Recall that with these parables, Jesus is describing what the kingdom of heaven will be like, and the signs of its appearing.
Parables take ordinary experiences – wedding parties, investment practices, the work of farm hands – and weave from them stories with a surprising twist. These stories blow our minds, stretch our imaginations, and inspire a new vision of the world. They are meant to be provocative and challenging, so if we find the parables a little bit offensive then they are doing their job!
These parables in Matthew’s Gospel operate in the future tense: “Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this . . . When the Son of Man comes in his glory.” I wonder if these visions of the future are not meant to serve as a mirror in which we can seem more clearly where we are here and now.
Their purpose, then, is not to predict the future, but rather to illuminate the present. The parables are not predictions of an unchangeable fate. They offer the gift of awareness that allows us to make choices about our lives, and to judge how well they conform to the vision of the kingdom of heaven.
The parables serve as a warning and an invitation to move more deeply into that vision. Taken together, they seem to me to evoke a three-step movement of awakening, resistance, and renewal. The parable of the bridesmaids is about waking-up and recognizing that there is a party going on to which we are invited – it is time to wake-up and get our joy on – we don’t want to miss out on the party! The kingdom of heaven is like a joyful wedding banquet and the bridegroom is coming to bring us to the party.
The parable of the talents (or bars of gold) is about recognizing that the joy of the kingdom of heaven is not the same as the master’s joy. When we wake-up to the reality of the kingdom of heaven, we begin to recognize that the cultural script we’ve internalized and the joy it promises are false. It is a story of resistance, refusing to be complicit with a culture in which “the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.”
This second step can be painful. It isn’t easy to acknowledge the dynamics of privilege and exploitation in the world. It isn’t easy to allow our glimpse of the kingdom of heaven to bring human and earth suffering into even bolder relief. How do we respond to this dual awareness? Do we ignore one or the other, refuse to acknowledge suffering or else become immobilized by it? If we refuse the part we’ve been assigned in the cultural script, what does resistance look like?
This brings us to the parable of the sheep and the goats that we heard today. I read this parable as a story of renewal. For me, the key line is: “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” Do you remember who the “blessed” are in Matthew’s Gospel: the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for justice, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, those willing to suffer in the struggle for justice. Theirs is the kingdom.
This is not your grandparent’s judgment scene. It doesn’t follow the cultural script. Those who inherit the joy that God has intended for the whole creation are not the usual suspects. They aren’t successful by the standards of our culture. They do not exercise coercive power, or accumulate great wealth, or bask in the adulation of the famous. Such joy as is derived from these things is fleeting. It doesn’t last.
True joy comes from participation in the renewal of the world: brining the creation to its fulfillment as intended by God since the beginning. It comes from feeding the hungry; making clean water available to those who thirst; welcoming strangers rather than deporting them; clothing the naked rather than exploiting their vulnerability; caring for the sick rather than turning health into a commodity; forming relationships with prisoners rather than treating them as pariahs.
This is not an exhaustive list. It is not a series of boxes to check off so that you, too, can enter the kingdom of heaven. There is nothing transactional about the relationships or the work of renewal about which Jesus speaks. It isn’t a means to an end. It is the kingdom of heaven. The joy of the kingdom is its enactment in our everyday life, in the common life we share. It is found here and now in the common good and in our common wealth.
Notice that the crucial work of renewal hinges on our collective response to the victims of our cultural script. We resist that script through solidarity with victims, refusing to render them invisible, and we renew the world through compassionate service. The response to Jesus isn’t “when did I see you hungry, or thirsty, or naked, or in prison,” but rather “when did we see you hungry, or thirsty, or naked, or in prison.” World renewal is the work of a movement that Jesus inaugurated and continues to energize through his life-giving Spirit.
What is striking to me is that the blessed don’t even realize that they are serving Christ as they engage in the work of renewal. Again, they aren’t trying to achieve some spiritual reward; trying to assuage some hard-to-please deity. They have simply woken-up, resisted the culture of death, and discovered the joy of the work of renewal. It only occurs to them later, “Oh, this is what Jesus meant!”
As James Alison points out, “the judgment is defined not in terms of belonging to this or that group, or believing this or that dogma. The judgment is presented in terms of the human relationships towards victims. Those who hunger, thirst, are naked, sick, or imprisoned. Those who have understood, whether or not they know anything about Jesus, are those who have seen their way out of the self-deception of the world which is blind to its victims, and have reached out to help them.”
At the same time, the parable of the goats and sheep subverts a too-easy assumption that our movement is the sheep, while those other guys are the goats. As a parabolic mirror reflecting reality as-it-is-now to us, the story of the sheep and the goats has a disturbing realism about it. If we look deeply into this mirror, we see that it reminds us that we quickly forget by whom we are judged.
It is Jesus the Victim who is our judge, the victim raised up by God; but God vindicates Jesus as the Forgiving Victim. His resurrection always takes the form of forgiveness. It is the end of victimization, whereas the Judge as King of the parable re-inscribes victimization on a cosmic and eternal level. There is a terrible irony in our celebration of Christ as King – if by Kingship we mean one whose presence with us takes the form of condemnation. As soon as we forget by whom we are judged, we become goats ourselves and perpetuate the cycle of violent exclusion, reenacting the cultural script we claim to resist.
Each time we make a new scapegoat, a new victim to condemn and cast out – we reveal the extent to which we are not sheep at all. The true sheep at the cosmic judgment will plead mercy for the goats – all of them. And so it must be for us in the judgment that shapes our daily lives. Only in this way, it seems to me, can the work of renewal really be about the whole world. No goat gets left behind!
And yet, the here and now quality of the parable suggests that in each moment we are choosing eternal death or eternal life. Our decisions have consequences, so Wake-up! Resist! Find your joy in the work of renewal! Not as one more damn thing to have to do, but as the point of doing anything at all! Enter fully and freely into the dynamic of offering and receiving the compassionate care we all need if life is to flourish; sometimes, we are the ones who are hungry, or sick, or a stranger.
“Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” Do it now.