What kind of a God do you believe in?
Do you believe in a God who is watching our every move to trip us up and cast us into the inferno, or do you believe in a God who is “slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Psalm 86:15)?
Do you believe in a God who plays favorites, who loves some of us more than others of us depending on the things we do, or do you believe in a God who loves saints and sinners alike?
If you can tell me what kind of God you believe in, I’m pretty sure I can guess how you will interpret this parable of the sheep and the goats, or the “Great Assize” as John Wesley named it. If you take this as a picture of the Last Judgment when the good are separated from the bad, it might be that your understanding of that is based more on Dante than it is on Jesus.
Matthew’s 25th chapter contains the last teachings of Jesus before his arrest, at least in this gospel telling. Over the past couple of weeks, we’ve heard about the bridesmaids who were not ready when the bridegroom arrived, and then we learned about the slave who buried treasure in the ground out of fear of losing it. And now, today, we have this last teaching often called the Judgment of the Nations. The Son of Man sits on a throne of glory and declares judgment. There’s a reason this Sunday in the Church year is called the Reign of Christ, the fulfillment of God’s promises of the new Jerusalem is at hand, and we get a front-row seat, right here in Matthew 25, to what that’s going to look like.
We tend to get all caught up in the eternal punishment of those goats who didn’t see Jesus right in front of them in the poor, the hungry, the sick, and the imprisoned. And, as is so often true in the stories Jesus tells about the ones who do the right things and the ones who don’t, we like to see ourselves in these sheep, the ones at the right hand who did all those helpful things.
But the point the Son of Man is making is that we don’t even know if we’ve done the right thing or not. Both those on the right and those on the left were puzzled. “Who, us? When did we see you? When did we help (or not help) you?” We get ourselves all tied up into knots because we are trying to figure out what we need to do in order to be on that right side. To be one of those sheep.
All that means is that we end up trying to earn our way into God’s good graces, and that just is not how it works. We can’t earn our way into heaven any more than we can earn our way into hell. There is no such thing as a good person or a bad person in the language of Jesus, because Jesus invites all of us, in the fullness of who we are, to the party, prodigals and publicans alike. Weeds and wheat growing together. Christ has drawn all of it unto himself and transformed us all through the power of the cross. And for us that means it ain’t over until it’s over, and our job is not to try to figure out how to maximize our favorability ratings. Our job is not to do anything. It is to have faith in the one who loved us first.
The late Robert Capon, in his book on the Parables of Judgment, issues a caution about worrying too much about those cursed ones in this parable who are condemned. He writes (and this is a little long, but it is so good):
And what, finally, of the cursed whose response of unfaith – whose refusal to relate to him in the lost and the least – receives the King’s condemnation? Well, I think we must be careful here. I have already issued two warnings against defining too narrowly the precise circumstances that will constitute grounds for such a sentence. I want now to issue a caveat against defining them at all. Jesus came to raise the dead, not to reform the reformable, and certainly not to specify the degree of nonreform that will nullify the sovereign grace of resurrection. He came to proclaim a kingdom that works only in the last, the lost, the least, and the little, not to set up a height-weight chart for the occupants of the heavenly Jerusalem. And while we may think that we might do well to supply the ethico-theological requirements he has so carefully omitted – while we may be itching to define what constitutes rejection of him at the hour of death or relationship with him in the underdogs of the world – we are wrong on both counts. In the first place, we don’t know enough about anybody, not even ourselves, to say anything for sure. But in the second, Jesus shows us in this parable that even those who did relate to him didn’t know what they were doing…
Do you finally see? Nobody knows anything. The righteous didn’t know they were in relationship with the King when they ministered to the least of his brethren, any more than the cursed knew they were despising the King when they didn’t so minister. Knowledge is not the basis of anybody’s salvation or damnation. Action-in-dumb-trust is. And the reason for that is that salvation comes only by relationship with the Savior – by a relationship that, from his side, is already an accomplished, eternal fact, and therefore needs only to be accepted by faith, not known in any way.
God is a God of both the sheep and the goats, of the doers and the non-doers, of heaven and of hell. It has all been redeemed. It all belongs to God. We can do all manner of mental gymnastics trying to figure it out, trying to strategize our own salvation, but in the end, that rests in faith alone.
It’s almost as if this Good News is too good for us to believe. We are a nation of achievers, of pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps, fiercely independent, earn-your-keep kind of people. Faith? That’s it? That’s all it takes?
Now, before you go wondering if I’m telling you to just let all the injustice and evil and oppression continue unconfronted, I am most definitely not saying that. When officials at a pork-processing plant forced employees to work unprotected in the early days of the pandemic and took bets on how many would get sick – no, that does not go unchallenged because we have faith that God will deal with it in the end. No! That kind of wanton disregard for human life is deplorable! We should be angry. We should protest. We should stand up to all the outrages we have witnessed over these past almost-nine-months of pandemic.
But what is not our work to do is to decide for God who is redeemed and who is not. Because we don’t know anything, as Capon wrote.
This parable of the sheep and the goats is, in many ways, the summation of all that Jesus taught while he walked this earth. Love your neighbor by seeking the good of those you encounter. Not to gain some reward, but because you have faith in the one who did those things. Have faith in the One who created you, the One who desired human companionship in the beginning of time, the One who, out of love for us, became one of us.
That is reward enough.
 Robert Farrar Capon, Kingdom, Grace, Judgment: Paradox, Outrage, and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2002) 510-511.