St Barnabas, 20th November 2011
Who here prefers Coke to Pepsi? Are you sure that in a blind tasting, you could tell the difference?!
Or who here has ever bought a designer bag, perhaps Gucci or Burberry, at a bargain price? Or a Rolex watch from a market stall? How did you know you were getting the real thing? Or were you content with an imitation?
Every day we are challenged to be able to tell the real thing from the imitation. And to make decisions accordingly. Whether it’s buying baked beans (Heinz or own brand?) or free range eggs instead of the cheaper options, or something bigger like buying a Skoda instead of a BMW or an Audi … our ability to tell the difference is crucial to the way we live.
In fact, in our reading today from Matthew’s gospel, Jesus tells us that his ability to tell the difference is a matter of life and death!
The parable of the sheep and the goats is unique to Matthew’s gospel. And when we read it, something feels a bit wrong about it. After all, as a church we teach that we are saved by grace (that is, the undeserved favour of God), and that we can do nothing to contribute to our salvation except trust that our sins are forgiven because of Jesus’ death on the cross. Yet in this parable, Jesus says that one day – the day when he comes again, when he returns to bring history to completion – on that day, we will be judged according to something we’ve done, or not done. Doesn’t that seem a bit odd to you?
Sometimes we need to be a little careful of taking the Bible at face value. That’s not to say we can’t all read it and gain an understanding of God – we don’t need a minister or preacher to interpret it for us, the Bible can speak for itself. But from time to time, if we’re familiar with the wider picture of all that the Bible says, something may appear not to fit very well. And then we have to do a little more work, take a rather closer look, to understand what’s going on, and why that particular story or passage is there.
It’s one of the reasons it’s important to spend time with other Christians, reading the Bible together and working out how it all fits together. Because it does all fit together. If you’ve read Vicar’s blog, or heard Rev Tim talk about being an ‘evangelical’ Christian, this is one of the defining characteristics, that we believe the Bible is inspired by God and tells one, consistent story throughout.
So let’s take a closer look now and see where we get to. I’d like to suggest there are two things that make a significant difference to how we should understand this story. One is the context (you knew that was coming!), and the other is a phrase within the story itself.
First, the context. Almost every time I preach I talk about context. Because, as I’ve just said, I believe the Bible is one unit, one message from God, written across a number of centuries – millennia, in fact – by many different authors. But they all had one thing in common … they were inspired by God’s Holy Spirit as they wrote. Their styles are different, their experiences of God are different, but their individual contributions are part of a unity, one book, Old and New Testaments together telling one story.
And one of the skills we need as we read the Bible is to allow the Bible to interpret or explain itself – that is, by drawing together everything the Bible says about a subject we can be sure we’ve understood it properly, as God intended.
In this instance of the parable of the sheep and the goats, we don’t have to look very far for the context. A couple of weeks ago, Rev Tim spoke to us from the parable of the Ten Virgins, earlier in this same chapter. He showed us that the oil in the lamps was, and is, the Holy Spirit … and that those who were prepared for the Bridegroom’s return had an ample supply. Last week we heard the story of the master who left his servants in charge of his ‘talents’ and how they were to use them to increase his wealth – unknowingly benefiting themselves in the process. Bob talked about the talents as spiritual gifts, which everyone who belongs to Jesus has – however small or insignificant they may appear.
So this parable of the sheep and the goats – clearly deliberately grouped with these other two parables by Matthew – is to be understood in this context of the Holy Spirit in the life of a believer.
So Jesus’ meaning becomes much clearer … this parable isn’t about what we do to earn forgiveness, it’s about examining the evidence that we have already received forgiveness together with the Holy Spirit. We don’t do good things to try and please or impress God – as it we ever could be good enough to earn his favour and goodwill – but because we just can’t help it! The Holy Spirit is God living within us, so we will, over time, become more and more like him as he shapes and directs our lives from within.
That doesn’t mean we stand out from the crowd as being super-duper holy, or even extra good, or simply better than someone else … in fact, most of the time we’re hard to tell apart from those who live good lives but don’t have faith. Which brings us to the phrase in the passage itself that tells us this parable is saying something a little deeper than first appears to be the case … reading from verse 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? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ The King will reply, `I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’
He gives a similar answer to the goats … from verse 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?’ He will reply, `I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’
Jesus’ judgement is not simply about doing good for the sake of it. Rather, it concerns our love of each other … the ultimate evidence that we are in a relationship with God through Jesus, is the outworking of the gifts of the Spirit in our love for each other. If you think I’m reading a bit too much into the passage, let me back it up with another verse – remember what I said about allowing the Bible to interpret itself … in another passage about allowing the Holy Spirit to direct the life of the believer … in Galatians 6:10, Paul writes,
Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.
Of course, our parable makes clear that only Jesus can make the final judgement on who is a sheep and who is a goat. But we need to be able to recognise those who show signs of living the life of faith, to use our discernment as we pray and work together, and indeed as we read the Bible together. And perhaps especially as we choose those who lead us in some capacity or another.
As we saw at the beginning, we need to be able to distinguish the real thing from the imitation … that’s why Jesus uses this picture of sheep and goats …
In Jesus’ time, shepherds kept mixed herds of sheep and goats, and out on the hillsides they looked as scruffy as each other – not at all like our modern sheep that have been bred for meat as well as wool so look fat and clean compared to goats. In Jesus day, they would have been hard to tell apart from any distance, but if you look carefully, there are subtle differences … small horns, slightly coarser coats, the shape of the face. But you have to get close to know them apart. They have different needs, too … sheep graze, but goats browse, that is, they don’t eat grass, but bushes and shoots – they are not ground level feeders. So the shepherd has to find pasture that suits both animals.
How then do we recognise the gifts of the Spirit at work?
Let’s hear our second reading, from Romans 12 …
The parable of the sheep and the goats presents us with a two part challenge … the first is simple – are you the real thing? Is Jesus your brother? Have you understood and accepted his death on the cross in your place. And are you led by the Holy Spirit as you live out your life day by day?
The second part of the challenge is to use the gifts given you by the Holy Spirit. You might need help to recognise them – they might be quite unexpected. But as you do, you’ll soon notice that they only function in community … you can’t exercise them alone. The fruit of the Spirit is the same, you can’t be patient or kind in a vacuum. So this part of the challenge also includes giving others the opportunity to use their gifts as part of the family of God together, making space for each to learn and grow and occasionally even to get it wrong.
So could you tell Coke from Pepsi? Well, certainly not if you don’t ever drink them!