As well as painting a collective image, this passage also divides the nations into “sheep” and “goats.” My brother is a farmer here in Appalachia. He has both sheep and goats along with other livestock. Neither the sheep or the goats are expendable: both have value and worth. But you relate to both very differently. Sheep can be led, whereas goats are stubborn and must often be driven.
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(Read this series from its beginning here.)
This parable is about how nations choose to relate to hunger and thirst, who gets food, shelter or clothing. We know it’s an economic parable because prisons in Jesus’ culture were not used for the crimes we use prisons for today. For example, if someone was guilty of murder, they would be executed, not imprisoned. Prisons were used for economic or political reasons. If someone was in prison, they were most likely in a kind of debtors prison working off a debt after suffering economic hardship. That’s why we need to read this parable in terms of distributive justice.
The parable then states that nations enter into either eternal life or eternal punishment or turmoil. What might this mean? Nations who practice a compassionate system of distributive justice will last a long time. You could say they enter a kind of eternal life. Other nations practice an economic system rooted in extraction, exploitation, privilege (where some are worth more than others), and power (where some have more power than others). These nations intrinsically experience turmoil, conflict, striving, and punishments that are always ongoing, or eternal. Nations learn the hard way that hunger, thirst, nakedness, abuse to foreigners, denying clothing including housing, debtors’ prisons, and other things of this nature are unsustainable. They set in motion endless striving and if not corrected have brought down the most powerful empires in history from the inside out.
As an example, some contemporary Christians cite portions of Leviticus to support their own bigotry against LGBTQ folks but ignore passages like Leviticus 19:33 when it comes to immigration policies or how we treat the “stranger”:
“When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the LORD your God.” (italics added)
How we choose to shape our nation’s immigration policy matters. Pay close attention when certain sectors of Christianity choose to cherry pick and prioritize the death dealing passages of their sacred text, rather than the humanizing and life-giving passages.
Lastly, I want to briefly address this language of eternal life or eternal punishment. We’ll take a closer look at this, next.
(Read Part 3)