Scripture: “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left. Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.'”
“Then he will say to those on his left, Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’ Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” Matthew 25:31-46 ESV
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Observation: Recapping yesterday’s Daily Focus, Jesus continues to address the godly character qualities of those who patiently await his return. This time, he tells The Parable of the Talents about wisely investing our resources (talents) to perform our duties. The servants are vested with Jewish currency (talent coins) valued in the millions to reinvest. After a long interval, the master returns to claim his assets. He is pleased with the first two servants, who invest wisely, demonstrating their faithfulness. But the third proves unworthy, for he fails to act diligently and invest his master’s talents—not wanting to risk inciting his ire. Instead, he buries the coins, demonstrating mistrust and slothfulness. And he receives what he precisely hoped to avoid: a harsh judgment. Meanwhile, the master gives the five-talent servant the one talent to demonstrate that those who faithfully invest their kingdom resources will receive even more.
On this long Tuesday of Passion Week, Jesus concludes his eight-part teaching on his return with a parable of a king who either welcomes into or banishes from his kingdom those citizens who either cared for or ignored the needs of those who suffer for want (The Parable of the Sheep and Goats). Again, referring to himself as the Son of Man (identifying with his fully human nature), Jesus categorizes sheep as his faithful servants who serve him by reaching out to the poor, disenfranchised, naked, infirmed, and imprisoned. Conversely, those ignoring the disadvantaged’s needs equally disregard their king. So the sheep (who obey their shepherd’s voice) will enter the eternal kingdom he has prepared for them. At the same time, the selfish goats will face eternal punishment (similar to the previous three parables’ endings).
Takeaway: The Parable of the Sheep and Goats draws on the imagery of Jesus being our Good Shepherd (see John 10). And Israel is called God’s sheep throughout the Old Testament (David’s Psalm 23 being the most familiar). But goats have no clear association with the wicked other than one instance of the scapegoat, on whom the high priest transfers the sins of Israel on the Day of Atonement (see my August 15, 2022, Daily Focus for a fuller explanation).
As for the surprise reaction of the “righteous” sheep, their response would indicate that they acted charitably toward others without the motive to earn the king’s approval, for the king does not admit people into his kingdom based on meritorious acts. As theologian Michael Wilkin explains, “these acts of mercy are evidences that the sheep belong to the kingdom, just as the preceding parables pointed out external behavioral evidences of a person who has truly received the gift of salvation and the resulting transformation by the Spirit” (NIV Application Commentary: Matthew, p.810). In other words, their selfless service to others reveals what is already true: they are children of God. Conversely, no amount of veneer charity will cover a heart whose affections are elsewhere than for God. Or, as the half-brother of Jesus pointedly says, faith without works is dead (James 2:14-26).
Our takeaway? It’s a tricky balance, and it’s easy to do life on the surface. But one telling sign is when we are easily offended by the ungratefulness of those we serve. Indeed, if we want to follow in the footsteps of Jesus, then we will meet suspicion and hostility from time to time. And how we respond to “attitudes” can make all the difference for the prickly ones and us. A second and more blatant sign that aligns with The Parable of the Sheep and Goats is thinking too highly of ourselves to be interrupted by others. Jesus, earlier in his ministry, tells The Parable of Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) to emphasize this point: a priest and a Levite pass by a severely wounded fellow Jew. Still, a Samaritan (an ethnically marginalized man) has compassion for this half-dead human and cares for him.
So what’s the antidote? Deepen our understanding of Christ’s grace that will grow our affections and gratitude for him and inspire us with the guidance and strength of the Holy Spirit to serve those he brings across our paths. And his grace will be sufficient even when we fail to uphold the greatest commandment: to love the Lord our God with all our heart, mind, and strength and our neighbors as ourselves. It is a lifetime pursuit that will grow on us.
Prayer: Father God, we thank you for your Son who came to serve and give his life as a ransom. Still, we can lose sight of his and your extravagant love for us and slide toward selfishness. So would you please help us to cooperate with the Holy Spirit and humbly and gratefully follow his lead to serve the least, the last, and the lost? Amen.
Rev. Gordon Green, M.Div., M.A. Counseling