Dedicated to the writings of Saint Luke.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

The Sheep and the Goats

My title is synonymous with the Matthean judgment parable that challenges, under the Watson reading, our liberal assumptions about our priorities, inclusiveness and societal values. Is the division between the righteous and the unrighteous dependent on any specific community and confession? Is confession and membership in a specific religious community important or even required?

One can not read this parable, or for that matter any parable, based upon a view that makes this message applicable to all. This parable, addressed to Matthew’s community, was shaped by early Jewish Christian’s worldview and need to be understood against that background. Context is provided by the imagery and allusions.

Before the son of man “will be gathered all nations, and he will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will place the sheep at his right hand, but the goats at the left.” The parable starts with animal imagery. Sheep need a shepherd. Unlike goats, sheep cannot fend for themselves. They often go astray and become lost and in such instances must be sought and found (Ezekiel 34:6; Luke 15:4). They depend on a shepherd to "go out before them and go in before them, ... lead them out and bring them in" (Numbers 27:17), and to ascertain that they are provided pasturage (Ezekiel 34:2, 13f) and "still waters" (Psalm 23:2). We repeatedly read in Holy Scriptures the lament for "sheep which have no shepherd" (e.g., Numbers 27:17). "They are in trouble because there is no shepherd" (Zechariah 10:2). "So they were scattered because there was no shepherd; and they became food for all the beasts of the field when they were scattered" (Ezekiel 34:5). "Strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered" (Zechariah 13:7; Matthew 26:31 / Mark 14:27).

Jesus, who is telling this judgment parable, has served as the shepherd to his followers. They understood the animal imagery. Jesus is both judge and the focus of the final judgment, spelling disaster to those who ignored him. The nations or "Gentiles" in Jewish literature would be judged according to how they treated Israel (4 Ezra 7:37). As in other parables, here they are gathered and separated; in this instance the way a shepherd would separate sheep from goats. The Jewish role of final judge that Jesus here assumes normally belongs to God himself (see, for example, 1 Enoch 9:4; 60:2).

The idea that a king can be a shepherd is well established in Judaism. Furthermore, the King of Israel was God's vice regent on earth. Therefore it would be no surprise that Matthew made the substitution in this parable. However, this substitution is inconsistent in that Matthew previously avoided having the crowd say “Blessed is the king that comes in the name of the Lord” during the triumphal entry into Jerusalem as did Luke.

Jesus sent out his representatives to gather in the sheep. “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.” This parable addresses receiving the gospel's messengers who are the disciples. One is to treat the representatives of Jesus as they would treat Jesus. They should be received with hospitality, food and drink (10:8-13, 42). Imprisonment could refer to detention until trial before magistrates (10:18-19), and sickness to physical conditions brought on by the hardship of the mission (compare Phil 2:27-30; perhaps Gal 4:13-14; 2 Tim 4:20). Being poorly clothed appears in Pauline lists of sufferings (Rom 8:35), including specifically apostolic sufferings (1 Cor 4:11). The King thus judges the nations based on how they have responded to the gospel of the kingdom already preached to them before the time of his kingdom (Mt 24:14; 28:19-20). Matthew may in fact be alluding to these Pauline citations.

There are possibly two ideas present in this parable derived from Enoch: that at the judgment, there will be a separation and the separation will be based on the weighting of the deeds. On that day, the Matthean Jesus will judge those who are “gathered” by weighting the treatment the messengers received delivering the gospel. Those who received the messengers as gracious hosts and accepted the message thereby became the sheep who were gathered in. Those who did not receive the messengers became the goats who will also be gathered in on that day.

This community consisted of the Jewish followers of Jesus. This community delivered the gospel to people they believed shared their values. Matthew in his gospel demonized the crowd which to him represented the Jews who heard the message and do not believe. This interpretation of the parable is consistent with the “fruits theology” of Matthew and the reaction of his community to those Jews who rejected them, the disciples selected to deliver the gospel message. For the Matthean Jesus, the judgment is simply a consequence of salvation rejected by the crowd.

Context is important. Without context, theology is in a state of constant transition.

Copyrighted 2006


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