The sheep and the goats

A sermon on Matthew 25:31-46

Tonight we mark the last Sunday of the church year, and as has been the case over these past several weeks we have again heard proclaimed a gospel of deep and profound challenge. Over the ages, the parable of the sheep and the goats with its defining statement,

“as you did it to one of the least of these, you did it to me” has inspired countless Christians to commit themselves to lives of service, ministry, and radical hospitality. As the theologian Christine Pohl observes, for the Christian faith this parable ties the practice of care and hospitality to a life in God in a most radical way.

And yes, as we hear the parable proclaimed we should be inspired; we should find in this idea that in bumping up against the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, we are in a place of looking upon the very face of Jesus. It is like St Francis of Assisi discovering that in encountering lepers and actually treating them as people—not as outcast lepers, but as people created in the image of God—he was drawn closer to Christ.

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But there is the other side of this parable, the side that is actually quite deeply unsettling. What of those goats?

“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.”

The goats, as the parable unfolds, are told that they must depart from the very presence of the Shepherd King, for in his time of need they failed to give him food or drink, they failed to care for him or to visit him in prison. With stunned looks, they answer, “But Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?” And in the parable, the Shepherd King answers, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” And just in case his audience misses the depth to which that should rattle them, Jesus adds that, “these (goats) will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” Oh.

As has been the case over the past few weeks when dealing with these parables of crisis and judgment, I want you to be aware of the original context for this teaching. Not, mind you, so that we can do a bit of exegetical gymnastics intended to somehow take us off the hook here, but so that we can actually get an even deeper sense of the claim being placed on us.

This parable comes at the end of the 25th chapter of Matthew, and it is something of a capstone to an extended teaching Jesus shares with his disciples in response to a question they ask him near the beginning of chapter 24. “When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately, saying, ‘Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?’” (Matthew 24:3). It is a question about the unfolding of all of time and history, as things are drawn to their culmination. When will the great temple in Jerusalem fall, when will the Roman emperor is no longer sit on his throne, when will the Kingdom be brought in? And what signs should we be looking for?

As begins his answer, Jesus does speak of great political upheaval, of wars and of persecutions. He then moves to tell a parable calling for watchfulness and readiness, but in the end he places this fundamental claim on his disciples: you must do the good news, and in doing the good news you are being drawn into the very presence of the coming Shepherd King, whether you recognize him or not.

You can imagine the bewildered looks on the faces of those disciples as sat there with Jesus, and heard him make this move. When he spoke of things like the collapse of the temple or the arrival of great political upheaval they were probably thinking in terms of revolution, liberation, and victory. They were probably imagining themselves being lifted from their status as peasants and fishermen to places of honour at the right and left hands of the conquering king. How many times over the course of the gospel narratives do we see them working those kinds of assumptions? Never mind the healings, the feedings, and the conversations with lepers, Samaritans, tax collectors, and status-less women… we’re talking a conquering king here. And he’s going to need some generals, some court officials, maybe even a few princes.

And then this: In as much as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you did it to me. The signs of the inbreaking kingdom are things so ordinary as food and clothing? As the care of someone who is ill or a visit to someone the soldiers have thrown into prison?

In a word, yes. Which is a big part of why the Christian movement spread like wildfire throughout the ancient world. The church of the ancient world kept insisting on doing these extraordinary things, like rescuing and adopting abandoned and exposed babies, giving to both women and slaves status as fully human, and caring for the sick and dying even in times of epidemic and plague.  In the 360s, the pagan emperor Julian wrote that, “the impious Galileans support not only their poor, but ours as well, everyone can see that our people lack aid from us.” Though wishing it were otherwise, the emperor basically had to admit that these Christians—who he quite publically loathed—were basically winning over the empire through their acts of mercy, kindness, and radical inclusion.

Similarly in the 1100s, by pursing his vision of simplicity and compassion St Francis of Assisi challenged and unsettled the pomp and power of the medieval church. Closer to our own day, influential politicians have found themselves paying attention to women like Dorothy Day and Teresa of Calcutta, quite frankly because these formidably straightforward women enacted a Matthew 25 faith in real and compelling ways.

And just as those disciples probably sat shaking their heads in a kind of puzzled wonder at this teaching, so do most of us. Being kind, being generous, hospitable and open to the stranger are all things we can agree are virtues, but are they really signs and expressions of the Kingdom? Even more, are these really the things on which our relationship with the King hinge? “All people, whether they are Christians or not, know all they need to know to care for ‘the least of these,’” writes Stanley Hauerwas. “The difference between followers of Jesus and those who do not know Jesus is that those who have seen Jesus no longer have any excuse to avoid ‘the least of these.’” How we do the gospel is that important.

But here’s the other thing. Though such a posture of openness to the last and the least and the lost is not always easy to maintain, according to this parable it is the posture from which we will look into the face of Christ. And if we’re honest with ourselves, each of us in our own way is among the last, the least and the lost. We all have times when we will be hungry and thirsty­—literally or otherwise—sick or struggling or isolated; when we will be, even if only for a season, numbered among the least, needing the care and mercy of the other. It’s not easy to admit that things aren’t going well or that we need help; and yet as we dare to open ourselves to being bound up, fed and nurtured, visited and cared for by our sisters and brothers in the Body of Christ, the Shepherd King is present. He is the one we serve, when we offer care and sustenance one to another, and beyond these walls into the hurts and needs and longings of the world in which we live.

2 Responses to The sheep and the goats

  1. Jamie says:

    Great questions… and I hope others will weigh in too.
    Your reference to “becoming less expensive social workers” is particularly helpful, in that it actually points to one of the traps that clergy fall into with some regularity; the free counselor, who often as not was simply not trained or prepared for the task.
    I actually think that we can take a bit of direction from the example of the ancient church, which basically embraced an alternative ethos, rolled up its collective sleeves, and lived out of its vision. The parallel places in our own time might be poverty ministries (which are also justice ministries, as Dorothy Day reminded us), but what about the apparent crisis in health care, which finds many people (and particularly elderly people) unable to find a doctor or to access their own in anything like a reasonable window of time? In some places in both the UK and North America, the idea of a parish nurse has become more and more common. And what of the kind of very basic mental health support group that Gilbert Berg has been quietly putting into place in the church? Given how tough life with depression or anxiety can be, having that kind of place to connect could make a real difference. And sure, along with the parish nurse idea, this is directly primarily to those in our own church circle. Then again so was the idea of visiting the prisoner in the original parable, in that Jesus was not envisioning a “prison fellowship” kind of organized ministry, but rather a response when a member of the church gets tossed into jail simply for being a Christian.
    I also think that acts of compassion and kindness aren’t necessarily all about what we conventionally regard as being “needs,” but can include responses to the hunger for beauty, truth, and friendship.

  2. Bramwell Ryan says:

    I’m curious about how we engage with these passages in today’s world. References to plague-ridden Rome, St Francis’s efforts with lepers and so on are great reminders of how our spiritual ancestors operated but what about now?
    Here we don’t have mass destitution; the sick aren’t abandoned to starve to death; children are educated not worked-to-death and so on. In reality much of how earlier Christians lived their faith in public has been taken over by government. While believers pioneered hospitals, hospices, care for the poor and infirm, education, prisoner visits and more, in Canada the state has taken over these Matthew-25-motivated actions (at times poorly but still…).
    So how do/should/can Christians serve today? How do we fulfil our Matthew 25 callings? Do we still try to muscle-in on the same acts of kindness, but in doing so distinguish ourselves from government only by becoming less expensive social workers? Or are there other ways and areas in which to selflessly show God’s love such that people will know we are Christians? Thoughts?

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