Sheep, Goats & Blessed People

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 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. 33 He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.

34 “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. 35 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, 36 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.’

37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

40 “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.’

41 “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. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 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.’

44 “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?’

45 “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.’

46 “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.” – Matthew 25:31-46

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Table in Martin Luther’s house in Wittenberg, Germany | Martin & Katie Luther are said to have hosted meals for many students and others around this table. Photo taken August 2017

I am ashamed to admit that I was well-seasoned in ministry when I learned – or perhaps more accurately realized – that Jacob in the Old Testament was actually a churlish scoundrel. I knew he cheated his brother out of his birthright, that he tricked his father into giving him his brother’s blessing, and that his dealings with others were not of the highest moral ethics. But somehow for too many years I carried a sort of Sunday school flannelgraph picture of Jacob in my mind. He was, after all, a Bible character, the father of the twelve tribes.

I’m not certain how that view aligns with Jesus’ story of the sheep and the goats, but I am certain that I’ve never met anyone who is completely without sin. Everyone I know has something in his or her past that does not perfectly align with loving God above all, and loving one’s neighbor as oneself. Nor do I know of a reprobate who never did anything good to anyone. I can’t imagine that even my worst enemy failed at least once in his life to offer a helping hand or proffer a drink of water to someone.

How is it possible, then, that Jesus describes the people before him at the Last Judgment as so totally good or bad? Who has never sinned? Who has done only evil?

It is appropriate for us, in this life and in the affairs of man, to judge a person based on the totality of his or her actions. That, however, is not what seems to be going on here. There are two groups: the righteous, and the unrighteous.

The only difference between the two seems to be what Scott Peck identifies as the essence of evil: a failure to recognize one’s own failure. The righteous do not recall having done anything good for Jesus. The unrighteous cannot see how they failed to do good. That places one inside or outside of God’s grace. For if we have no need for it, we are truly lost. If, however, we can’t imagine ourselves hearing Jesus say to us, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world,” we are blessed indeed. 

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