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Sifting and Sorting

26 March 2023

We have another well known parable from Matthew this morning, the last in this series, next week the pattern changes. Now there is some discussion as to whether this is actually a parable or is this a description of what happens after the Kingdom of Heaven arrives. The New Interpreters Bible Commentary calls this story an “apocalyptic discourse” with parabolic elements. It is a story with an eschatological theme – end times, and so challenging us to be aware of our actions.

In these verses Matthew identifies Jesus, the Son of Man, as the King of kings sitting on the seat of judgement, gazing clearly, open eyed, directly into our lives. For some of us there will be a feeling of disagreement with this image: Jesus, the suffering servant, the one who says “come to me and rest”. Jesus is being presented to us as the assessor of lives, who sifts, sorts, rewards or condemns. On the other hand, who would we rather weigh in on the judgement seat than the one whose love defines us all?

The King divides the sheep and goats, in a nice mixed metaphor. A surprise here is that the sheep do not realise they are sheep and the goats do not know they are goats. We need to be careful as we can get really distracted by the shock of condemnation at the end of the discourse, but when we emphasise that, it takes us away from the central words of this reading. They are repeated or echoed four times so that we cannot miss their meaning. “Hungry are fed, thirsty are given drink, strangers are welcomed, naked are clothed, sick are cared for, prisoners are visited.”

Another thing to think about is that Jesus, the King, is identified with the least of his family. So who is his family? It is clear that Matthew and Jesus expect his family to be in need, or is it that those who are in need are his family? Either way, they are not living in luxury and Jesus expects those who are comfortable to offer their resources to show that they are true to the love they claim, as Matthew puts it, that they do “what [his] Father in heaven wants them to do” (7:21).

How does this standard of care for those who are in need sit with us today? What do we do to feed, welcome, cloth, care and visit others? Now many of us do this, and I believe that is indeed the Kingdom of Heaven in action, but how does this discourse challenge us to do, or be more?

Jay Robinson

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