In many editions of the Bible editors have divided the text into sections beyond the books and chapters. These sections are often given titles that function as headlines. Many of Jesus parable have their own headlines like “The Prodigal Son,” “The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant,” or miracle stories will have a headline such as “Jesus Stills the Storm.” Sometimes I think the headlines are misleading in that they can miss the point of the passage. This morning’s reading is headlined “The Judgment of the Nations.” In this case, I think that headline comes close to correct.
Last week I talked about our sensitivity to the whole notion of divine judgment. In this day and age, a lot of us are on guard against judgmentalism. We are put off by the images of divine retribution and fire and brimstone that we have heard mouthed by obnoxious preachers who draw a very small circle of those included in divine love. I share this sensitivity in large measure.
At the same time, the abuse of the notion of divine judgment need not scare us off entirely from recognizing its place in the wisdom of heaven.
Appropriate judgment is clarifying. Appropriate judgment is a diagnosis of whether or not we are in sync with our purpose, whether we are headed in the right direction, whether we are healthy. Of course, to discover that something is wrong is unpleasant, but we need to know so that we can begin to take steps toward health both in our own selves and in our communities.
So perhaps our sensitivity to judgment is not about judgment itself, but in what we’ve seen judgment lead to. When judgment is undertaken punitively or with prejudice, or simply as an exercise in power, or when judgment lacks proportionality, we bristle. And again, rightly so.
This passage itself appears on the surface like just such an instance. After all, we read:
“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Get away from me, you who will receive terrible things. Go into the unending fire that has been prepared for the devil and his angels.”
Now, it’s important to note that this is a parable. It is not a theological exposition to be taken literally and decisively. But it is wisdom to help us. A better headline for this section would make this clear: The Parable of the Judgment of the Nations.
And to say this perhaps for the last time:
The aim of wisdom is to help us to disengage from our expectations and surrender to reality. Jesus’ parables are stories that help us to do that.
In his parables, Jesus can present exaggeration, paradox, contradiction, and stark alternatives. and imagining a principle carried out to its extreme. Jesus’ parables can be jarring and powerful, confusing, or comforting. As I’ve said before, they are meant for us to marinate in them, stew in them over time. They are meant to dissolve the glue that attaches us to conventional thinking and ordinary prejudice.
So, what wisdom is contained in this parable?
Notice that Jesus tells this parable obliquely about himself. Jesus is the Human One, or in other translations, the Son of Man. There is much to be said about this title, but we’re not going to go into that this morning. This parable imagines Christ’s return in majesty as a ruler or King at the end of time.
The rule of this king is not over one nation, instead we are told that all the nations are gathered before him. This king is king over all nations. Yet those before him are separated – sheep to the right and goats to the left.
The sheep are to be rewarded and the goats are to be punished. But on what basis or for what reason? It is at first mysterious. To the sheep he tells them that they took care of him when he was in trouble. Of course, they respond that they never saw him when he was in trouble. To which the King replies: But whenever you helped anyone in trouble, it was me whom you were helping.
And, likewise, the king tells the goats that they did not help him when he was in trouble, because they did not help those they encountered in trouble. Whenever they did not help someone in trouble they did not help him.
Of course, both the sheep and the goats would have helped the king if they saw him in trouble. After all, he’s the king. They would have been afraid not to help him. They may have reasonably expected a reward or a favor if they helped him and punishment if they did not. In that situation, there would be no test of their hearts. Sheep and goats will both help the king – even if only to help themselves. It does not reveal their hearts.
This parable instead tells a story about how their hearts are revealed to the king unbeknownst to them. It imagines an exposure of the heart.
This parable imagines a revelation of the heart. And the judgment of the king is based on that revelation.
But let’s think for a moment about the reward and the punishment, because that does strike me as challenging.
The questions that we bring to a biblical passage can often go a long way in determining how we understand it. We mesh our expectations into what we find and our expectations can be very strong. But again, the aim of wisdom is to help us surrender our expectations to reality.
So, as I’ve said before, if we approach the Bible generally, and Jesus’ teachings and parables specifically, as instructions on how to get to heaven, we will be hearing them in a particular way. We will hear them as answering a question that they are not, in reality, asking.
Broadly speaking, Jesus’ wisdom teaching is not about how to get to heaven. Jesus’ wisdom teaching is about how to allow heaven to emerge among us here on earth.
Again, this is a parable, not a theological treatise. Parables invite us to engage our imaginations, so let’s use them for a moment.
Imagine a world in which people did not help those in need. Imagine a world dominated by self-serving, power-grabbing, egotists. Imagine a dog-eat-dog world where once you’ve stumbled, you were done. That world is – quite simply – hell. That is the world of all goats. Please take careful note – that is not our world.
On the other hand, imagine the world of all sheep: a world in which everyone shares, in which generosity is the rule, in which cooperation in making sure that everyone has the necessities of welcome, food, and compassion flourishes. That sounds like heaven. And, again, take careful note – that is not our world either.
No, our world is a world of mixed motives, of sometime helpers and sometimes self-seekers. A world in which some are mostly compassionate and generous, others are mostly not.
The wisdom of heaven is that it is in our hearts and hands to bring forth heaven among us – or not.
By our habits, our actions, our words, we either create a world of competition and selfishness or we create a world of cooperation and compassion. We either live into the kingdom of heaven in each moment or not.
We may have at some point been led to believe that it is only when we die we either enter the kingdom of heaven or not.
But the fact of the matter is that we live into the kingdom of heaven or not in each moment. In each decision, each action, each habit we cultivate. Each habit we let go of.
In each moment, the doors to the kingdom of heaven open or close to us. We either live into the kingdom of heaven, or not.
This parable underscores or dramatizes as a final judgment what are, in reality, the consequences of how we approach each moment.
And it might be worth saying that the parable imagines the nations gathered before the King for judgment. So, what does it mean that our Congress is considering passing a tax bill that will take money from those less well-off and give it to the rich? How would this stand up before the judgment of the parable.
And understanding that, let me make two more points about this parable.
First, we’ve been talking in the background throughout this series of the closeness of heaven and earth. They are not two ultimately distinct realms, but have an intrinsic connection. This is a fundamental premise of Christian theology that stems from the doctrine of the incarnation. God is incarnated, becomes a part of this world, this creation, in the person of Jesus.
In this parable that intrinsic connection between heaven and earth is brought into the foreground as Jesus says that he, as the Human One or the Son of Man, is here in this world embodied as those who are vulnerable and in need. Love and service for and to them is love and service to Christ.
In this way, the two Great Commandments – to love God and love our neighbor as ourselves, are shown to be ultimately one and the same.
And second, this parable is also encouraging us to appreciate wisdom as the capacity to appreciate or grasp the present. Reality always comes to us in the present. If we are to surrender to reality it will be in the present moment.
A few weeks ago I talked about how we cultivate our capacity to do this. We do it with the simple, ordinary steps of preparing to live each day well: we thoughtfully manage our sleeping and eating, keeping our calendars from being too full, we make time for regular physical activity, we consciously and intentionally stay in touch with the Spirit in prayer so that we are regularly returning our hearts to God. All these practices help keep us awake to the presence of Christ in the midst of each moment.
Over time, as we practice living into the kingdom of Heaven, our capacity grows. We practice keeping the intention to be awake before us.
And as we wisely manage our regular, disciplined practice, not only do we increase our capacity and preparation, we also create an environment around us that makes responding in love easier for those around us. Our open hearts create a space in which it is easier for others to open theirs. We don’t shut them down or close them out; we build them up. We invite them in.
Richard Rohr’s recently wrote this.
Wisdom is not the gathering of more facts and information, as if that would eventually coalesce into truth. Wisdom is a way of seeing and knowing the same old ten thousand things but in a new way. As my colleague Cynthia Bourgeault often says, it’s not about knowing more, but knowing with more of you. I suggest that wise people are those who are free to be truly present to what is right in front of them. It has little to do with formal education. Presence is pretty much the same as wisdom!
Presence is the one thing necessary to attain wisdom, and in many ways, it is the hardest thing of all. Just try to keep your heart open and soft, your mind receptive without division or resistance, and your body aware of where it is and its deepest level of feeling. Presence is when all three centers are awake at the same time!
As we keep these three centers – heart, mind, and body – present and awake all at the same time we beceom ever more aware of the presence and goodness of God taking shape and emerging into reality in the midst of each moment. It’s happening all the time, we are invited to wake up to it.
We will awaken to the presence of Christ in the person in need, in the sunset, in the affection of a neighbor, in the appreciation of beauty, in the startling miracle of baby’s smile, in the peace of a time of rest.
The wisdom of heaven is to surrender to Christ’s presence hidden in each moment, so we are freed to be holy friends of God and earth.
Sister wisdom come assist us.