Open a newspaper, turn on the news, follow a link someone has sent you on Facebook about the current state of things in Syria or in Ferguson, Missouri, and you know that things are not the way they are supposed to be. It is not just those distant places either. We hear the story of the rape and beating of 16 year old Rinelle Harper, and before that of the discovery of the body of 15 year old Tina Fontaine in the river, and we know that something has gone badly wrong… and we wonder how those “somethings” could ever be set right. Deep within us there is a longing for some kind of justice in this world in which we live—in the words of N.T. Wright, “one of the most profound longings of the human race.” “Central to the Jewish and Christian traditions,” Bishop Wright continues, “is the belief that this passionate longing for justice comes from the creator God himself.”
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And so hear the words of the prophet Ezekiel, as he envisions God as the shepherd who “will search for my sheep, and will seek them out.” “I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord God. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak…” Now there’s a shepherd we can long for; one who picks up little lambs with names like Tina and Rinelle and Malala, and says I will keep you safe. Ezekiel doesn’t stop at the image of the protective Shepherd, either; he has a justice-making role as well: “[T]he fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice.”
I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep. Because you pushed with flank and shoulder, and butted at all the weak animals with your horns until you scattered them far and wide, I will save my flock, and they shall no longer be ravaged.
And we all know who the “fat sheep” are, don’t we? We’re pretty sure we can identify the ones who push with flank and shoulder, and who have butted all the weak animals with their horns. We don’t at all mind the idea that God will take down those fat sheep; that somehow in the end justice will be done. We really can see it all with such clarity, even if we’re viewing it all at arms’ length on laptop or smart phone, right before we post the latest selfie and forward a link to that really funny YouTube video.
As Bruce Cockburn sings in his song “Justice,”
Loves to see
On somebody else
(Bruce Cockburn, “Justice”, Inner City Front)
Which is why this passage from the Gospel according to Matthew is so important… and so unsettling.
When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left.
And to those sheep—identified a bit further into the story as the “righteous”—he will say “come… inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” And why are they issued this invitation? What has shown them to be “righteous”? “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” Really? We did that? When? “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”
The timid preacher could just short-circuit the text right there, perhaps jumping into a bit of a discourse on why we should all remember to bring donations for the food bank, consider joining the parish hospital visitor team, donate our used winter gear to the Salvation Army thrift store, and maybe support the work of the local prison ministry. You’re bringing that box of mandarin oranges for Jesus, and though old Mr. Jones is getting really grumpy in the nursing home, when you go to see him you’re going to see the Lord. Not that any of these things are bad—Mr. Jones really does need someone to visit with him, and those boxes of oranges are appreciated by the folks at Agape Table… but compared to how Jesus is about to up the ante, they are a bit thin.
No timid preacher, Jesus continues his story by having the king turn to address the goats.
You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’
But Lord, when did we fail you in that way? “Truly I tell you,” he answers them, “just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” Well Lord, you could have at least told us that’s what you wanted…
For centuries biblical commentators have wrestled with questions about this text. Who exactly are “the nations” said to be gathered before the Son of Man, and what does Jesus mean by “the least of these who are members of my family,” translated by others as “the least significant of my brothers and sisters” (N.T. Wright), ore even as “someone overlooked or ignored” (Eugene Peterson)? The one thing, though, that is not disputed is the fact that in this story both the sheep and the goats are utterly surprised by the very idea that when you do these acts of compassion, they are done for Christ… and that if you neglect to do such things, you are neglecting Christ himself.
As presented by Matthew, this teaching is spoken privately to the disciples, who are then entrusted with the responsibility to retell it to those who will follow. In this sense, it is fair to say that Jesus does not want anyone to be surprised that the mandate to offer food and drink and hospitality and compassion is so very crucial to the life of the Christian disciple; a non-negotiable, in fact, which is both humbling and daunting for anyone prepared to honestly admit the “goatiness” that resides within all of us. On those days when I’m being most honest about my own self, it is hard not to see that I’m at least as much a goat as I am a sheep; that I am at least as inclined to pass by on the other side as I am to take the time to stop to lend a compassionate hand. Still, as a colleague of mine once observed, “Christians dare to say that there is only one lamb, and the goats got him. Yet in dying exhalations that one Lamb forgave all the goats.” I trust that, not as a way to get me off the hook, but rather as a part of my own ongoing and regular confession of my sins and fears and blindness.
Yet we need to also hear this teaching as unveiling an extraordinary invitation, both to us as individuals and to us as church. As articulated by the theologian Dirk Lange,
Rather than considering themselves holders or keepers of the mystery of God (in their liturgy, in their works, in their piety), [the believing community] discover[s] that God is always already outside the circle they draw and the boundaries they create. Mission itself becomes redefined when we consider the move outwards as a move towards God! The community is sent out from the Lord’s Supper as body of Christ only to discover that the body of Christ is already waiting for the community in those suffering in the world.
“The community is sent out… only to discover that the body of Christ is already waiting… in those suffering in the world.” When you leave this place tonight and through this coming week, keep your heads up and your eyes open. He’s waiting.