Nearly all the meat you eat is male.
My great-grandfather was an agricultural worker in North Yorkshire, between Malton and Pickering, near to where the Flamingoland theme park now stands. He moved to West Yorkshire to become a farm owner, running a dairy farm on Hartshead moor. That farm is no longer in the family and is now a horse stud. It must have been a shock coming from the flat grazing land of the place where he was brought up to the, in places, near vertical fields of the Pennines.
Every year on a livestock farm there is a cull. It only takes one or two bulls to service a herd of cows, so every year there is a separation of all but the very best of the young bulls and females, which are for breeding and producing milk, from the other young males, who have an appointment with the butcher.
Jesus takes this very ordinary picture of the annual cull, which in the agricultural society of first century Judea would have been mixed flocks of sheep and goats, and applies it to his return.
The Gospel of Matthew is written as a series of six narrative sections, telling the story of Jesus’ life, interspersed with five sections of teaching. The beginning of the Gospel links back into the past of the Old Testament. This, the last of the teaching sections, links forward to the future. Advent is a time when we look forward to the return of Christ.
The final judgement part 1 – Jesus returns as judge
31 ‘When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.
34 ‘Then the King will say to those on his right, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was ill and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.”
37 ‘Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you ill or in prison and go to visit you?”
40 ‘The King will reply, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”
41 ‘Then he will say to those on his left, “Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was ill and in prison and you did not look after me.”
44 ‘They also will answer, “Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or ill or in prison, and did not help you?”
45 ‘He will reply, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.”
46 ‘Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.’Matthew 25:31-46 NIV UK
This is not, as some have said, a parable. This is Jesus telling of the last judgement when he will come to the earth as judge. It starts with an illustration of the annual cull of animals, which would have been familiar to the disciples to whom the teaching was given.
There are three groups here, the sheep. the goats, and those who are hungry, thirsty, a stranger, naked, sick or in prison; the latter group, those in need, is given in three groups of two, the hungry and thirsty, the stranger and the naked, and the sick and imprisoned.
As an aside, Matthew liked his threes, from the three groups of 14 generations in the geneology that started the Gospel through the miracles in chapters 8 and 9 being presented in three groups of three. Mathew uses the number three symbolically even in the narrative parts of his writing. This story is still is an apocalyptic writing, so the symbolic use of numbers has got to be kept in mind.
The focus of this story though is not on any of these three groups, the focus is on Jesus himself.
Son of man is the title Jesus used for himself more than any other name. It comes from the book of Daniel, from the time of the Jewish exile, and speaks of the Son of Man, symbolic for the vulnerable nation of Israel, coming to God in a time when it was being persecuted by mythical beasts. Son of Man always has an air of vulnerability about it, but the vulnerable Son of Man sits on the throne and after that is referred to as King. In rabbinic writings King in a story means God. The one who is vulnerable and stands for the nation is King, God and judge. The big issue in this story is not who the sheep and goats are, it is about the ultimate sovereignty of the Son of Man as the universal judge.
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