THE GREAT DIVIDE
A fundamental detail of discipleship is to find the eyes to see the God we trust in the people we meet.
The parable of the sheep and goats has been a remarkable inspiration for Christian outreach through history. A short and elegant story about feeding the hungry, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked and visiting the sick and imprisoned has informed food banks, refugee camps, hospices and prison ministries; people have given up time and security to provide healthcare in Africa, schools in India and soup kitchens in Greece. It has provided the glue which keeps local communities together as faithful people volunteer to help the sick and the lonely, the jobless and the poor. Yet the story remains a source with unexamined depths.
Many of us have a sense of unfocussed guilt when we hear the parable. We like to think we are sheep on the right hand side of God but fear we are goats on the left. There is an epic sweep to Jesus’ words which conjure up images of feeding stations in Syria or well bores in Sudan; the constraints of routine daily life, where we sit behind desks and in front of TVs and the opportunities to meet human need are limited leave us uneasy. Can we really live this parable out?
The answer is a resounding yes, but to do so we need to get a handle on what Jesus is saying. The key is in knowing that we meet with Jesus in the other person. Not selectively, in the people who treat us well, dress nicely and ask after our family, but also in those whose neediness makes them prickly to handle and whose vulnerability makes us afraid for our own. Anyone who has sympathised with another over losing a job or visited them in hospital with tubes everywhere has a queasy sense that the roles could be reversed and may well be one day. There is an emotional cost to meet human need which plays on our fear that life can get worse as well as better. But those who suffer always say it is the kindness of others at that moment that enhances their trust in God and restores their faith in people.
We easily overlook a telling side to this story in Matthew 25: both those who did good and those who did not failed to see Jesus in the people they met. It perhaps makes sense that those who did not lift a finger to help others did not see Jesus in the other person, but sobering to know that those who did what God asked of them also failed to spot the Saviour in their neighbour. Human beings have the law of God written on their hearts, so even those who deny his being still demonstrate his love in their care for others. But even the sheep, commended at the end of time for the compassion they have shown, seemed clueless that Jesus was in the other person and on the receiving end of their kindness. Are we really that slow?
These words suggest there has always been a tendency for people to miss the presence of God in another. These risks are compounded today. The world is more densely crowded than at any other point in history and the process is speeding up. In 1800, one billion people lived on earth. By 1960 this had increased to three billion. In the next fifty years it jumped to seven billion. Some parts of our world are impossibly crowded – teeming cities like Cairo and Mumbai. London and the south-east is so heavily populated today that the average Briton living in 1800 would probably pass out with shock if they visited it.
Why does this matter? Because the more people we are surrounded by, the likelier we are to ignore them. Many of them won’t mind, but others might, and some will despair that we did. The pace of life has palpably quickened; speed and efficiency are the secular liturgies we live by. The more we can do more quickly, the better we feel about ourselves, without always thinking about the consequences. We become more instrumental in how we relate to others – not as people in themselves, but as a means to an end that we have in mind. We use the language of the marketplace to describe relationships: we talk about ‘using’ people or not ‘buying’ their story. And as we do so, the likelihood of us meeting with Jesus in them is diminished. Now wonder people feel Britain is a less caring place.
These are not easy matters and they leave me feeling unsettled, conscious of personal failure. But we need to think about how to overcome this. A fundamental detail of discipleship is to find the eyes to see the God we trust in the people we meet. I always have the sense that the saintliest people - the ones who make me feel I have encountered something of God – are so because they believe they have encountered something of God in me. We can strive to do good in life – and we will be commended for it in the world to come – but there is a chance we may miss incalculable blessings along the way because we stared through the people we met like a bored check-out worker at the end of a shift.
The separation Jesus makes between the sheep and the goats on the last day has a dramatic sense of judgment about it. There is no station for the ‘don’t knows’, we are sifted to one side or the other. It is a story we need to hear because we are often tempted to think there is no justice in this world, when Jesus tells us here that God sees all that we do. It is also a sobering tale, for it suggests the audit will not be a good one for some.
In this life I am sure of one thing about this parable: we flit between being a sheep and a goat, despite our best intentions. Sometimes we spot the chance to meet the need; other times we miss it altogether. Thank God for the grace he bestows on us in Christ, for he is the reason we can stand with confidence in his presence. If we were quicker to spot him in others, we might be more assured of this truth.
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