Today’s Reading Matthew 25:31-46
WEEK 5: THURSDAY
One of the greatest soldiers of modern times recently published an autobiography. In it, he skates very lightly over one or two incidents in which, according to those who knew him at the time, he acted with almost incredible bravery in the face of extreme danger. But you wouldn’t know that from the book.
It isn’t just modesty. His memory of the incidents, he will insist, is that he was concentrating totally on the safety of the soldiers under his command. He was completely focused on doing whatever was necessary to look after them while completing the dangerous tasks he and they had been assigned.
That sense of not knowing what it was one was doing right — or, indeed, wrong — is one of the most striking elements in this remarkable tableau. (It isn’t a ‘parable’, by the way, despite what many people say; the image of ‘the sheep and the goats’ in verses 32 and 33 is just an illustration, a simile, not part of a longer story about shepherds and livestock.) The theme seems to be that Jesus is offering a panoramic view of the kind of world he longed to see, the kind which would bring glory to God and which he himself would therefore approve and applaud.
We would miss the point entirely if we were to read it as a list of ‘rules to be obeyed’. To be sure, if you are starting out on the path of Christian discipleship, then these are guidelines that demand close attention. But Jesus doesn’t envisage us keeping a list of these actions and carefully ticking them off as we do them. He wants us to be the sort of people who do these things, as we say, ‘naturally’ — though actually it will be a kind of ‘second nature’ — without stopping to think about them.
This, of course, demands effort, particularly in the early stages. But it’s an effort which springs, and has always sprung right through the course of Christian history, from people knowing Jesus, worshipping him, hearing his word and feasting at his table. Though of course people of many traditions and beliefs are kind to outcasts, visit prisoners, feed the hungry, and so on, it is noticeable, especially in our increasingly selfish society, that those who sign up for these activities on a regular basis, and who do similar things automatically even when ‘off duty’, are people who day by day say their prayers and week by week worship the God we know in Jesus.
That was how Christian faith spread even when the Roman emperors were determined to stamp it out. People saw the Christians behaving like this and wanted to know why. The world was full, alas, of people who didn’t help, didn’t feed the hungry, and didn’t care for the weak and vulnerable. The Christians were modelling a new way of being human. It was, and remains, compelling.
This tableau thus stands, at the end of the last long discourse in Matthew’s gospel, as the final statement of something which has been there all through. The houses on the rock and on the sand, in Matthew 7; the wheat and the tares, the good fish and the bad, in Matthew 13; and now the sheep and the goats. Matthew has highlighted the fact that Jesus intended his followers to be utterly different, people who reflected God and his love in a whole new way into the world. That is what will ultimately count. There will be surprises all round when the things people have done without thinking about them turn out to reveal their deepest characters. But there will be no doubt which of the two ways of being human is the genuine article.
Gracious Lord, as we look to your future, fill us with your love, so that we may gladly serve you by serving those around us in deepest need.
We would like to thank SPCK Publishing for providing Lent for Everyone by Tom Wright. For more information, please visit their site: http://www.spckpublishing.co.uk/shop/lent-for-everyone-matthew/
Lent for Everyone is a devotional created and written by N.T. (Tom) Wright. For each day of Lent, there is a reading chosen from the Gospel of Matthew, plus a reflection by Wright. These readings have grown out of a project encouraging Lent reading in Northern England. This is the second in a three-volume series based on the Revised Common Lectionary of the Church of England.