people we hate. Do we realize that “God with us” is with them too? And loving them—actually, practically doing something—picking up the phone, having that conversation, writing that note, giving our time, giving our energy, giving our money—is actually serving the king?

What might it look like to serve them? What might it look like to love them? Because until we’re willing to actually do something—to actually love and serve and have mercy on those we consider least—we’re not really interested in being with Jesus.

May we be counted as sheep when the king comes and not just lookalikes. May we trust that God will save us on that coming day. May we choose to enter into that salvation every day until then. May we feed the least, clothe the least, visit the least… because God with us is God with them.