James 2:14-26 & Matthew 25:31-46

Sheep and Goats

Before we dive into the text that we are focussing on this evening, let’s take a step back and look at the context in which Jesus originally shared it. The first thing to note is that this is the end of one section of Matthew’s eye witness account of the good news of Jesus. If we look ahead to the first verse of chapter 27 it says, “When Jesus had finished saying all these things, he said to his disciples, “As you know, The Passover is two days away – and the Son of Man will be handed over to be crucified.”

This is important for two reasons – firstly it tells us that here is a change in Matthew’s focus – we’re leaving a collection of Jesus’ teaching and moving on to the Passion narrative – the events of the first Easter. The second is the way in which Jesus clearly describes himself as the Son of Man – we’ll come back to this later.

So, if what we’ve read this evening is the end of a block of teaching, of Jesus saying, “all these things”, where does it start, and are there any themes of that teaching that might inform our understanding of the passage we’re looking at this evening?

Well, there’s a couple of possible answers to this. The straightforward answer comes if look at the beginning of Chapter 24. Here we find Jesus and his disciples leaving the temple and going to the Mount of Olives. It is clear that all the teaching of chapters 24 and 25 are all part of the same conversation on the Mount of Olives, between Jesus and his close friends and followers. But, it seems to me that actually this teaching is also linked to the teaching that Jesus had been giving in the temple courts over the previous week. And this takes us all the way back to the beginning of chapter 21, and the triumphal entry of Jesus to Jerusalem on the first Palm Sunday.

I say this because it seems to me that one of the key themes through the whole of this section, from chapter 21 all the way through to the end of chapter 25 is one of judgement, a theme which finds its climax in the account of judgement that we have read this evening.

So, let’s take a whistle stop tour through these chapters, to see how this theme recurs.

What is the first thing that Jesus does when he arrives at the Temple in chapter 21? He clears it of the money changers and lenders – those who have made God’s house of prayer into a place of robbers. He executes judgement.

The next day, on the way into Jerusalem, he curses a fig tree for its lack of fruit – judgement?

When he gets back to Jerusalem Jesus tells three parables – that of the two sons, one about tenants who refused to give the landowner his share of the harvest, and one about a wedding banquet to which the original guests gave feeble excuses. All three of these parables are spoken in judgement of the members of the sect of the Pharisees who refused to believe Jesus, and got in the way of others who wanted to come close to God.

As conversation goes on, the religious scholars come to Jesus and ask what they think are difficult questions. Should we pay the poll tax, how will marriage work in the resurrection, what’s the most important commandment? Even here, though, there seems to me to be a sense that they are coming to Jesus and asking for his judgement about those things. They are mostly coming with impure motives, wanting to trap him, or prove a point, but the fact remains that they are doing so by submitting questions for his judgement – and he demonstrates his wisdom and good judgement by answering in a way that confounds them. Until we get to the end of chapter 22 and we read, “No-one could say a word in reply, and from that day on no-one dared to ask him any more questions.

The whole of chapter 23 is a denunciation and judgement on the teachers of the law and the Pharisees. And then we get to the beginning of chapter 24, where Jesus and his disciples leave the Temple for the last time, heading for the Mount of Olives.

In this chapter the theme of explicit judgement does fade into the background a bit. Here Jesus is telling his disciples what is going to happen when he’s gone. Exactly what it means would take another whole sermon, but in summary there is a mixture here of events that are going to happen in the years of the early church, fairly soon after Jesus’ ascension, such as the sack of Jerusalem, and others that will happen at the end of time, when Jesus returns in glory. Even here, though, the theme of judgement is implicit – one will be taken, the other left. We also find this name – the Son of Man used a lot – we’ll come back to that.

Towards the end of chapter 24 and into chapter 25 this theme of judgement comes to the fore again as Jesus shares parables and illustrations. Whether it is of the steward left in charge of the household, the young women waiting for the bridegroom, or the servants entrusted with their master’s wealth in his absence, all will be judged at the return based on what they’ve done in the absence.

So, finally we arrive at our passage for this evening. Jesus is sat with his disciples – his closest friends and followers, on the mount of Olives. Over the last few days they’ve heard him pronouncing judgements on the religious rulers and elite, and confounding them with his wisdom. In the last couple of hours he’s been telling them about what will come next, and sharing with them how they will be judged, depending on what they do in his absence. And now, to cap it all off, Jesus gives them another account of judgement.

To help us get into this, let’s have a think about who is present in this account.

The first person we meet is “the Son of Man”. So who is this? Not a trick question, the answer is the obvious one, it is Jesus. We know this from what we discovered earlier at the beginning of the next chapter – where Jesus says that in two days “the Son of Man will be handed over to be crucified.” Jesus identifies himself as the “Son of Man”.

But why? Why doesn’t he just say “I”. Why does he use this description of himself as the, “Son o Man”? What does it mean?

The place where the phrase “Son of Man” appears most frequently in the Bible is in the book of Ezekiel. At the beginning of chapter 2 of Ezekiel, God speaks directly to the prophet for the first time and says, “Son of man, stand up on your feet and I will speak to you.” As the book goes on, this is how God repeatedly addresses Ezekiel. Biblical scholars are not sure why Ezekiel is addressed like this, and not the other prophets, but what is clear in Ezekiel that this form of address is used to reinforce Ezekiel’s status as human, rather than angelic or divine. Ezekiel was shown a number of visions of God, and of the heavenly court, but he was not part of that world – he was human, a son of Adam, formed from the dust of the earth.

The other important appearance of this title in the Old Testament is found in the writings of another prophet who had visions of heaven – Daniel. In Daniel 7:13-14 we read this.
“In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. He was given authority, glory, and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshipped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.”

Here, in contrast to Ezekiel, the Son of Man, the human one, is identified as someone who is going to be given a throne in the heavenly court, who will have power and authority, for all time.

The clouds and the glory make other links for us to the scene described by Jesus.

So, simply, the Son of Man in the passage we’re looking at tonight is Jesus. And he is truly human – created from the dust- a Son of Adam. And he has taken that humanity all the way to the throne of heaven, as seen in Daniel’s vision. As the passage goes on, in verse 34, Jesus describes the Son of Man as “The King”. We’ve been thinking a lot about royalty over the last couple of weeks, and we know that a King needs a Kingdom. This is the kingdom of heaven, the kingdom of God, that Jesus has spent so much of his ministry talking about. It is the realm in which the rule and reign of God are fully realised.

Who have we got next – we’ve got the angels, his royal entourage, and we’ve got all the nations. So who are they? Well, this is a bit of an open question. It could just be exactly what it seems to say. All the people of the world – everyone, everywhere. However, there are a couple of potential problems with that reading. The first is that the word used for nations here is usually used elsewhere in the New Testament to refer to “all the non-Jewish nations”, “the Gentiles”. On the other hand, we do have verses such as Luke 24:47 in which Jesus says, “repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning in Jerusalem”. Which suggests that the Jewish people are included in “all nations”, otherwise why would it begin in Jerusalem? So, on balance, I would say that “all nations” includes the nation of Israel.

The second objection to the understanding of “all nations” meaning “everyone” is linked to the identification of a second group of people in the scene.

In the middle of the judgement story, in his explanation of why the righteous are going to be judged worthy of the kingdom, Jesus says, “whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me”. The other group present are the brothers and sisters of Jesus. And they are not being judged in the judgement of the nations, they are a separate group. So “all the nations” can’t be everyone on earth.

So, who are this other group, the brothers and sisters of the King? We get a clue to this in another saying of Jesus that expresses similar ideas to the ones in this passage. If we go back to Matthew 10, we find Jesus send out his twelve disciples on a mission trip. They are to go to the people of Israel, telling them about the good news of Jesus, that the kingdom of heaven has come near. Jesus gives his friends lots of instructions about what they are to do, and not to do, and encourages them that whatever difficulties they face, God will be with them. He finishes off his commission to them by saying,

“Anyone who welcomes you welcomes me, and anyone who welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. Whoever welcomes someone known to be a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward, and whoever welcomes someone known to be righteous will receive a righteous persons reward. And if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones who is known to be my disciple, truly I tell you, that person will be rewarded.”

When the disciples return from that mission trip, Jesus continues on with them, teaching the people and one day his family come to see him, and can’t get to him because of the crowds. Someone tells him that his mother and brothers are waiting for him outside, and he says, in Matthew 12:49, “pointing to his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”

So, who are Jesus’ brothers and sisters? Who are the little ones? They are Jesus’ disciples. They are the other group of people in this scene. They are not being judged, or having sentence passed on them in this court. They are stood with Jesus already.

There is one last person to identify in this drama, and although he doesn’t make an explicit appearance, he is referred to by the King in verse 34. Speaking to the ones on his right he says, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father”. Here the King refers to his Father, the one who is the source of the blessing. This is Jesus’ Father – God, and this reference reminds us of the relationship within the Trinity – that all that the Son does is based on what he sees the Father doing, and that the Father has given everything to the Son. Mutual and reciprocated love and honour flow from the Father to the Son and from the Son to the Father.

So the scene is set. Time has been called on history and the peoples of the world, from every nation, are gathered before the throne of the King, the human who sits on the throne of heaven, surrounded by his people. The nations are divided into two groups, as a shepherd divides his flock – sheep on his right and goats on his left. There doesn’t seem to be any particular significance or representative importance to sheep and goats – in the sacrificial requirements of the Old Testament they were largely interchangeable. What is significant is the right and left hands. Across the classical cultures of the time, the right hand was the place of honour and the left hand less honourable. So far, so expected, and in line with judgement narratives from other cultures. But now the surprises begin.

The invitation is given to the sheep to enter the kingdom prepared for them since the creation of the world. They are blessed and they have an inheritance in the everlasting kingdom of God. They are named righteous, for their kindnesses. This list of kindnesses are examples, rather than a tick box list. They are examples of what it means practically for people to be kind, welcoming, and hospitable. It is interesting to note that there are no obviously religious practices detailed here. There is no commendation for those who pray lots, attend the synagogue, or read their Bibles (important though these things might be). Jesus’ focus is on the practical outworking of the Godly character which is kind not because it thinks they’re serving God, but because there is a human being in need in front of them. But they are surprised, they don’t recall doing these kindnesses for Jesus. They don’t recognise the King before them.

And then, in one of the most comforting passages of the Gospel, Jesus tells them that whatever they did for his brothers and sisters, they did for him. Can you imagine sitting there, as a disciple of Jesus, listening to this for the first time. Here is Jesus, identifying completely with them.

Remember, this account is not being shared with outsiders, it was not told, in the first instance, to those who are to be judged. It is being told to those on whose behalf judgement is being pronounced. Jesus is telling his friends that whatever happens to them, whenever they find themselves naked, hungry, thirsty, lonely, in prison – Jesus will be sharing that need with them – and however they are treated, Jesus is there with them, receiving that treatment, and that it matters, and will matter eternally. They will not be forgotten or forsaken. When they go to the nations, as Jesus will send them, to make disciples and baptise, how they are received will be taken seriously by God. Let’s just sit with that a minute. Let it sink in to our souls. Jesus identifies so closely with us that he experiences all that we experience. Whatever anyone does to or for us, they do to or for Jesus.

Then the King turns to the goats. And sends them away. There are a few things to note here, though. In verse 41 the unkind are sent into the eternal fire, prepared for the devil and his angels. The first thing to notice here is that in contrast to the kingdom which had been prepared for the kind, the fire was not prepared for the unkind, it was prepared for the devil and his angels. God had not prepared a place of punishment for human beings who reject him – the place prepared for all people is the kingdom. It is only those who reject the King who end up being sent somewhere that was never intended for them. The second thing to consider is the sense of the word eternal, both here and in v 46. There are those who understand this to mean unending, that those who fail to welcome Jesus will experience unending torment after this life. An alternative understanding would be that although the fire is unending, those who burn in it are consumed. In this sense the consequences of rejecting Jesus are serious, painful, and have permanent consequences when this life ends, but are not experienced for the whole of eternity. This contrasts with the positive experience of those who enter their inherited kingdom – living forever in the glorious presence of God, the source of our life.

But, someone might object, doesn’t all this point towards works righteousness, doesn’t this appear to confirm salvation by works, that we can work our way into the kingdom of God? What then of Paul’s insistence throughout his letters, summed up in Ephesians 2, 8 and 9“For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.”

This is absolutely true, and we need to hold onto it for two reasons. Firstly it keeps us from pride and boasting, it helps us to stay humble, to know that we owe our lives completely to Jesus. Secondly it reassures us that Jesus has done all that needs to be done, and we don’t need to keep chasing it. We don’t need to be scared that we’re not good enough, and can’t do enough, to earn God’s love and favour. We can relax into the truth that we’re not good enough, and there is nothing we have to do to enjoy God’s love and favour – it is freely given. But it was bought at a price, and our gratitude for that, will overflow in love for others, and in the kind of generosity that we read in James’ letter. In this section James is talking about generosity and kindness being shown within the Christian family, in contrast to the passage we’re focussing on tonight, in which Jesus is talking about generosity and kindness shown (or not shown) to the Christian family by others, but the principle is the same. It is not the works themselves that matter. It is the fact that what is done shows the heart of the one doing them, and in particular, their heart’s response to Jesus.

So where have we ended up? To finish up and summarise, I’d like to quote from the Word Biblical Commentary by Donald Hagner:

“The time of the great judgment wherein the righteous and the unrighteous are finally separated will arrive with the glorious coming of the Son of Man. All the nations of the world—that is, every individual of those nations—are to be judged on the basis of their treatment of disciples of Jesus. This perhaps surprising statement points at once to the unique relation between Jesus and those who follow him and to the supreme importance of the mission and message of the church to the world. To treat the disciple, the bringer and representative of the gospel, with deeds of kindness is in effect to have so treated Jesus. Conversely, to fail to meet the needs of the Christian missionary is to fail to meet the needs of Jesus. There is thus a most remarkable bond of solidarity between Jesus and his disciples.”

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