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God wants those Goats and God gets what God Wants

Christ the King Sunday

November 20, 2011

The Rev. Stuart E. Schadt

Trinity, Manassas

 

Matthew 25:31-46

Jesus said, "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. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, `Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.' Then the righteous will answer him, `Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?' And the king will answer them, `Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.' Then he will say to those at his left hand, `You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.' Then they also will answer, `Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?' Then he will answer them, `Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.' And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life."

 

On first look this story seems straight forward the righteous go to heaven and the others go to hell but actually there are some challenging questions as we ponder how we understand this. The most significant question is what type of literature is this.

 At first it appears to be an end times prophecy.  “When the son of Man comes in his glory and is seated on his throne, the nations will gather before him.”

 But then suddenly it sounds like a parable of a king judging people who have been good to others in the kingdom.

 I believe the story is primarily a parable. It is a parable about what happens when the son of Man comes in his glory. So let’s start with the sheep, the good people. They are surprised to be receiving the praise of their king, because they do not recall having ever served him, they have not given him food or drink or clothes or visited him when he was sick or in prison. They don’t question whether or not they would do these things they just never did them for their king. So one has to ask why have they been doing these things for people. Did their mothers tell them to? Do they feel an obligation? Maybe they go to Trinity Church and their clergy keep telling them this is what they ought to be doing no.

 They do these things because this is the natural outcome of a true faith. So let’s start with a true faith. A true faith is to be in right relationship with God in Christ. ‘Loving God with all your heart, all your mind and all your soul.’ And seeking forgiveness and reconciliation with God when that relationship is broken.” And when we have internalized this type of relationship with God it becomes the core of who we are and we will naturally respond in love to the friend or stranger in need.   

 We respond with things like all this food we have gathered here at the church for Thanksgiving Baskets and we respond with things like these shoe boxes full of gifts for the Christmas Child Project. But I believe you also live out that love 100’s of times a week in acts of kindness and generosity that simply flow from you being the person you are who loves God and loves your neighbor as yourself.

 Now let me tell you a little secret I don’t think it matters if you love God first and then act or if in carrying out acts of love for others you discover for yourself the love of God. It works fine either way.

 Now let’s talk about the second group. This is the bible passage we were discussing in the men’s group yesterday and they asked that I spend more time on this judgment part and especially on this eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. They wanted me to dwell here because they know I don’t believe in hell and they wanted to see how I would deal with this fire and eternal punishment.  

 So let’s first notice that his group is also surprised. They do not remember overlooking the plight of others. Whether it was the king or a beggar they don’t think they have done anything wrong. Just as the members of the first group did what came natural to them these people have been doing what came natural to them. I think it is fair to say they not only ignored the needs of others they ignored the others, the people themselves. So they are pretty bad and they don’t even know it.

 So why don’t I think this literally means that God is just going to abandon them to their just deserved punishment? Remember how I previously said a true faith, is to love God and that when that relationship is broken we are to seek forgiveness and reconciliation. If that is the right thing for us to do then God who is pure righteousness will surely do the same thing. God wants to reconcile the broken relationships with those goats. I believe it is just another expression of God’s abundant love so great that there is no place to escape from it. And I think one of the great things about being God is you get what you want. And God wants those goats back.

 So let’s talk about hell. I cannot hear passages from the bible that talk of fire and the devil and eternal punishment and not have the image of hell that actually is created by Dante’s Inferno but is not actually present in the bible.  But that image is not in the bible. And less you think I am just some type of progressive with a liberal theology I recommend to you the book, Love Wins, by evangelical pastor Rob Bell. He also has become convinced that hell and a loving God are incompatible theologies.  So let’s look at what Jesus’ audience thinks of as he offers these images.  

 1. First this words eternal punishment. An eternity is a very long time but it means a finite amount of time. So we look at our watch and say, ‘this sermon has been going on for an eternity.’ This is not retributive punishment it is reformative. For God to send someone to an eternity of retributive punishment would be the same as torture and our God does not believe in torture. This is about punishment that is meant to be reformative. I have heard it suggested that pruning might be a better translation of what is meant here. So God is sending them to a time of transformation.  

2. Secondly any one hearing Jesus is going to hear that this place of fire is apart and separate from Sheol. Sheol is the traditional place of the dead in Judaism and a place that is static. People there are unchanging.

3. And Jesus’s hearers are also going to think of Gehenna. Gehenna is not used in this passage but it is the word we actually translate as hell.  

 Behind the word Gehenna are numerous images. In fact as it is used over time it has various elements. One meaning was a place where the wicked dead went for no more than a year to be purified. This very much matches up with what I said above about eternal punishment.

 The other image behind Gehenna is Jerusalem’s dump. Have you ever been to a dump? I don’t mean the landfill like we have here in the county where there are recycling bins. And separate places for tires, metal, household trash and yard waste as well as a place where on Wednesdays and Saturdays you can drop off hazardous materials.  No I mean a dump.

 When I was a child some of our neighbors had burn barrels. A burn barrel was a 55 gallon metal drum that you got at the petro chemical plant that had probably been use previously to transport one type of carcinogenic chemical or another but don’t worry that burned off the first time you used it. Any way about once a month they would put the barrel in the back of the pickup truck and a bunch of us kids would pile in the back of the truck also and we would ride over to the dump. The dump was really a large trench that everything was dumped into. If you saw something good you could go down in the trench after it. And sometimes you would see the rats and sometimes there was a fire burning to reduce the volume and no one said you can’t dump that here because after all it was the dump.

 There are still dumps in the world today. The largest in the world is believed to be the Guatemala City dump. There are no regulations as to what goes into it. So it includes medical waste, chemical waste along with everything else. And it is estimated that as many as four thousand people live as squatters on the edge of the dump and that they feed themselves and their families with the food they scavenge from the dump. Day and night they wander through the dump competing for the best they can find.  

So keep all those images in mind and let me tell you what I hear in what Jesus is saying in this parable.

 Those of you who love God have it figured out you just go on being who you are. But you goats who don’t know God, you are lost and you don’t even know it. You need more work I will cast you out into the dump where fires are always burning. You will be like the lost people of the dump of Jerusalem who I believe were the least of the least of all Jerusalem and there in the dump you will be strangers to one another and you will compete with one another for your survival. And you will think your only hope will be to receive the charity of others, the very charity you never thought to give. And you will think that one day someone will come along with enough charity to lift you out of this hell. You will long for and even beg for that charity. But you will only be lifted up and out when you realize that even as one of the very least of the earth’s people that you have something to give to another human being. Only when you love another person or God more than yourself will you be delivered.

 So what are we to do: 

  1. We are to nurture and develop that faith in our lives. That true faith that loves God, our neighbor and ourselves.
  2. We are to act on that faith with conscious gifts of love like the thanksgiving food and the Christmas shoe boxes and in countless ways are not even aware of.
  3. And we are to pray for those goats and invite them to know the love of god and the power of the true faith that has touched and transformed our lives.