Grace Emerges

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Jesus' Parable on the "Least of These", some sheep and some goats

Jesus' parable of the sheep and the goats, in Matthew 25:31-46, is often quoted and discussed when talking about the meaning of salvation, good works and hell.  As such I have a lot to say about this parable!  You might want to take a look at the parable before reading my comments....

In this parable, Jesus spoke to upset the conventional wisdom of the day perpetuated by the teachers of the law, and to assert his own authority to judge the nations as only God would have.  This assertion was the key offense that was soon to lead to his crucifixion.

What was the conventional wisdom of the day?  The teachers of the law taught that by following “enough” of the laws of Moses and additional requirements and rituals of the Pharisees, people could earn God’s approval.  Since the teachers were the educated ones who knew this law, they held the keys for the common people to receive God’s acceptance, and this provided them with a great deal of social power.

In this parable, Jesus taught that true righteousness had nothing to do with rituals.  It had to do with true kindness and a pure heart.  In the parable Jesus indicated this type of true righteousness using examples of acts of kindness to the needy.  In doing that he upset the entire system of righteous elitism.

Secondly, Jesus taught that He would be the only one to judge people’s hearts and acceptability to enter heaven.  This was revolutionary talk that revealed Jesus as being truly God, and as creating a new order of God’s covenant with mankind.  Based on the language, imagery and examples that Jesus uses in this parable, it never indicates that Jesus would judge based on a new system of righteousness where the “sheep” would in some way earn his favor, whether by their faith, ideals or behavior.  Instead the imagery suggests that this old type of system of being good enough to achieve God’s acceptance was to be destroyed and replaced only with only one criterion: the authority of Jesus to offer salvation however he sees fit. 

To further illustrate this point I would ask a question.  When Jesus talks about the needy, the “least of these”, or the “least of these brothers and sisters of mine,” in this parable, does Jesus imply that he accepted these needy people or rejected them?  They are not classified as either the sheep or the goats, so they don’t fall into either category.  Does the language imply that these needy folks are rejected or accepted? 

It implies that these needy people are the ones that Jesus came to save.  He accepts them -- He simply cares about them and also wants them to receive compassion from his followers.  But does he then turn around and reject them and send them to hell with the goats?  The parable doesn’t say, but it does strongly imply that the poor, weak and needy were recipients of his salvation, without any particular requirements on their own faith or works.  He came to free them.  This echoes Jesus declaration at the beginning of his ministry in Luke 4:16-21, that he came to bring salvation to the poor.  Again, does Jesus say he’s creating a new system of laws where man can earn God’s favor?  No, he’s destroying the old system and creating something completely new.  Salvation becomes an act of liberation by a Savior, rather than a standard of behavior, faith or ideals.

This is where we stumble.  We are looking for black and white resolution of God’s standards of acceptance, but we are left in humility with the fact that only Jesus can judge.  Our job is to offer love and acceptance to others, to offer kindness to the “least of these.”  If we make assumptions about who is good enough based on their profession of faith or the evidence of their lifesytle, then we will be like the goats in this parable: we will deny food, clothing, shelter, love and acceptance to people based on their external appearance, when Jesus sees them as his brothers and sisters! 

By being overly judgmental we become the goats ourselves!

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