This Tuesday 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 found in Matthew 25:31-46. Please read chapter 13 – “The End of the Storm (II)” – 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 Parable is here.
In Matthews’s gospel, this is Jesus’ final parable and occurs between Matthew’s Little Apocalypse in Matthew 24 and the beginning of the Passion in Matthew 26. (Neither Mark nor Luke has any parables between the little apocalypse and the passion.) These are Jesus’ last words to the crowd. Everything from this parable onwards is told either to his disciples or to his accusers. This parable is his last public teaching. This parable should be seen as both the logical end of all the parables, but also as a commentary on his coming crucifixion.
This is not my favorite parable, but it is the most meaningful for me. Below is Capon’s understanding of the parable. I’ll share my understanding in the next email.
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[RSV])
Capon sees this final parable as the fulfillment of all the parables. On a more general level, he writes that if it is in one way the heaviest, most fear-inspiring parable of all, it is also the lightest, the last laugh of the mighty act of salvation: it is the bestowal of the inheritance of the kingdom on a bunch of sheep who not only didn’t know they were doing good works for God, but also never even knew they were faithful to him. p.504. It is the greatest example of the last being first, the outsiders being insiders, and that good and respectable are being disregarded. In his final analysis of the final parable, Capon takes us back to chapter six of the “Parables of the Kingdom” and his discussion of the very first parable – the Parable of the Sower. It is in this discussion that Capon gives us the four characteristics of all the parables – Catholicity, Mystery, Actuality, and Hostility and Response. It is in these four areas that Capon gives his analysis of the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats.
The Catholicity of the Kingdom comes to us in the very beginning. In the very opening of the parable, Jesus tells us that before him will be gathered all the nations. v.32. Everyone will appear at the last judgment regardless of ethnicity, religion, or class. Capon writes that this Catholicity is not only present in the beginning of the parable, but throughout the parable and even past the very end. He writes:
The catholicity of the kingdom is vindicated even with regard to goodness and badness: in the end as in the beginning, evil is not simply excluded but provided for—given a place in the final scheme of things. True enough, Jesus’ parables of judgment are rife with images of separation: the outer darkness is the final destination of the man without the wedding garment and of the useless servant; the wrong side of the door is the portion of the foolish virgins. But in the Great Judgment, Jesus goes out of his way to stipulate that the Son of man “will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.” Do you see what that means? Jesus is the Good Shepherd, and the Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. But he lays down his life for the goats as well, because on the cross he draws all to himself. It is not that the sheep are his but the goats are not; the sheep are his sheep and the goats are his goats. Any separation that occurs, therefore, must be read as occurring within his shepherding, not as constituting a divorce from it. . . . Accordingly, Jesus’ drawing of all to himself remains the ultimate gravitational force in the universe; nothing, not even evil, is ever exempted from it. Hell has no choice but to be within the power of the final party, even though it refuses to act as if it is at the party. It lies not so much outside the festivities as it is sequestered within them. It is hidden, if you will, in the spear wound in Christ’s side to keep it from being a wet blanket on the heavenly proceedings; but it is not, for all that, any less a part of Jesus’ catholic shepherding of his flock. pp. 505-06.
The Mystery of the Kingdom is God’s perfect grace, the ultimate example of left-handed power as perfectly disclosed on the Cross. In this final parable, Capon tells us, the Mystery is revealed. The iceberg of the divine presence under all of history at last thrusts itself up in one grand, never-to-be-hidden again parousia (second-coming). The Son of man has come in glory and everything is out in the open. All the waiting upon the mystery in faith is over and everyone, faithful or not, knows it. Time has not just run out; it has, like the fig tree, run its full course from winter’s death to spring’s new life: summer is now at hand. Not one bit of the operation of the kingdom will ever be hidden again, and all the previous sacraments of its working in the last, the lost, and the least are finally understood. Jesus has made all things, even the bad old things, new. p.506
The Actuality of the Kingdom of Heaven refers to the understanding the operative power of the Kingdom is not dependent upon our cooperation. As John writes: he is the expiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world. 1 John 2:2. Or as Capon writes: its real presence through the whole course of history – that note is triumphant. Since the kingdom cannot possibly become more present than it has been all along, this parable displays it as simply its own unchanged self, victorious. The kingdom prepared from the foundation of the world – the whole mysterious inheritance that has always been available to faith – now publicly dazzles its inheritors with a knowable, palpable beauty. Jesus has had a party going from the first day in Genesis; now, at the Marriage Supper of the Lamb, he drinks a toast to the fact that it will never end. p.506
Hostility and Response:
The Kingdom always contends against a hostile environment and our response to the mystery and actuality of the Kingdom decide not whether the Word will achieve his purposes but whether we will enjoy his achievement. p.73. In this Parable, hostility and response find their fulfillment within each of us. On the one hand, the hostility with which the kingdom was met throughout history was never portrayed by Jesus as anything other than unfaith; on the other, the response called for by the kingdom was never stipulated as anything but faith . . . We need to remind ourselves again that he habitually avoids depicting badness as an obstacle to the kingdom, just as he carefully steers clear of making goodness one of its entrance requirements. In the parables of grace, for example, he displays unreformed bad people (the prodigal, the publican) as acceptable by faith rather than by works; and in the parables of the kingdom, he goes out of his way to show both good and evil as existing side by side within the kingdom. p.507.
Faith and Unknowing:
Throughout the parables that we have studied, the antagonist – the older son or the Pharisee – are often those who earnestly want to be in the good graces of God, actively seek out what the test they must pass to enter into God’s grace is, and then work diligently to fulfill the criteria that the test requires. The Pharisee could tick every box that the Scriptures required. Likewise, the older brother met every expectation (except the last one) of his father. Capon admits that a surface reading of the Parable leads a reader to understand the Parable as one of requiring works. But a deeper reading of the Parable leads us to two conclusions – (i) the Parable is about faith, not works, and (ii) Nobody knows anything.
As to the centrality of faith in the Parable, he writes: Indeed, the most notable feature of the parable of the Great Judgment is that the good works of the blessed are not presented as such. The King says not that the sheep have compiled a splendid moral record, but that they had a relationship with himself: “Amen, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.” Or to put it even more precisely, they are praised at his final parousia for what they did in his parousia throughout their lives, namely, for trusting him to have had a relationship with them all along. p.511-12. The sheep are the sheep, not because they passed the test, but because they had a faithful relationship with Jesus, even if they did not know it.
As to our reading of this Parable as supplying the ethico-theological requirement to make the cut and to define what constitutes a rejection of him, Capon writes that this is a fools-errand. The entire approach of the older son and the Pharisee are wrong. It is not that they got the test questions wrong and therefore reached the wrong answers, it is that they tried to discern that there was a test and that there were correct answers. Knowledge is not the basis of anyone’s salvation or damnation. He writes, we don’t know enough about anybody, not even ourselves, to say anything for sure [about who is saved or damned]. . . . But, Jesus shows us in this parable that even those who did relate to him didn’t know what they were doing. p.510. Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you . . . ? v.37. Even the saved did not know the test questions or the answers thereto.
Instead, Capon points out, it is not what we know (most of that can only count against us) but what he knows. And what he knows is that “God did not send his Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved by him.” [John 3:17]. His saving relationship with the world has already been established – and it will stay established forever. The only question at the end is whether we trusted the truth of it and made it a two-sided relationship, or whether we distrusted it and left it and left it a relationship for his side only. And Jesus alone knows the answer to that question. In this last parable of all, he deliberately deprives us of any way of even thinking about it. p.511.
And therefore all the theological baggage about repentances that come too late or acts of faith that peak too soon . . . and all the doctrinal jury-rigging designed to give the unbaptized a break or to prove that unbelievers are invincibly ignorant – all of it is idle, mischievous, and dead wrong. We simply don’t know, and we should all have the decency to shut up and just trust him in the passion we cannot avoid. And we don’t even have to know if we have succeeded in doing that, because Jesus is there anyway and he is on everybody’s side. He is the Love that will not let us go. If anybody can sort it all out, he can; if he can’t, nobody else ever will. Trust him, therefore. And trust him now. p.512. But then if we do not know, and only he knows, and he is on everybody’s side, then how is someone eternally damned by their own ignorance?
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!
Love never ends; as for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. For our knowledge is imperfect and our prophecy is imperfect; but when the perfect comes, the imperfect will pass away. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became a man, I gave up childish ways. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood.1 Corinthians 13:8-12
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