Online 11.00 22nd November 2020
Sheep and Goats and the Son of Man
Matt 25. 31 - 46
Christ the King
I’m sure the scheduling is not deliberate, but in the week we celebrate the Feast of Christ the King The Crown is back on Netflix. The series is now in the territory of more recent memory, and, if you watch these things there will be cause to reflect on the nature of narrative truth and historical accuracy. In the interplay between monarchy and government, seen in the private meetings between the Queen and the Prime Minister, is much food for thought about power, authority, service and sacrifice. And it’s delicious that great actors like Olivia Colman and Gillian Anderson get to joust with the slightest raising of an eyebrow and the tilt of a head. The title sequence of a crown assembling itself is fabulous.
“When the Son of Man comes in his glory and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory”. In this one sentence Jesus makes what one commentator calls “astonishing claims” about himself. In the Gospels Jesus most often describes himself as the Son of Man. It is a rich phrase, full of history and longing. The Son of Man “coming in glory” refers to the vision in Daniel 7.13 from which we get the hymn Lo he comes with clouds descending. “All the angels with him” is a reference to Zechariah 14. 5. Seated on the throne the Son of Man will sort sheep and goats, like a shepherd, referring to the picture of God as the great shepherd of Israel in Ezekiel 34. None of those listening would have missed the significance of all this: Jesus says that he is the fulfilment of all the hopes of God’s people, for this age and the age to come. Not only that, this is a universal claim, as all the nations will gather. This is transcendent, overwhelming fulfilling glory: all the hopes of Israel, the world, in one.
A recurring theme of The Crown is a sense that the monarchy is deliberately, high handedly and offensively above and untouched by the life of the ‘common’ and ‘ordinary’. That may be unfair, and some of you will have first hand experience on which you can draw to counteract it. But there was great play made of Mrs Thatcher having had an actual menial job, and always working, to the bafflement of the holidaying royals at Balmoral. What strikes me powerfully about the vision of the Son of Man in his glory separating and judging is that it starts with that sense of supreme monarchy being above all things, and then takes us to the lowest level of ordinary, intimate, sleeves rolled up humility.
What is judged is the attitude of the nations to the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick and the prisoner. These are things from which the monarchy is usually protected. On Maundy Thursday the Monarch has a bouquet not just to look pretty but to ward off the smell of the poor, and the diseases they might carry. Look carefully at what Jesus says. When you interact with the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick and the prisoner you interact with me. The one above all things, beyond all things, transcendent and resplendent, is in all things, through all things, and most particularly in the person of the least likely, the least important, the least obvious. That is where I am, says the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. No wonder the nations are surprised. That’s not what they were looking for.
It would be all too easy to take this passage as a moral injunction simply to be kind to the poor and needy, and that would certainly fit with the teaching of Jesus and the whole of the New Testament. But, in this case, that’s not the point. Matthew is normally careful to signal when something is a parable. Here there is no formula to say “it is as if”, which has preceded the previous parables. This is a deeper vision and challenge about our attitude not to the poor but to Jesus himself. Those who are commended are surprised not because they didn’t know they were serving the poor, but because they didn’t know they were serving God in the poor. A compelling interpretation of the phrase “the least of these my brothers” is that they are the faithful followers of Christ, whom to follow is to renounce the lure of wealth and riches and to embrace a life of challenge and persecution. That’s where the King of Kings is, says Jesus. The judgment is about people’s acceptance of Jesus and the way of the Cross, not about charity and good deeds in themselves.
These chapters of Matthew’s Gospel are about crisis and readiness. Matthew places them after Palm Sunday, where there is mounting opposition from the powerful and the religious. This passage is immediately followed by Jesus saying that in two days he will be handed over to be crucified. Here Jesus says that it is time to choose, and time to recognise that in seeking the King of Kings you might be looking in the wrong place. Jesus’s followers were not entirely likely messengers of this good news, and Jesus himself fulfils prophecies in a way the religious of his time did not expect. To follow Christ is to be counter cultural, and to challenge the accepted. The presence of the King is not only to be found on a throne, but more particularly in the needy, the hungry and the prisoner for the sake of Christ.
As the Edmonton Area of the Diocese of London looks ahead for its 2030 vision a phrase which will recurs is “let the poor be our teachers.” God is in all, Christ is God with us, the Holy Spirit is the breath of creation. The King of Kings invites us to seek and serve him not only by ministering among and with the poor, but also by our preparedness to be the poor and the imprisoned and the oppressed. The nations will find Christ in our radical discipleship and in righteous and just action as we learn from the poor.
Monarchs do judge. In The Crown, much of what the Queen says goes. There are some uncomfortable phrases in this passage, and it’s not very nice to goats. In fact it’s a simple image like dividing up apples and oranges from a basket of fruit. In many settings mixed herds were the norm, but goats bred more quickly than sheep and their numbers had to be kept in check. They also looked very similar, and it took a good judge to tell them apart. There will be a judgment of how we have lived and how we have served the King of Kings, and we can trust that judgment. Whether it is “eternal” punishment that some will get is not clear, as the word really means “the next age” rather than for ever and ever, and many see the judgment as one which can lead to restoration. But it’s still clear: ho we act now, how we serve God, will have consequences. And you know what you have to do.
It will not be enough to serve the poor, and to let them, and their plight, teach us. That should not stop us supplying food banks, visiting the lonely, volunteering at the C4WS shelter, or making sure that the charities we support in theory get that support in practice. On this Christ the King Sunday we must see the King of Kings in the radical nature of those who follow, and renounce the lure of power and wealth to say that the Son of Man is in the very ones who renounce such things. There were two types of surprise when the judgement was made. Joy will come in the new age when we recognise the servant King, tho hom be all glory and unto ages of ages. Amen.Print This Page