Thursday, September 29, 2005

The Sheep and the Goats: Parable or Prophecy?

I think the Bible is the literal word of God. I also think that we can never pretend to fully understand it, and that we should be wield it with great caution and humility. This much I know for sure: all the laws, the moral codes, the exortations and commands, are sumed up in this: love God and love your neighbor. And how do we love God? We love our neighbor (see Matt 22:38-40).

The best illustration of this--loving God by loving our neighbor--is found when Jesus speaks of separating the sheep from the goats at the end of days. Read the whole story in the 25th chapter of Matthew, but I'll boil it down for you: after Jesus' return, he gathers "all nations" before him and separates the sheep to the right and the goats to the left. Goats burn, sheep go to heaven.

Now, we who take a literalist interpretation of the Bible (insofar as the Bible is the literal word of God, not that every statement is to be read literally) have a decision to come to when Jesus speaks: is he telling a parable, or making prophecy? In other words, is Jesus looking into the future and providing a literal account of what will happen at the end of days?

I always thought so. But then while I was driving today, I recounted the dialog between Jesus and the goats and sheep. Jesus spoke first to the sheep--who he called "righteous" (which I imagine drives Calvinists crazy)--and then to the goats on his left. Here's the exchange with the sheep:

34"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. 35For 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, 36I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.'

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? 38When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?'

40"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.'

Being a Christian, and having put some conscious thought and action into serving the hungry, sick, poor and strangers, of course I expect to be among the sheep (what do you want me to do, assume I'm a goat? Just being honest...), which brings me to this: if Jesus is prophesying the future, won't we sheep know that this is coming? Won't we remember this scripture when Jesus sorts out humanity? Wouldn't we be sitting there saying, "Yeah, I remember this part! This is where Jesus sorts the sheep from the goats, and tells us all the great things we did for him, because we did it for other people!" I daresay that a good number of Christians have heard this scripture dozens if not hundreds if not thousands of times. But no one in this scripture seems to remember that Jesus told them this was going to happen.

So I am forced to conclude first, that this is not prophesy but a parable. It is not Jesus literally foretelling the future. That was the aha moment I reached in the car.

The second conclusion is that Jesus took this opportunity to remind everyone that his church is not about religion--even casting out demons and performing miracles (see Matt 7)--but about loving your neighbors, especially the least of them, in a tangible way. Not just praying for them, or voting in their best interests, or demanding increased government spending on social programs. Getting out there and loving them personally.

Meanwhile, so much of what we do is just religion. So all of us should take heed and not think of ourselves as being secure because of our religion. Nor should we assume that those who we don't choose to cover with our religiosity security blanket--gays, maybe, or Democrats--are in the ranks of the goats. We may have the sides confused. Sure enough, somebody's going to be in for a surprise...

13 Comments:

At 4:44 AM, Blogger Kc said...

Great post Zeke. I'm going to give some study time (again) to Matthew 25 and see if I get an aha moment. I think you know we totally agree on the great commandments.

 
At 11:17 AM, Blogger ninjanun said...

In my Baptist upbringing, and even after becoming a Christian, Matthew 25 was NEVER touched on, mentioned, taught, etc. And you'd be surprised how easy it is to gloss over it in your own studies when your own denomination, pastor, teachers, and friends don't give it any notice, either. So I gotta disagree with you and say there will be plenty of people who will be surprised if this were to literally happen at the end times--even if they should have known better.

 
At 12:46 AM, Blogger doug said...

The Parable of the Sheep and the Goats identically parallels James 2:14-17. Jesus talks of those who do not do charity to the brethren by giving food, clothes, water. They call Him Lord, but they are sent to hell. James in 2:14-17 asks "can such faith save" that sees a brother in need of food, clothes, water, and when you have means, you do not help. James' point is such faith does not save. Faith that is alone--without charity--does not save. Everyone is comfortable saying James contradicts Paul, and then dismiss James as non-canonical, as Luther taught. However, Paul contrdicts Jesus in this parable, and NO ONE wants to go there and re-examine Paul in light of our allegiance to Jesus above anyone, even Paul. Your aha moment was precisely what I experienced 2 years ago, and let me to re-evaluate Paul of Tarsus.

 
At 12:31 PM, Anonymous Pat said...

Zeke, I have always understood Jesus to be talking here to those left upon the earth at the time of his coming because He says that He will gather the Nations together. I think that this group of sheep and goats do not contain any Christians at all but rather all those that are left after the Tribulation. They will then be judged by Christ for the way they treated His brothers (Christians). The sheep will have essentially "chosen" Christ during the Tribulation by choosing to help those people that became Christians after the rapture, putting themselves at great risk for these people. That is why they will be surprised by His judgement for them - they will not have equated these Brothers of Christ to Christ Himself.

 
At 5:48 PM, Anonymous Peter the Rock said...

Everyone. The answers are all in the word. Donlt think or theorise. Read. I have found more truth in waiting on the Father than thinking by myself. Ask. Pray. Study. Prove yourself in the word and you will become part of His Flock. There will however, be many who do not. Gays. Democrats. CHurch attenders. Many shocks. Read the word.

 
At 11:02 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

democrats?!?! wow were you misformed. god hasnt agreed with torture and murder of innocent people since the old testement days. to say republicans are 'holy' and 'christian' is a complete judge on your character. i dont know what kind a candy fruit striped reality you live in, but if you watch the news occassionally, you'll note that republicans have killed over 4,000 us soldiers in a foriegn death trap. not to mention thousands of iraqi civilians. but let me guess, those people were 'goats' right? so that's okay. people like you make me sick. republicans knew of the 9/11 attacks way ahead of time and were informed on several occasions. were is the christian ethic in that? the most traggic event in our country's history, yet could have been just as easily avoided if bush wouldve put down his gameboy for an hour and listened to the simultanious warnings. but im sure he was very busy, being on over 450 vacations. i guess its hard to do your job when your never present. please never post anything ever again. you are only furthering the dillusion of morality. this is not the way christ wouldve wanted things, there is no excuse. if anything, republican order is furthering us into a one world democracy. mark of the beast?

 
At 5:02 AM, Blogger Zeke said...

Was my sarcasm that subtle?

 
At 11:53 PM, Anonymous christiansoldier said...

Zeke, I think 'Anonymous' may have been responding to 'Peter the Rock', rather than to your original blog piece.

Since 'Anonymous' chose to bring up the deaths due to war, I'd like to ask him/her where the outrage is over the 50,000,000 innocent babies that have been ripped to shreds in the womb??? It is, after all, a dearly held plank of the Demoncratic platform to perpetuate the myth that the murder of the unborn is somehow a right bestowed upon the already born.

Thanks to the poorly thought out decision of the masses to elect the spirit of antichrist to office, it has assured that millions more will be slaughtered without ever seeing the light of day.

Tragic.

 
At 1:07 AM, Anonymous Jia Yue said...

Although many consider "the least" to be either the under-priveleged, either of all mankind or Christians, I see it as the persecuted of the Jewish Nation. Hints? Nations are gathered, not individuals. Also, Jesus "then" seated on a throne. The Throne Jesus takes at the end of time is the Throne of David. Therefore, he is representing the Jewish People. The "least of these my brethen" is then, logically, the persecuted Jewish people. Nations that either cared for the Jewish people or persecuted them during the Tribulation Time (and maybe throughout time) will be judged.

 
At 6:24 AM, Anonymous tb said...

You don't need to "re-evaluate" Paul of Tarsus; The 19th Century attempt to contrast Paul vs. James ignored the fact that they were writing to very different audiences. Paul was writing to people wrapped in legalism, and so had to emphasise grace. James (writing much later on) was dealing with spiritually lazy Christians using a claimed relation with Christ as a "fire escape". True faith will generate good works. Conversely, if there are no good works, the faith is not true (and therefore, ineffective for salvation). The bottom line is: who is really our God? Whose interest are we really placing first? God or us? Contrasting Paul with James is much like the blind sages arguing whether an elephant is a snake (from the one who grabbed his trunk) or a tree (from the one holding a leg).

 
At 3:55 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Why can't the Sheep & the Goats be both - prophecy & parable. That is exactly what makes God, and His word supernatural. Many applications, multi layered, and we can keep on digging until we come to the end - which is when we see Him face to face and ask Him.

 
At 5:47 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

i take it completely literal. And lemme mention something to the ppl who put paul first over the rest.

1 Corinthians 9:19-22

King James Version (KJV)

19For though I be free from all men, yet have I made myself servant unto all, that I might gain the more.

20And unto the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might gain the Jews; to them that are under the law, as under the law, that I might gain them that are under the law;

21To them that are without law, as without law, (being not without law to God, but under the law to Christ,) that I might gain them that are without law.

22To the weak became I as weak, that I might gain the weak: I am made all things to all men, that I might by all means save some.

How in the world can you believe him??? He acted to convert, he lied to convert. He said he was under the law to those under the law, to gain those under the law even though he preaches grace and that the law has been nailed to the cross with christ

 
At 5:49 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

in verse 21 the words that are in ()is the christian editor explaining what he is saying yet it isnt actual scripture so ignore that. Read the words of paul for what he says not for what someone else interprets them to be

 

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