I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love towards all the saints, and for this reason I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers. I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power. God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.
‘When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that 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 something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” Then he will say to those at his left hand, “You that are accursed, depart from me 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 nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.” Then they also will answer, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?” Then he will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just 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.’
Not all of my friends are believers, and I expect you’re the same. Yet by our nature it is unlikely that we will have many, if any, close friends who look out mainly for their own needs, who live selfishly. For true believers, whilst we may have colleagues, acquaintances and neighbours who seem like that, our closest friends tend to be people who are like-minded. It therefore follows that even if we don’t share the same faith, we do at least appear to share the same values.
It will come as no surprise, therefore, that I often have people coming up to talk to me about friends or relatives who don’t believe yet seem to live lives with good moral values. The question that is usually raised is, if they don’t believe in Jesus, is there any eternal future for them? Surely God won’t abandon them will he?
The same kind of concern is raised by those who have dear friends that belong to other faiths. Living in a more global culture has had a profound effect on how we view other religions. It once used to be easy to consider other religions as heathen and without hope because we had never met any of them, but now we will often find ourselves working alongside or knowing people of other faiths, at least in this country.
And what we find is that, far from being heathen, other religions also have believers who are faithful, moral, ethical and spiritual people. They don’t believe what we do, and yet they seem to have lives that are touched by the presence of God. How can this be? Is there hope for them too, even though they don’t call Jesus, ‘Lord’, or believe what we do in our creeds?
An answer to these issues can be found in today’s Gospel reading about the sheep and the goats. Now this parable can be read on many different levels. For example, as you probably know, Middle Eastern sheep and goats look very similar. The difference is that the sheep are much hardier and can be outside on a chilly night in winter whereas goats cannot.
It is necessary for the shepherd, therefore, to divide them up so that he can take the goats back under cover whilst leaving the sheep out to pasture. But the only way you can tell them apart by eye is that sheep’s tails hang down whereas goats tails stick up. So there you have the story behind their division; this is just what a shepherd would do.
Then we have the usual interpretation, that this parable is aimed at people who say that they are believers but whose lives show no impact of their faith. These are the people who call themselves Christian but if they didn’t you’d be hard pushed to see anything about their attitudes to the needs of others that suggests they believe. It rather ties in to the letter of St. James who talks about faith and works, saying that faith without works is dead.
But there is another interpretation of this passage which comes from looking closely at the words Jesus himself uses. You see it seems likely that this passage says very little about judgement of Christian believers. If you read the parables immediately preceding it you find there references to the judgement of those who call themselves believers and who think of themselves as God’s servants.
But if you look at this passage what you find is that the people responding to the judgement seem to have no idea who Jesus is. ‘When did we see you hungry, naked etc...?’ is what we hear from their lips. It seems highly likely, therefore, that previous passages were about the judgement of believers and this may actually be about how those with no faith, or perhaps a different faith will be treated.
The issue revolves around how we interpret Jesus when he says, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” In order to understand the meaning of the passage we have to understand what he means by the members of his family. One interpretation was that he was referring to us, as believers. We are the family of Jesus.
So on this interpretation this passage is actually all about encouragement for those going out on the mission field. That was harrowing and dangerous work. Remember that only one of Jesus’s apostles lived in to old age. The others, excluding Judas Iscariot, were all martyred. They ended up sick, in prison, hungry, naked or thirsty, and Jesus seems to be suggesting that how people who did not believe in their message treated them would determine the listeners eternal destination.
Another way of interpreting Jesus’s reference to his family is simply that he is thinking of all humanity, and so those who do not have specific faith in him may nevertheless demonstrate morality, justice and good ethics by how they treat other people who are in need. But whichever way we interpret this, the thing which most stands out is the way that Jesus refers to the sheep as, ‘The righteous’.
Remember that the sheep are often taken as a metaphor for those who follow Jesus the Good Shepherd, and yet what we have here suggests that there may even be those who are of his flock, and yet do not even realise it, either because they have never heard the Gospel message, or because they have heard it in such a distorted way that they have seen fit to reject it.
This passage, therefore, seems to speak of hope for those who do not share our faith and can underline just how vital interfaith work simply in terms of expanding our own vision to be able to see God’s hand everywhere. But it does raise a question: Why, if people can be counted as righteous even if they do not follow Christ, should we bother with evangelism?
Part of the answer to that is that any one of us can survive on bread and water, but we thrive when we have a balanced diet. Jesus said that no one comes to the Father except through him. That doesn’t discount other ways of knowing God, but the intimacy of being a beloved child of God must surely be justification enough of wanting to share this good news with others. I would like others to have the same shaped relationship that I have with God simply because it is good.
Evangelism is not just for the future, for saving people for heaven, it is also about helping people to live this life well, and surely the best way to live is as people who know and experience God as a loving parent, intimately involved with our lives. The miracle of the Gospel is that Jesus is able to transform the hearts of the selfish so that they become righteous.
But this is also a message of hope for those who seem righteous to us. God does care, and he cares far more than the fundamentalists who seek to put limits on his love and mercy. Even if people don’t yet believe as we do doesn’t mean that they might not be righteous. Amen