This weekend I really wanted to speak about a parable in a way that made the most of what it is- its a story, and so I decided to write a story about it, or at least talk about it as a story rather than anything else… so this is (as always, approximately) what I said about Mathew 25- the parable of the sheep and the goats:
There is a story of a ruler, who for one day every year would leave his palace and go out among the people. He would leave behind his crown, his symbols of power, his guards and advisors, and go, and see how his people lived, and how they treated one another. And then on his return, he would know how to rule them for the year to come. Each year he would dress as someone different- whether as a business man, a homeless man, a factory worker, a farm hand, disguise himself as someone older or younger, sometimes as someone from another country, and he would see how his people treated him, and on his return he would know who in his land needed especial care. He would notice who among the people showed kindness to a stranger, or was rude even to their friends, he would sit alongside the hungry and watch as they were fed or ignored, and he would know who in his land was deserving of reward, and who needed to learn the lesson of compassion and generosity.
That’s what the passage from Matthew’s gospel is about… the king has noticed all that his people have done, has noticed how they treat the least of those among them. And so he treats them as they have treated others. It’s not unfair- it’s absolutely fair. This isn’t talking about how things are now- its challenging us to live in a certain way now, because of what will happen in the future. We are called to live as we know we ought to live, because one day we will be asked to account for what we have and haven’t done.
I was talking with some friends about being inspected in the workplace- and how different organisations do it differently- with Ofsted schools get a bit of warning, but not much- they have time to panic and tidy things up but not to completely change everything. In the NHS medical centres get nearer 2 weeks- which gives you time to sort out the paperwork that was just piling up, but does mean that the inspectors don’t really see how things operate normally- its even possible to hide staff that are not so clued up from the inspectors… in a bank where another friend works, the inspectors just walk in through the front door and there they are- no warning. They get to see how the bank operates on any given day… but are the bank employees so worried about the possibility of inspection that they aren’t able to work properly?
The difference between these things and the Christian life is that the inspections in work situations are often to do with procedure and paper evidence for things- showing how you did something, or providing support for your decisions. In the Christian life, whether we’re talking about our own journeying with God or the stuff of our Church life, or the impact our faith has on the people around us, God is not so worried about the paperwork- it’s the work that he cares about. Rather than waiting up every day and wondering whether Jesus is going to ask what you’re doing, we should live in the knowledge that Jesus is with us every day, and already knows what we do- there’s no point in worry about that. In fact, it’s not even the outcomes, but the intention- notice that it doesn’t talk about whether the acts of kindness were well received or whether someone came to know God’s love, but that they were offered…
Whether you’ve been a Christian all your life, are just starting out, or don’t yet know what it means to be a Christian, know this: Within each of us there are things that we know are right, things we know we’d like to do more, parts of our character we know we would like to see blossom- each one of us knows in our hearts how much better it is to be kind, loving, generous, patient, faithful, compassionate, peace filled, joyful… so what is stopping us? Live today as you want to live your life- you don’t get to the end and rewind for a second go… every time you do something or don’t do it, that is the only chance you have for that particular thing.
Whether it’s in our work, as parents, in our families, amongst friends or strangers… and the more we live rightly in the small things, the more we’ll be able to live right in the big things- if we avoid ‘harmless gossip’ then we’ll find it obvious and easy to avoid backstabbing or malicious lies… if we are generous once, it will become easier to be generous with everything we have… If we can avoid becoming angry with someone, and find a way to peace, then it will become easier for us to become people filled with peace, and that will flow from us to those around us. It may be a bit odd- the people who know us may have grown as used to how we’ve always been as we have, and we will struggle at times- the prayer of Paul for the church in Ephesus is a signpost towards how we can reach beyond our own natural inclinations or abilities- God’s Spirit, God’s love in us, that the eyes of our hearts may be opened…
But it’s not difficult to start. It’s not something that we have to be old enough, or rich enough, which has to wait until we’re retired or the kids have grown up… this is day to day stuff. Don’t live looking over your shoulder in case the inspector is coming, but live each day walking with Jesus- by your side, opening your eyes to the things you could do, to the person you can be.
I tried to source the story that I mention at the beginning- I thought it came from a Neil Gaiman story, but I think my mind smudged together several editions of Sandman and put a few extra bits in there too… I also ended up thinking about and talking about the amazing ‘children see, children do’ video from napcan- view it here but be prepared- it won’t make you smile.