The Last Judgement by Michaelangelo
The Sheep and the Goats
Matthew 25: 31-40
What happens when you die? Are we ‘going’ to heaven, or hell? The notorious cult murderer Charles Manson died this week, and the American media have swiftly and ignominiously despatched him to hell, just as the British press did when both Myra Hindley and Ian Bradley died in recent years. We certainly want Hell to exist when we need it as a punishing place for folk we hate, or whom we feel deserve it. We may even wish a little corner of it to the bloke who spent two hours on Friday night smashing his way through doors and windows of our beautiful community buildings here. Hell is a useful spiritually horrible place of earthly, eternal revenge.
Yet when we think about Hell, we are considering a conglomeration of traditions, only some of which originate in the Bible, and some of which are fictional. And just as the heritage of Hell contains elements of Jewish, Greek and Mediaeval tradition, so too does the heritage of Heaven. For as the ancient Greeks had Hades to fear, they had Elysium to look forward to. Hell itself, is a Norse word, and was where everyone went, or rather, where the boring people went. The interesting ones – that is those who died in battle, went to Valhalla. But Hell wasn’t such a bad place, it seems – just a bit boring. But I supposed boring is better than burning!
Mediaeval Europe made Heaven a great reward, in contrast to Hell, which was construed as constant punishment in return for sinful deeds. The mediaeval church was quite specific about the nature and the implications of all sorts of different sinful deeds. The Italian poet Dante had special levels of Hell for different kinds of sinners, and one level was specially reserved for Popes! Dante’s vision is extensive and rich, and he populates his Hell with real and imagined characters. At the epicentre of Hell is a giant, terrifying beast with three faces, one red, one black, and one a pale yellow, none other than Satan himself, condemned for his personal treachery against God, the ultimate sin.
But before we get too excited about those two ‘places’, or destinations at the end of our earthly journey we must first face the concept, and the reality of Judgment. For whatever our eternal destiny is, it is determined by Christ our King, and Judge. Today – the Feast of Christ the King - and the ensuing weeks of Advent direct us to this terrifying, comforting vision, and to what are sometimes referred to as the ‘Four Last Things’ – Death, Judgement, Heaven and Hell.
And today’s gospel reading, the parable of the sheep and the goats is a wonderfully simple but powerful summary of what Christians and others have believed for centuries about what happens when we die. Some things in the parable are clear: there are two destinations or states to end up in: eternal life or eternal punishment. Both entail some kind of continuation, which we should anticipate with something between complacency and terror. The scenario Jesus paints was very familiar to his hearers. The parable is not about what heaven or hell are like, they know that. Heaven and hell were very real to Jesus’ hearers. In the parable he takes this understanding for granted and also what it would be like when you get there. The parable of Dives and Lazarus does the same thing. Jesus’ point is to indicate on what grounds the determination of destination is achieved. So, the parable is not about whether there is heaven and hell, but about who gets to go there and on what basis.
It is vital to understand that in first century Palestine, sheep and goats were basically regarded as the same animal, and were not distinguished, or separated, as they are now. Our first reading from Ezekiel reminds us of this. In the account of the first Passover – during the Israelites’ flight from Egypt, the Passover lamb, could, they were told, actually be a goat. ‘Take a lamb from the sheep or the goats’, they are told. Sheep and goats would graze together, only to be separated at the end of their lives. This tells us that ultimately God makes distinctions that we do not, and when those distinctions are made, and because we cannot tell the difference between sheep and goats, there will be an element of surprise. In the parable, no-one knows whether they are a sheep or a goat, and only God can tell the difference.
Even more important in this parable is the rationale behind the Day of Judgement. Notwithstanding what St Paul and St James write to their friends and followers in Greece and Rome about salvation through faith rather than works – and the subsequent impact it all had on Martin Luther - here it is very clear: where you go when you die depends on how you have lived. And the good guys are those who have shown compassion and care for the weak and vulnerable. The message is simple: if you cared for them you will be saved, if you didn’t, woe betide you.
This is demonstrated best during the period of the mediaeval Western Church, when the emphasis at funerals moved away from hope of eternal life, to an emphasis on judgment. Hell and purgatory were very much in evidence. Funerals became a public event at which the Church attempted to discipline the people, and artists depicted the torments of the damned and the rewards of the faithful. In 1533 Pope Clement VII asked Michelangelo to paint the Last Judgement on the wall behind the altar in the Sistine Chapel, commissioning one of the most vivid depictions of Jesus’ parable. Similarly, ‘mystery plays’ portrayed the souls of the damned being dragged into hell, or purgatory, and Dante emphasised this in his Divine Comedy, which actually, isn’t that funny. Much later The Dream of Gerontius by Cardinal Newman (set so marvellously to music by Sir Edward Elgar), We have a description of how old man Gerontius makes confession, and passes from life to death, via purgatory to heaven.
Now, nobody in their right protestant mind believes in purgatory any more. The 22nd of the 39 Articles of Religion describe it as a ‘fond thing vainly invented’, and indeed, many Roman Catholics have abandoned purgatory too. Karl Rahner, probably the greatest Catholic theologian of the twentieth century, was less interested in the particular salvation of a particular soul and where it happened and when and how, but rather focussed on the idea that after death the soul is united with the cosmos, through which, while awaiting the final day of resurrection, the soul becomes aware of the effects of sin on the world. This, Rahner reckoned, would be purgatory enough: not so much punishment, but awareness. More significant still is the opinion of Pope Benedict XVI (Josef Ratzinger). He did not like the classical, pay-and-display-your-sins idea of a middle stage between death and salvation. Rather he believed that Jesus himself is the refining fire who transforms us in the power of resurrection. Significantly, this is a doctrine of death and judgment that relates to Jesus Christ rather than to human prayer and intervention, indulgences and all the mediaeval paraphernalia of devotion that sought to scare people out of hell by scaring the hell out of them. Perhaps, like me, you can hear the ghost of that miserable German, Martin Luther, cheering as I say this, 500 years almost to the day after his 59 Theses of disgruntlement were penned to his bishop and than tactlessly tacked onto a church door a few days later. As a rather amusing book I’ve been reading put it:
“On All Saints Eve 1517 Luther strides to the door of the Wittenberg Church and nails his 59 Theses to the door. A crowd gathers. ‘Guten Tag’; ‘Achtung Spitfire’, ‘Vorsprung durch technik’ they exclaim. ‘Est is der Reformation!’ There are cheers and tears and everyone goes home to be Protestant and happy ever after.” (p.3)
Nick Page, the author of The Nearly Infallible Guide to the Reformation, goes on to say:
“George Bernard Shaw wrote that ‘all progress depends on the unreasonable man’. And believe me, in the whole history of human civilisation you have to go a long way to find a more unreasonable man than Martin Luther”. (p.5)
Let’s leave Luther in the sixteenth century, but return to our modern Roman Catholics, who have reminded us that even more significant in this moving away from medieval understandings about judgement, is our renewed ability to rely on resurrection hope. Jesus tells the parable of the sheep and goats in order to show that God makes distinctions that we do not, and to promote compassion and love for neighbours. It is not long after this parable that we read of his going on to suffer and die, before rising again: the one who empties himself as a servant on the Cross, that we might live: The self-weakened King who offers himself for human salvation.
Christianity bases its fundamental hope on resurrection, not on the immortality of the soul. King Christ leads us in that way by his own victory over death. So, whatever ‘Judgment’ is, or however it happens, our calling as Christians is to love our neighbours as ourselves and love the Lord our God. The former – loving others - clearly helps with judgement. And the latter – loving God – involves absolute trust in God’s merciful redemption which leads to the resurrection life opened up for us in Christ our Lord and King of Glory. Amen.
The Rev'd Dr Gordon Giles, St Mary Magdalene, Enfield, 26/11/17