Speaking Of Life 2052 | No Room for Bullies
Speaking Of Life 2052 | No Room for Bullies Jeff Broadnax Let me set up a dilemma for you and then I’m going to ask you to solve it. Ready? You are a farmer who raises cattle and you get up one morning to check on your herd in the pasture. As you approach, you realize something is terribly wrong. Cows are running everywhere out of control. Each cow seems to be gripped in fear and running in a crazed panic. The pasture is getting destroyed, and the cows are injuring themselves by running into one another. That’s when you see it. In the middle of the chaos is one large bull with horns. For some reason, this bull is charging every cow in the pasture. Now, what do you do? You are probably throwing your hands up right now thinking, “really Jeff, you need help figuring this one out?” It’s obvious, right? You get rid of the bull. Problem solved! But wait, not so fast. Before you get to the gate you hear one of your neighbors shout: “Hey, before you remove that bull. Can you really judge a bull for being a bully?” Now, what do you do? Well, that’s an easy one too. You give the bull into the “loving” care of your neighbor. Get it?? Thanks for playing along. With all pastoral puns aside, you probably have heard Jesus referred to as our Good Shepherd. Ezekiel was a prophet in a time when the nation of Israel was longing for a good shepherd to lead them. The political leaders of the time were doing what some of our leaders still do today; taking good care of the rich and ignoring how the poor and marginal were being treated. They refused to judge and intervene when the powerful “bullied” and took advantage of those with less power. In Ezekiel 34, the prophet points to a Savior, a Shepherd who would come from the line of David who would do the opposite of what the world does. He would make extra room for the weak, tenderly care for the disenfranchised. He’d ensure that his flock is not scattered, bringing unity. Here’s a verse that proclaims the good news of Jesus as our Shepard: Therefore, this is what the Sovereign LORD says to them: See, I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep. Because you shove with flank and shoulder, butting all the weak sheep with your horns until you have driven them away, I will save my flock, and they will no longer be plundered. I will judge between one sheep and another. Ezekiel 34:20-22 Thankfully, we have a Sovereign Lord who judges righteously. And notice that his judgment is for the good of the whole flock leaving no sheep behind. God’s judgment is in and the same as the Good Shepherd, aiming for the safety and provision for all the flock in his care. May the good news that God has judged you worthy of his grace, mercy, and love enable you to feel safe in his care. Let us not be like the neighbor allowing bulls to create chaos and injure those with less power. Empowered by the Spirit, let us join Jesus in bringing peace. I’m Jeff Broadnax, Speaking of Life.
Psalm 100:1-5 • Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24 • Ephesians 1:15-23 • Matthew 25:31-46
This week’s theme is Christ the King. This week’s “call to worship” Psalm invites the sheep of the pasture to sing praises to the Lord who is worthy of universal glory. The text of Matthew governs the other lectionary texts as it focuses on Christ’s coming enthronement to glory. Matthew’s text calls along as a companion the text in Ezekiel where the Lord likens himself to a Shepherd taking care of his sheep. The New Testament passage will provide the majestic opening text of Ephesians that culminates with the exaltation of Christ reigning in full dominion.
The Shepherd King
Are you the type of person who doesn’t mind knowing how a book ends before reading it? Or maybe it doesn’t bother you to know how a movie will end even while you are in the middle of watching it. I suspect most of you do not fall into that category. So, let us be warned that today we will be dealing with some things that are coming to an “end.” First, this is the last day of the Christian calendar before we start over with Advent. For a while now we have been in the season known as “Ordinary Time” or simply “The Season after Pentecost.” This last day of that season has a special name—Reign of Christ or Christ the King. Our passage for the day will take up that theme. So that is the first “end” we should keep in mind today. Our journey from Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, Pentecost and everything in between is coming to an end today.
Also, our passage in Matthew will bring us into the end of Matthew’s Gospel. This passage marks the end of Christ’s life and ministry before his death and resurrection. It’s a passage that also marks the end of a section known as the Eschatological Discourse, which will include a parable to end Jesus’ use of parables in Matthew. If you are wondering what an Eschatological Discourse is about, it is a discussion about end-things. That’s a lot of endings for the beginning of a sermon.
Considering we will be dealing with the “end” of these various elements, we will need to keep in mind all that has gone before. We do not want to separate this day from the rest of the calendar as if now we are talking about something different. We are still talking about Jesus. This day will lay special emphasis on Jesus as King, a fitting end to the whole biblical narrative. Also, we do not want to look at this passage as if it stands alone, detached from the full scope of the biblical witness in Matthew, the New Testament and then the whole Bible. Ultimately, we must read this passage keeping in mind who Jesus has revealed himself to be throughout all of Scripture.
Why are we laying all this groundwork? Because if you have ever read the last chapter of a book or seen the last scene of a movie without hearing the whole story, you run the risk of bringing some distorted assumptions and drawing some faulty conclusions. This particular passage unfortunately has at times suffered in this way. We will try to avoid that so we can “end” well!
Read Matthew 25:31-46
The passage begins in parable form. We are given a simile involving a shepherd separating sheep and goats. This parable is quickly dropped, leaving the rest of the passage to portray a judgment scene. We should proceed holding lightly to any “literal” interpretation. What we can hold firm to is “Who” this passage is about. Jesus.
When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. (Matthew 25:31 ESV)
Jesus is introduced from the start as “the Son of Man” and after being seated on a throne of glory he is from there on referred to as the “King” and “Lord.” However we slice this passage, in the end, Jesus is King. This is the same Jesus who entered our brokenness and darkness to bring us into his glorious kingdom. He does not stand aloof from those he judges, nor is his judgment different than that of his Father. We can rest assured that Jesus aims to bring us into his own relationship with the Father, the same relationship Jesus maintained throughout his entire life and ministry including its culminating death and resurrection.
Notice the scope of Jesus’ reign as king. “All the angels” and “all the nations” are gathered before him. We have an image of all heaven and earth coming together with Jesus. This is the “end” the Father had in mind from before the beginning of creation. We have some language of “separation” that follows, but the Father’s aim is not to separate heaven from earth but rather to bring them together under the rule of his Son Jesus Christ.
Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left. (Matthew 25:32-33 ESV)
What do we make of this image of the shepherd separating “people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats”? This was a common practice of shepherds, so it would have been familiar to the original hearers of this parable. Shepherds would often keep both sheep and goats in their flocks. At certain times, like milking the goats and shearing the sheep, they would separate the animals from one another. The act of separating wasn’t arbitrary or for bad behavior— it was to serve a fruitful purpose. But we know Jesus is not strictly talking about sheep and goats. He is talking about “people.” We don’t like the idea of people being separated from one another because that hinders relationship. But there are times that separation is the most fruitful thing we can do for the relationship. Have you ever had to separate two people because one of them was acting in ways contrary to the relationship? Or maybe you can think of times in your own relationships where constructive conflict broke down into chaotic discord. The best action may have been to separate until coming together could be fruitful again. This is the angle we will take for the parable Jesus uses to lead into his words of judgment.
The “goats” are cast as the offending party. After being separated from the sheep, they are placed on the “left” hand, which is often the biblical designation for the “wicked.” The sheep are placed at Jesus’ “right” hand, the biblical designation for the “righteous.” Judgement has begun. We are often told in our culture not to “judge,” as if that’s the only commandment that should be obeyed. But there is a difference in “judging” and “condemning.” Jesus does tell us that we shouldn’t “condemn,” but when Jesus judges, his judgment is righteous and good. We see with this parable being combined with a judgment scene that righteous judgment involves “separating,” sifting through, and sorting out. But on what basis does Jesus the Shepherd King judge?
We are given an indication by what the King says to both the sheep and the goats after they have been separated.
Then the King will say to those on his right, “Come, you who are blessed by 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.” (Matthew 25:34-36 ESV)
He addresses the sheep first by telling them they are blessed by the Father and they have an inheritance to receive which was prepared for them “from the foundation of the world.” Notice that Jesus tells them that they are already blessed. He is not saying that now he is going to bless them on account of how they lived their lives. Rather, he is indicating that the way they have been living their lives is already living the blessed life of the Father. Then he does something curious. He starts recounting how they have been relating to Jesus. Jesus credits them with feeding him when he was hungry and giving him drink when he was thirsty. They were hospitable to Jesus when he was a stranger and they clothed him when he was naked. They took care of him when he was sick and in prison. Do you see the orientation of their lives? It is turned towards fruitful relationship with the Lord.
But here is where we may scratch our heads. The sheep have no clue of when they ever did such a thing. They seem completely baffled by Jesus’ judgment on them. So, they asked the king when they did any of these things for him.
Then the righteous will answer him, saying, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?” And the King will answer them, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.” (Matthew 25:37-40 ESV)
And the King tells them that “just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” Jesus has equated their actions towards others as actions towards himself. Jesus in no way separates himself from others, be sheep or goats. He is so intimately connected to them that he can judge actions to others as actions to himself.
Now Jesus is going to address the goats. He starts in similar fashion as he did with the sheep, but only in the negative. Instead of telling them they are blessed he declares that they are the opposite:
Then he will say to those on his left, “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, saying, “Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?” Then he will answer them, saying, “Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” (Matthew 25:41-46 ESV)
Again, he is not cursing them because of bad merits, but rather he is stating what is already there. The goats have an orientation to life that is equated to living a cursed life. And what does this accursed life look like? Jesus goes through the same list he had for the sheep, only this time it’s everything that the goats didn’t do for Jesus. They too are judged by how they relate to Jesus, which comes to light in how they relate to others. They acknowledge him as Lord, but they don’t relate to him in the same way the sheep did.
Let’s take an opportunity to add a current play on the word “goat” to press home the orientation or way of life being exemplified by the goats in Jesus’ judgment. We have a modern acronym of G.O.A.T., which stands for “Greatest Of All Time.” In the sports world, for example, to be the G.O.A.T. of a specific sport is to be the best ever. Everyone else is “less” than the G.O.A.T. Jesus’ use of goats to stand in for people who have no regard for others they deemed less than themselves is perhaps a fortuitous image. If someone sees themselves as the Greatest Of All Time where there is no room for others, especially for someone considered “the least of these,” then that person is living a life that runs contrary to the life found in the relationship shared by the Father, Son and Spirit.
The Triune God for all eternity has never existed in relationship characterized by such disregard of the other. This is not how Jesus lived among us and it’s not the blessed life he shares with us. So, it is not the inheritance prepared for us “from the foundation of the world.” To be a G.O.A.T. in this way is to live as if our relationships with others has nothing to do with our relationship with Christ. It is to live as if we are already separated from others by our own greatness. It is to place oneself on a self-made throne where glory is hoarded for self-worship and the King of all creation is rejected on account of poor “judgment.” Doesn’t Jesus know I’m the G.O.A.T.? Why on earth would he expect me to lower myself to serve the likes of such pitiful creatures who can’t feed or clothe themselves?
Now we come to judgment. “And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” Notice the goats “go away.” Jesus does not cast them away or run them off arbitrarily. They go on their own accord. Their whole life is oriented in disregard of the King and his reign as anything they want to be part of. So, the natural end is to continue down this path living like a G.O.A.T. with no room for anyone but themselves. In this way it wasn’t Jesus’ judgment on them that sends them into eternal punishment, but rather it is their judgment on Jesus that makes them good company for the likes of the “devil and his angels.”
Now we come to the end of a sermon full of “ends.” But before we close, it seems important to strike the same chord here at the end as Jesus struck at the beginning of his discourse. Otherwise we may walk away thinking this was a “dead-end.”
Let’s remember some important context. Jesus is delivering this parable and discourse as he is standing on the Mount of Olives overlooking his beloved city Jerusalem, which is occupied by the ruthless and dominate power of the world—the Roman Empire. The religious leaders of this city are conspiring with their own oppressors to have him crucified. The inhabitants of this city will also follow suit by rejecting Jesus as their true king. He has with him an entourage of broken men who will forsake him, one will betray him, and all will be scattered. Jesus is facing complete abandonment, utter rejection and a brutal death. This King’s reign seems destined for defeat before it begins. This King seems to be facing his own end. Yet here he stands and speaks of glory. He sees beyond all the “ends” and speaks in triumphant discourse of the new beginning he will bring as King of Kings and Lord of Lords. When Jesus shares these words, he is speaking as the King of Hope.
So, let’s not interpret his words outside his kingly rule of Hope. Rather, these are words of warning, of urgency to turn to Jesus in the sure hope that in him is blessing life forevermore. He now stands before you, calling you to himself as the only King who loves you more than he loves himself. He calls you into a life of blessing, a life that can be received right now among brothers and sisters who share the same pasture and gather together to worship.
Small Group Discussion Questions
From Speaking of Life
- How did the illustration of removing the bull from the cows inform how you thought about judgment?
- Have you heard in our culture the idea that people shouldn’t judge one another? What do you think of this claim? Agree? Disagree?
From the sermon
- The sermon began with the caution not to read this passage disconnected from the full biblical witness. Discuss the importance of this approach when reading Scripture. What problems might we encounter if we read a passage as if it stands alone? What difference does it make knowing the passage is primarily about Jesus?
- The sermon talked about the purpose of separating the sheep from the goats was for a “fruitful purpose.” Can you think of examples where separating people was “fruitful” for the relationship? Can you think of examples where separating was not “fruitful”? Share how seeing Jesus the King as the one who does the “separating” makes a difference for you.
The sermon concluded on a note of hope. How can reading passages of judgment along the lines of hope make a difference?