Tonight we reach the end of our study. (See below for our upcoming schedule.) We will be reading the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats in Matthew 25:31-46. Please read chapter 13 – “The End of the Storm (2) – of Rev. Robert F. Capon’s book Kingdom, Grace, and Judgment – Paradox, Outrage, and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus. Fr. Kimel’s commentary on the below is here.
As Christians, we believe that all Scripture is divinely in-spired (filled with God’s spirit). 2 Tim. 3:16. Therefore, all Scripture speaks univocally because all Scripture shares one Author. The challenge, of course, is how to read a parable of separation and damnation as being consistent with St. Paul’s confession that in Christ shall all be made alive so that God will be all in all. 1 Cor. 15:22, 28. See, also, Rom. 5:18, 2 Cor. 5:14, 19, Phil. 2:10-11, Col. 1:20, 28, 1 Tim. 2:3-6. How do we reconcile the picture given to us in this Parable with Jesus’ very explicit teaching that we must love, pray for, and forgive our enemies so that we may become perfect like our Father in heaven? Matt. 5:43-48. This parable, in particular, forces us to confront the context in which we read the whole of Scripture – ultimately, does salvation come to all or only some and does God welcome all or only some? More importantly, how do we living in the twenty-first century interpret and understand first-century Greek texts of an Aramaic speaker? It is this wrestling that has made this Parable the most meaningful Parable in my spiritual life.
When the Son of man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the 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. Then the King will say to those at his right hand, “Come, O blessed of 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 drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.” Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when did we see thee hungry and feed thee, or thirsty and give thee drink? And when did we see thee a stranger and welcome thee, or naked and clothe thee? And when did we see thee sick or in prison and visit thee?” And the King will answer them, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.” Then he will say to those at his left hand, “Depart from me, you cursed, 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 no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.” Then they also will answer, “Lord, when did we see thee hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to thee?” Then he will answer them, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me.” And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life. (Matt 25:31-46 )
Growing up in a small Southern Methodist church and having gone to too many Baptist and Baptist-ish youth functions, this Parable was used as the proof text for “You better be good or God will get you and send you to hell.” The test used to separate the sheep and the goats may vary – whether obedience to a particular moral code or the adoption of a particular understanding of faith – but the separation between those who went into heaven and those condemned to hell due to something I did or failed to do was very real. It is on this question that Christian denominations split and form. If the test of salvation is faith, then how much faith is sufficient – does buying insurance indicate a lack of faith or maybe not believing in a literal six-day creation makes one a goat. But if the test is giving to the poor, then how much is enough? How much must I give to New Directions or how many hours must I volunteer at the Community Kitchen to get into heaven? Jesus instructs the Rich Young Man, that he must give it all away to the poor in order to enter the Kingdom. Matt 19:21. But, regardless of the answer, the parable clearly says that “eternal punishment” is real and that some people will be subjected thereto, or does it?
The “traditional” interpretation misunderstands the nature of “punishment.” In English, the word punishment means “suffering, pain, or loss that serves as retribution” or “a penalty inflicted on an offender through judicial procedure.” A lawbreaker is punished in order to vindicate the law itself. The Greek word used in v.46, however, does not have this meaning.
Greek has two words for punishment: kolasis and timoria. According to Aristotle, there is a difference between revenge (timoria) and punishment (kolasis); the latter is inflicted in the interest of the sufferer, the former in the interest of him who inflicts it, that he may obtain satisfaction. Rhetoric 1.10.17. Or as Plato writes: no one punishes (kolasis) the evil-doer under the notion, or for the reason, that he has done wrong, only the unreasonable fury of a beast acts in that manner. But he who desires to inflict rational punishment does not retaliate for a past wrong that cannot be undone; he has regard to the future, and is desirous that the man who is punished, and he who sees him punished, may be deterred from doing wrong again. Protagoras. In other words, in Greek, kolasis is used in the sense of a remedial punishment to bring about a change in behavior or virtue upon whom the punishment is inflicted. It is a punishment for the correcting and betterment of the offender.
Therefore, when the parable speaks of “punishment” it is not talking about a retributive or vindictive act visited upon the goats. Rather, the parable speaks of a remedial punishment intended to bring about a correction and betterment of the goats. It is this distinction between these two Greek words which led St. Clement of Alexandria (150-215) to write that “God’s punishments are saving and disciplinary, leading to conversion, and choosing rather the repentance than the death of a sinner.” A longer discussion of this issue can be found in chapter 6 “Eschatological Punishment” of Thomas Talbott’s book The Inescapable Love of God (attached).
In v. 46, the punishment is described as “eternal.” The Greek word used is aion which is where we get the English word eon. The general sense of the word is that of a period of time. For example, aion is used to signify the period of a person’s lifespan or the rule of an emperor, the age of an empire, or any specific duration of time. Rarely is the word used to denote eternity. In other parts of Scripture, aion is almost always used to denote a specific period of time, such as “this present evil age” Gal. 1:4.
An Age of Correction:
Therefore, if the Greek is simply understood differently, then the goats do not go into an “eternal punishment” (which itself is somewhat a contradiction since no one can learn from the punishment if it is eternal) but they are banished into “an age of correction.” The goats have failed the test, whatever the criteria might be, and are now undergoing a remedial correction. The Parable says that the goats did not see Jesus and would have acted differently had they done so. v.39. They only saw through the glass dimly. 1 Cor. 13:12. The goats lacked the knowledge and understanding to choose rationally. Corrective punishment opens the eyes. They are, in the words of the prophet, being refined in a refiner’s fire. Mal. 3:3. The fire does not harm the precious metal only the dross.
In our study of Revelation, we saw this age of correction. In the Parable, the goats are consigned to “the fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (v.41) just as in John’s vision, there is a Lake of Fire prepared for the beast and those that were deceived – the nations and the kings of the earth. Rev. 19:20-21. This is the age of the destruction and the chastisement. However, when John enters the New Jerusalem, on the other side of the Lake of Fire, the nations are walking in God’s light and the kings are bringing him glory. Rev. 21:24. They are being healed by the waters of life and eating of the tree of life, for now they see God face to face. Rev. 22:1-5.
Paul writes of this fire-burning age of correction as well. In speaking of whether a person’s life is built on the foundation of Jesus Christ or of the means of this world. Paul speaks of a testing of each of our lives, and that which is of this world will be consumed by fire. Paul writes that If the work is burned up, the builder will suffer loss; the builder will be saved, but only as through fire. 1 Cor. 3:15. The builder, the person, is saved regardless of the foundation, but all that he has built will be lost.
We are Both:
As we work through the Scriptures, and in moments of self-reflection, we should realize that the Parable is not about individuals who are sheep or goats, but that each of us is both a sheep and a goat. We are, as Paul may say, one in Adam and one in Christ. Rom. 5:12-21. In this age, we are both the metal that reflects God’s image and the dross that hides and distorts it. Or as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn writes: the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. I know that I am, at least, both the older and the prodigal son, the pharisee and the publican, the wheat and the tares. The separation is not between individuals but within each of us.
As an aside, one of the larger debates in Christian scholarship, particularly in Eastern Orthodox circles, today is whether the early church believed in an everlasting punishment at all. Like most matters, there is a great split of authority as to what the tradition teaches. But some further readings on the early church’s understanding that hell is merely temporary are: HERE (see section 6), HERE, and HERE, with some counterarguments HERE and HERE. A very short (3 min) interview with Fr. John Behr (former Dean of St. Vladimir’s Seminary) reconciling the reality of both the temporality and atemporality of hell is HERE.
11/22: Thanksgiving Celebration – RSVP required.
Advent: We are reading through The Carols of Christmas by Alan Vermilye.
12/20: Study Group Christmas Party – RSVP requested
Epiphany and Lent: We are reading through Prayer in the Night by Rev. Tish Harrison Warren.
Dinner is at 6:00. The menu is Pork and Lentils. Discussion about 6:45. Hope to see you here!
For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death. “For God has put all things in subjection under his feet.” But when it says, “All things are put in subjection under him,” it is plain that he is excepted who put all things under him. When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to him who put all things under him, that God may be everything to every one.1 Corinthians 15:21-28.