The Parable of the Sheep and the Goats in Matthew 25 is very popular, but it presents some problems, especially the bit at the end about 'eternal punishment', and the bit before that about sinners going to the fire prepared for the devil and his angels.
Just as prayer is listening to God as well as asking, so Bible reading can be asking as well as listening. On this principle I prepared the following 'dialogue sermon', in which I question Jesus and imagine what answers he might give:
Jesus, who is this Son of Man you are talking about? Is it you? And if so, why do you call yourself “Son of Man” rather than “Son of God”?
I leave you to judge that for yourselves. Look in the Scriptures. In the Book of Daniel you will find the vision of four great beasts that rule and terrorise the earth. Then “one like a son of man” appears, and God gives him “dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples and languages should serve him”. God explains the dream to Daniel, and says that the beasts are four great empires, but they will be destroyed and the rule over all the earth will be given to “the people of the holy ones of the Most High”.
So the Son of Man is the Jewish people?
So long as they are the holy ones of the Most High, yes. But if they are not holy, they won’t be fit to judge the nations. Perhaps I’ll have to do it for them. Or perhaps in the end there will another people that can do it.
So you don’t know?
Does that surprise you? Didn’t I say that no-one knows when the last judgment will take place, not the angels in heaven, not even the Son, but only God the Father? And didn’t I tell James and John that it was not for me to decide who will have the places of honour in the kingdom?
Then why did you tell this story?
What I want you to think about is not when the judgment will happen, or how it will happen, or even who will be in charge. It’s much more important to know the terms on which people will be judged. What I’m trying to say is that being the holy people of God is not a matter of saying the right prayers, or worshipping in the right temple, or even having the right religion. It’s a matter of how you treat the poorest and most needy of people – the hungry, the poor, the homeless, the sick, the prisoners. Do you do what you can to help them, or do you pass by on the other side?
But there too, Jesus, I have a problem. I don’t know whether I’m a sheep or a goat. I often help people. I give quite a lot of money to charities to help the hungry and the homeless. I visit people when they are sick. But I must confess I don’t always help everybody who needs help. Sometimes I see people begging on the street and I ignore them. I’ve got a spare room in my house, but I’ve never offered it to a homeless person, and I don’t think I ever would. I often spend money on a nice meal in a restaurant, though I know I could give it to help somebody who’s really hungry. So what does that make me? One of the sheep or one of the goats? And the same applies to practically everybody I know – they are all partly one and partly the other.
I know that perfectly well. My parable wasn’t about balancing one thing against another and totting up the good points and the bad points. What I’m saying is that every time you meet a person in need, whether they are poor or hungry or sick or in prison, you have a choice. At that moment you can take a step towards heaven or a step towards hell.
But Jesus, when you talk of “hell” that worries me. Do you really condemn people to eternal punishment?
What do you think? Would I urge people to love their enemies and forgive seventy times seven times, and then condemn people to an eternity of suffering for their sins? You mustn’t take these things too literally.
But why do you talk about eternal punishment at all? Doesn’t that frighten people?
Actually, when I told that story I did intend to frighten some people a bit. There were a lot of self-righteous people around who were so pernickety about obeying all the religious laws and yet never really cared about people. As I told them once, “You are so fussy about your tithes, even tithing the herbs you grow in your gardens, and you neglect the really important things like justice, mercy and faith”. And yet they were the very people who threatened others with hell fire for not living up to their standards. I wanted to say to them, “Alright, so let’s suppose there is a hell fire – who are the most likely people to be sent to it? Not ordinary common folk who break the Sabbath or get a bit drunk now and then, not even the adulterers and prostitutes you are so fond of condemning. Look at yourselves! Maybe you are the most likely candidates”.
Well, that would have really upset them. And they were the religious leaders of the Jewish people. It’s no wonder they got you crucified.
That was the price I had to pay. But remember that as they were crucifying me, I prayed that God would forgive them.
Jesus, that’s amazing! But if they were going to be forgiven anyway, why talk about hell?
Heaven and hell aren’t just prospects for the future after we die. We make our own heaven and hell here in this life. And what I’m saying in this parable is that if we make heaven or hell for others, we make it for ourselves as well. Every time we show mercy and love to someone in need, and recognise them as a fellow human being, we are helping to make this world a heaven. And every time we let someone go hungry or cold or lonely for want of care, the hell we put them into reflects back on ourselves. The hell that many of the Jewish people were living in when I told that story was brought about by lack of care, and it infected the whole nation. As you know, Jerusalem was destroyed in a terrible war forty years later.
So what you’re saying is that this parable was not meant for us. It was meant for the hypocritical Jewish leaders of your time.
Hey, hold on a minute! You can’t let yourselves off the hook as easily as that. Remember the beginning of the story. The Son of Man is judging all the nations, and the main point of the judgment is still the same. Are you feeding the hungry, refreshing the thirsty, clothing the naked, taking in strangers and visiting the sick and the prisoners, or are you not? Are you making a heaven of your world or a hell? In your world today, there are whole nations that call themselves “Christian”. Have you noticed that on the whole they tend to be the richest nations. Maybe they should ask themselves which side they are really on.
Thank you, Jesus. I think I understand a bit better now.
Thank you for asking questions. Keep trying to understand, but most of all keep living what I have taught you. And remember, I love you. Even if you give someone a cup of cold water, I notice it. God bless you!