Posted by: HAT | November 24, 2014

A Note in the Margin

A picture of sheep and goats drinking from a watering hole

Sheep on one side, goats on the the other

Hi, Gang!

Yesterday we had two extended reflections on Matthew 25:31-46 , sometimes referred to as “the judgment of the nations,” or “the parable of the sheep and the goats.” It’s another story told by Jesus, again in the context of answering questions about “last things” posed by his students. “Everyone knows” it is about mission and serving the poor.

In this story, the “Son of Man” – maybe a reference to the text of Daniel, maybe the deity or a participant in deity (and on this see especially Daniel Boyarin, The Jewish Gospels) – shows up with signs of power, authority and divinity and separates the citizens of all the nations, one by one, “as a shepherd separates sheep from goats.” I am told this is something shepherds would have done routinely in the evening, before putting the animals into pens for the night, and I am trusting this, since I know really nothing about sheep or goats except that there is a goat convention in my town every year. In light of the end of the parable, this might not be a good thing.

The king tells the sheep/right hand people they are blessed, and can enter into the kingdom prepared for them from the foundation of the world, because when he was hungry they gave him food, when he was thirsty they gave him something to drink, when he was naked they gave him clothing, when he was sick they took care of him and when he was in prison they visited him. They are astonished, since they don’t recall doing any of those things for him. He says, “just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” (Mt. 25:40) Similarly, the goats/left hand people, the accursed, who are sent off to eternal doom, have done none of these things but instead turned a blind eye to his suffering. “When was that??!!” they ask. “When you didn’t do these things to the least, you didn’t do them to me.”

So, here is Jewish Jesus talking to his Jewish students, telling a story in which a cosmic judge is identified by a name specific to a prophetic text that emphasizes Jewish identity and the importance of loyalty to it in the face of gentile persecution. I would think an obvious reading of this text would be that the criterion of sheepness vs. goatness is how the “nations” – the Gentiles – have treated Jews. I would think an obvious conclusion would be that anti-Semitism is a particularly dangerous practice. The astonishing thing in the story, in context, is that there seem to have been some spaces reserved for “others” in that kingdom that has been prepared since the foundation of the world.

Strikingly, I have never heard anyone say any of that in church. I am not saying people ought not to be told to serve the poor when they go to church. I just cannot help thinking that, at least in this case, saying the obvious a bit more often over the past 2,000 years would have been a good idea.

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