Sheep And Goats

Andrew Perriman over at P.OST has been thinking about the judgement of the sheep and goats as related in Matthew 25, and he has come to an interesting conclusion — one which I share:

The judgment of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25:31–46 is a good test case for how New Testament eschatology works. It is usually read as an account of a final universal judgment, on the assumption that we are still waiting for the Son of Man to come on the clouds of heaven at the end of history.

The implication is that at the final judgment people will be judged according to how they treated other people—“the least of these my brothers”—when they were hungry, thirsty, naked, sick, imprisoned, or in need of hospitality. It is sometimes put forward as a biblical argument for a social justice gospel. I have some sympathy for the missional end, but not for the exegetical means.

Perriman continues:

The problem with this reading is that in the context of Matthew’s Gospel “the least of these my brothers” are clearly the disciples (cf. Matt. 10:16–42), who would face great hardship and persecution as they went about their mission in the period leading up to the Jewish War against Rome. So what is the criterion for judgment? Quite specifically, it is whether or not the nations took care of the disciples. …

When the Messiah comes, he will judge the nations not according to general ethical or religious standards but according to how they have treated Israel. Nations which have not known Israel, and more importantly have not oppressed Israel, will be spared. Those nations, however, which have ruled over Israel and trodden down the seed of Jacob—Rome at the forefront—will be given up to the sword.

As I noted, I share this conclusion. “The least of these may brothers” is typically thought to refer to the poor and needy — the people we who are followers of Jesus are supposed to help. This passage is frequently used by supporters of the social gospel as a justification. And it’s a solid interpretation from power — this is, it presumes Christians are or even should be a people in a position to help others. But I’ve grown less convinced of that. I think Jesus is speaking about his disciples — about us, the church — when he says “the least of these my brothers.”

For Perriman, this is about God’s coming judgment upon the pagan world. I don’t disagree with that, but I also see a larger horizon to this as well. The implication is clear — God will judge the world according to how it treats the church.

Again, as we find ourselves living in an increasingly hostile post-Christendom world, in which the church finds itself powerless and in exile, this is one more thing we need to remember. There will be those who are not followers of Jesus who will visit us when we are sick, or in prison (yes … prison; you ready for that?), who shared basic necessities with us. Food, clothes, water. A hostile pagan secular world will also be full of people who will respond to us, the church, in our suffering with compassion and mercy.

God’s got this. The world, its peoples, will be judged by how they treat the church. However we might feel about the condition of the world, God has got it covered.

The Good Shepherd

Apropos of nothing, I was thinking about this ministry I do, about these amazing kids I have found — who have found me — and the bond we have forged over the last few months. I fear this is conceited, but it strikes me as so beautiful that it brought me to tears. It’s from the Gospel of John:

2 “But he who enters by the door is the shepherd of the sheep. 3 To him the gatekeeper opens. The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. 4 When he has brought out all his own, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice. 5 A stranger they will not follow, but they will flee from him, for they do not know the voice of strangers.” (John 10:2-5 ESV)

Lost Sheep

A couple of events in the last few days (sorry, no details) have left me thinking hard about one of my favorite stories Jesus tells in the Luke’s gospel:

1 Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him. 2 And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.”

3 So he told them this parable: 4 “What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open country, and go after the one that is lost, until he finds it? 5 And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. 6 And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost. ’ 7 Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance. (Luke 15:1-7 ESV)

The first thing that occurs to me is while we often time think of Jesus hanging out with sinners, we don’t really have many narrative descriptions of Jesus supping with sinners. A few passages (I’ve not done an exhaustive study, and I promise I will). Mostly, what we have is Jesus supping with Pharisees and scribes, who then accuse him of spending too much time with sinners. Which is not quite the same thing.

But mostly I’ve thought about lost sheep.

Virtually everyone in the English-speaking world knows the first verse of “Amazing Grace,” and that marvellous line which says

I once was lost,
But now am found,
Was blind,
But now, I see.

Jesus speaks of a man who has a hundred sheep — a shepherd — and one wanders away. And he leaves the 99 behind, leaves them to fend for themselves (because they can, because together they are safe), to go find the sheep who has wandered off.

We use the world lost, as in missing or misplaced or we don’t know where it is. But the sheep isn’t so much missing as it was disconnected. Maybe the shepherd doesn’t know where it is, even as he searches to find his lost charge. But perhas the shepherd knows exactly where the sheep is.

(Because there are only so many places sheep can wander off to…)

Which means it isn’t lost at all. Instead, what you have is a frightened, anxious sheep that has no idea where it is. That feels like lost to the sheep, as it bleets and howls and its terror and panic, but it isn’t the same as being lost. It isn’t the same thing at all.

To be lost like this is to feel disconnected from the herd, from the community of people God cares for and has gathered. The community we know in our bones we belong to. The gathering we need to feel safe and secure, to know we are tended and cared for. The sheep isn’t lost — it’s alone, separated, and frightend. That’s a terror that can wrap us up tight, and it feels like we’re lost when we look around and see nothing familiar and no one we know and the darkness looms and we fear we’ll never make home alive, that we’ll die here, alone, in the wilderness, abandoned and lost.

But … The shepherd knows where we are. Even when we do not. The sheperd goes to find us. Because the shepherd knows we belong to him. And when we are found, when we no longer have cause to be anxious and afraid, then we can all celebrate. Because we are found.

Because we are found.