I don’t know about you all, but our texts for today leave me feeling a whole mess of different feelings. On the one hand, we have these lovely images of God as the compassionate shepherd looking after the flock, and caring for the “least of these.” But then we run into all this harsh language about judgment and destruction. It’s like being handed a bouquet of roses, only to have our fingers pricked by the thorns. Our gospel text today is particularly strong. This passage from Matthew is the only detailed account of the last judgment to be found anywhere in the New Testament – but even so, it’s definitely left an impression on the popular Christian imagination.
I can imagine that at least some of you grew up in religious households where you were raised with the fear of hell. I recall being frightened with the idea of eternal torment as a kid, and I remember seeing images of the last judgment, of sheep and goats going off to either side of the throne. I suppose it’s an image that people kind of latch onto because it seems very tidy and clear and black and white, even if it is awful. And it allows us to think of God’s reign in more human terms. In one sense, it’s kind of appealing, isn’t it? It’s appealing to imagine God telling off all the people who have wronged us, casting them into eternal fire where they’ll get what they deserve and we won’t have to deal with them anymore. I mean, I know I can certainly think of a few goats who could probably use a good barbecuing.
But as satisfying as that might be, it also confronts us with a terrifying possibility: what if we’re the wicked ones who deserve punishment instead? I just joked about barbecuing goats, so I’m pretty sure I am. We might like to think of ourselves as righteous, but it’s hard to really be sure. And our gospel lesson totally reflects this uncertainty. The righteous people and the unrighteous people are both completely surprised when God hands down judgment on them. If the sheep don’t know they’re sheep and the goats don’t know they’re goats, then how are we ever to know for sure which column we fall under?
This is where I think a Lutheran Christian perspective on the scriptures can really be helpful. For one thing, we know that no one person is all truly good or all truly evil. As Lutherans, we confess that every one of us is both sinner and….. saint! We are all both sinners and saints. It would be impossible to divide us up neatly into sheep and goats – because none of us is an innocent lamb totally beyond reproach, nor are any of us guilty goats totally beyond redemption. Every single one of us is some measure of both, and God knows it.
For another thing, we have to consider this passage in light of the broader scriptural witness, and in light of who we know God to be. Even if God were able to accurately divide us up into sheep and goats, it’s not like the God we know to give up on us so easily. God has been speaking and working through prophets for millennia, urging humanity on toward righteousness, like someone trying to herd cats. For our sake, God in Christ took on flesh and became human; he had mercy on the poor and the suffering, healed the sick, gave his people hope, and even gave his life for us on the cross out of love. A handful of ornery goats is no match for such a stubborn, loving God. No way is God throwing in the towel that easily.
God loves us, as flawed as we are, and desires to give us life, a “glorious inheritance among the saints.” God seeks us out when we are lost, strengthens us when we are weak, instructs us when we are wrong, and comforts us when we are suffering. God desires salvation and restoration for all the nations and for all of creation. God is too stubborn and too full of love to let anything get in the way; it just might take a little longer for God’s will to be carried out.
For all these reasons, I think it’s important for us to be careful in how we approach texts like these from Ezekiel and Matthew, and to read them with a little more nuance. We read these texts knowing that we are both sinner and saint, both sheep and goat, and knowing that the God we worship wishes to save us and give us life. It doesn’t make any sense that such a God would send any of their children off to be completely destroyed.
But since we are both sheep and goat, it does make sense that some part of us will have to die in order to receive the life that God would give us. Some sinful part of us will have to be destroyed in order for us to receive the glorious future that God intends for us. And this is an idea that we find elsewhere in our theology, especially in baptism, that salvation involves dying to ourselves in order to be raised to new life.
In some ways, we might think about it like having cancer. Cancer is a part of us that has to be killed in order for us to be able to go on living. And cancer isn’t like viral or bacterial enemies from outside our bodies that attack us and make us sick. Cancer is a mutation of the very cells of our bodies; it’s our own being corrupted and turned against itself. It can’t be treated with drugs like antibiotics or antiviral medications. It can’t be separated from the sheep and cast out into the outer darkness. Cancer is us. And because cancer is us, God can’t be like some kind of warrior king charging in to stab the enemy in the face. We are the enemy. And at the same time, we are the very people that God is trying so hard to save. And so, instead of being the mighty warrior king marching in to conquer the world, God is much more like the shepherd king, gently nurturing and caring for the sheep. Or better still, God is our physician king, who is patiently and persistently working in us at all times to heal us and restore us to life.
So if we are right about our diagnosis, just what are the symptoms of this spiritual cancer? What does it look like? To draw upon our texts for today, it looks like those fat sheep who selfishly hoarded up all the resources for themselves, while the other sheep had to go without. It looks like the strong sheep who butted the other sheep away and caused division among them. It looks like indifference toward injustice. It looks like failure to care for our neighbor, to see their suffering and do nothing about it. It is the greed, selfishness, apathy, and division that are killing our souls. We’ve been exposed to so many toxins in our environment: economic systems that prioritize profit over people, social systems that reinforce division and discrimination, and systems of living that encourage us to worry only about what is good for us individually, rather than about the good of the human community. All these have contributed to our cancer of the soul.
Now, any of us who has ever battled cancer, or sat beside a loved one battling cancer, knows that cancer treatments can be extremely painful. And they only get worse the more advanced the cancer is. The cancerous part of us puts up a fight, whether it’s cancer of the body or cancer of the soul. And even with God, our spiritual cancer treatments can be painful, because it’s hard to let part of ourselves die. It’s hard to undergo treatments and to let of part of ourselves go – and to trust that doing so will lead us to life.
Both Ezekiel and Matthew offer a little insight into what our treatment for spiritual cancer might look like. In Ezekiel, God declares that the strong, fat sheep will be destroyed. How will this happen? God says, “I will feed them with justice.” For those fat sheep who benefit from systems of injustice, being fed and nourished with justice is probably a pretty bitter pill to swallow. It’s hard for any of us to let go of privilege even when we know that the letting go is good for us and helps bring us to healing. In Matthew, acts of service and generosity toward our neighbor and solidarity with those who are suffering seem to be the keys for spiritual health. It can be difficult to let go of our time, of our money, and of our stuff to serve others – even when we know that by feeding others and caring for the sick, we ourselves are fed, and our own sicknesses find healing.
Ultimately, however, none of these things can completely heal us on their own. The only true cure for our spiritual cancer is Christ, our physician and king. He makes the treatments work. We have healing through him, because of the work he has already accomplished on the cross. Our treatment began the minute baptismal waters sprinkled onto our foreheads or swallowed up our bodies. In that moment, our sinful, cancerous selves began to die, and we truly began to live. God in Christ has already overcome the powers of this world, has already overcome sinfulness and cancer and death. Christ is Lord over all, and all things have been placed under his feet. Christ, our physician-king, is already seated on his throne – stethoscope in hand – and his kingdom is already at work in our world. It is sneaking in, little by little, working healing and small miracles of love in all kinds of unexpected places.
This is good news! And it doesn’t stop there. Not only has God brought about healing for our spiritual cancer, but God has also called us to join in the ongoing work of healing. We are called to participate in bringing about healing and justice for the world – not because we fear hell or because we hope for a heavenly reward, but because God has liberated us from our sinful selves and empowered us to take part in the world’s liberation. The glorious future of life that God has promised is one that we can begin to live and work into even now.
We are sent out into the world to be ambassadors of God’s love and justice, to be the hands and feet and healing presence of Christ for others. And as we do so, we go forth with the sure and certain expectation that when we participate in the healing of others, we ourselves will be healed. When we go out to serve the least of these, we will be served in return. And when we go out to be Christ for others, we – in them – will surely meet our king face to face.