Matthew 25:31-46 (NIV)
“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ 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, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’ Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’ 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, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’ Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”
It may seem strange to sing ‘There's A Wideness Wideness In God’s Mercy’ following a reading which seems to threaten fiery damnation, but that only makes it more important that we remind ourselves of the grace which so much of scripture bears witness to, and I hope you will bear with me as I try to show that this text bears witness to it too. Much like last week, we have a familiar parable with a familiar interpretation - treat everyone as if they were Jesus. And much like last week, we have some discomfiting ideas to wrestle with - the suggestion that we must earn our way into eternal life through good deeds or else face eternal punishment. So much like last week, we will lean into that discomfort, and ask if something has been lost in translation, only this time I mean that very literally.
The translation we heard says that the nations will gather and God will separate “the people”, but the original Greek actually says that God will separate “them”. It is then entirely possible that “them” refers back to “the nations”, so that the separation happens on a collective rather than individual basis. Our translation also talks about “eternal life” and “eternal punishment”, but the Greek word we render “eternal” does not necessarily refer to eternity but to an age, a distinct period characterised by a particular quality rather than infinite duration. So perhaps what we have understood as life and punishment that last forever are actually life and punishment that are characteristic of a future time, what we might call “the age to come”. And “punishment” does seem to be a fair translation, but carrying a sense of correction rather than retribution. Maybe then it would be better to think of consequences, intended to encourage learning rather than inflict suffering.
So let’s hear what these alternative - but I believe valid - translation choices do to our reading: “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, he will separate the nations one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, putting the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. He will say to those on his right, ‘Come and take your inheritance in the kingdom, for you cared for me.’ And they will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we care for you?’, and he will reply, ‘Whatever you did for one of the least of these, you did for me.’ Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me into the fire of the age to come, for you did not care for me.’ They also will answer, ‘When did we not care for you?’, and he will reply, ‘Whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’ Then those nations will face the consequences in the age to come, but the righteous nations will enjoy the life of the age to come.”
Obviously that was a paraphrase to highlight those changes, but it certainly lands differently. Perhaps this parable has nothing to do with heaven and hell, but instead Jesus is telling us that there will come a time when societies will stand or fall according to how they treat their most vulnerable members. Those nations which have cared for the hungry and the thirsty and the stranger and the naked and the imprisoned and the sick will flourish, while those who have neglected the hungry and the thirsty and the stranger and the naked and the imprisoned and the sick will fail. This is not divine punishment but natural consequence, and it will not last forever but will be a time of repentance and reformation. I find this a much more hopeful reading of the text, and consistent with the liberation reading of the Parable of the Talents we considered last week, which suggested that we are meant to challenge the master’s assertion that the rich will get richer and the poor will get poorer. I said at the beginning that I think this passage bears witness to the mercy of God, and I think we see it in the enacted grace of the sheep, but also in the possibility of the rehabilitation of the goats.
If we take this approach seriously and look to our own nation, are we with the sheep or are we with the goats? Do we feed the hungry and give water to the thirsty? Do we welcome the stranger and clothe the naked? Do we visit the prisoner and care for the sick? The answers are complicated, as the answers to most important questions invariably are, but I believe we do not do any of these things as well as we ought. So much of our care for the vulnerable depends on charity rather than being guaranteed by the state, and that means that too many people fall through the cracks. The UN’s special rapporteur on extreme poverty recently described our welfare system as a leaky bucket, and declared that our government is in violation of international law as it is failing to ensure an adequate standard of living. The Supreme Court has ruled against the plan to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda without even hearing their case, with refugee charities further describing the policy as cruel and ineffective. And the NHS is in crisis, struggling to meet needs with waiting lists soaring. I do not want to dismiss all of the good things that are happening in this country, because the willingness of people to support food banks and defend asylum seekers and protect the NHS shows that we do want to do better, but I think we have to be honest and recognise that compassion hasn’t always translated into policy, and as a nation we do not always feed the hungry and welcome the stranger and care for the sick.
Understanding this parable collectively rather than individually calls us to take seriously the issues of societal injustice and structural sin, but it does not let us off the hook. Society is not a faceless entity but the sum of its parts, and structures need people to create and maintain them. We need to do all we can to shape a fair and just society with structures that protect the most vulnerable, and that means thinking both collectively and individually. It means writing letters and joining campaigns, and it means feeding and welcoming and caring for those life brings across our path. And I believe it means doing those things not out of charity but out of solidarity. This parable tells us that Jesus identifies with “the least of these”, but I think we need to understand that he is using our language. The hungry and the thirsty and the stranger and the naked and the imprisoned and the sick are only “the least” because we treat them as the least. Jesus does not pity them but stands with them, and surely that calls us to do the same, realising that at different times and in different ways most of us will be counted among them, and if we are not then it is only by chance or privilege.
The MP Kemi Badenoch told the Covid enquiry this week that “we can’t remove poverty”, to which my instinctive response was “not with that attitude, we can’t”. I was being slightly flippant, but I do think there is truth in it. Two weeks ago I suggested that perhaps we had not realised peace because we had not believed in it enough, and perhaps we have not realised a society in which all are fed and welcomed and cared for because we have not believed in it enough. We assume scarcity instead of seeing plenty, and we take Jesus’ declaration that “the poor will always be with you” as an eternal truth rather than a reminder that justice and worship are not mutually exclusive, and so we accept injustice and inequality as sad yet inevitable. But as we sang earlier, there’s a wideness in God’s mercy and a kindness in God’s justice, and they are more than enough for everyone.