Sheep and Goats, Oh My

Ezekiel 34:11-24
Psalm 100
Matthew 25:31-46

 

25:31 “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. 32 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, 33 and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 34 Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35 for 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, 36 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.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38 And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39 And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ 40 And the king will answer them, “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.’ 41 Then he will say to those at his left hand, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42 for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 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.’ 44 Then they also will answer, “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?’ 45 Then he will answer them, “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.’ 46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” (Matthew 25:31-46, NRSV)

 

Let us pray: Shepherd of Israel, hear our prayer as your Son heard the plea of the criminal crucified with him. Gather into Christ’s holy reign the broken, the sorrowing, and the sinner, that all may know wholeness, joy, and forgiveness. Amen.

You may be surprised to learn that in some cases it is really hard to tell the difference between a sheep and a goat.  Really, now they both make different sounds, Baa-baa-baa and nea-nea.  But from a distance it is hard to tell them apart. So, how are a sheep and a goat different?

 

There is a website called “the difference between” and it says: the easiest way to tell the difference between a sheep and a goat is to look at their tails.  A goat’s tail will go up (unless the goat is frightened, sick, or in distress).  A sheep’s tail will hang down and are often (docked) cut off for health and sanitary reasons.   The next difference is that they don’t look much alike.  A goat has hair and a sheep has fleece.  A goat is more slender of the two animals.  In the west people eat sheep meat but in the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent people eat goat meat.

 

Jesus, however, can tell them apart because he says when the Son of man makes judgment it will be “as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.”  The shepherd, in this story is Jesus and he can tell at a glance which is which even at a great distance. The shepherd is watching, and he will make judgment.

 

Like it or not, this parable is about judgment.  Judgment is a fact of life.  We are judged in every aspect of our lives: our work, our play, when we go to the grocery store, when we walk down the street, we are judged.  How we look, what we wear, what we say, what we eat, what we drink, where we worship, if we worship.  We simply cannot escape judgment in life. So, Jesus is talking about something we know very well – judgment.

 

But this parable is about more than daily judgment, much more than superficial judgment – it is about final judgment.  Jesus is warning his followers of God’s judgment to pay attention to how do we live, how do we love, how do we treat others?   This parable raises the tension between obedience and disobedience. Do we listen to Jesus and follow his teachings or not?

 

So, are you a sheep or a goat? I know you are thinking and wondering. So which is it?

 

What is interesting in this text is that both the sheep and the goats are in the flock. The shepherd cares for and watches over both the sheep and the goats.  Also, notice that both the sheep and the goats are unable to see in the King in “least of these.”  So, the shepherd declares that he has been watching both the sheep and the goats and he is fully aware of their actions and their blindness.   Then the shepherd chooses which to bless and which to curse.  Then, the shepherd judges them using the criteria of their works of compassion.  Pretty harsh.  But there it is in black and white, the Word of God.

 

Now, for this Presbyterian pastor this is a tough biblical text. I preach and teach week after week about God’s free grace.  It is grace that saves us apart from anything we can do to save ourselves.  It is grace that forgives us.  It is God’s grace that says I love you even when you are unlovable.  That is the Jesus I worship, the Jesus I love.   But this parable reveals a much different side of Jesus, this Jesus is on the throne giving out judgment and honestly it is hard to take.  On a good day when I have felt compassionate toward my fellow human beings I might be able to accept it, but there are other days when I know I haven’t cared enough.  It is then that this parable hits me right between the eyes.  And I want to scream, “But I thought it was all about grace, I thought it didn’t matter what I did, that you still loved me and saved me.”

 

And that is the tension of the Bible, the tension of being a Christian.  Yes it is about grace.  And yes it is about works.  It does matter how you live.  It is as if Jesus is saying to us, “You think it’s all free grace?  You think you can live anyway you want?  Remember the story of the sheep and the goats?  You aren’t off the hook so easily.  I see you and judge you on how you treat others!”

 

This parable is often interpreted as our way to earn God’s favor by our “good” works and it often evolves into a guilt ridden moral appeal for us to get out there and do “good” things.  The problem is that this parable is really not about our good works.  It is about “seeing.”  Jesus is not judging the virtues of the sheep or the faults of the goats, but, rather, he is pointing out the hidden-ness of the King in the “least of these.”  Neither the sheep nor the goats saw the King in all the misery around them.   So, Jesus points out what separates the sheep from the goats.   It is not that the sheep are better able to see Jesus in the misery of the world but, it is that the sheep treat everyone equally; they treat them as their brother, their sister, their fellow human being, and not as lower class citizens or useless human beings – they may in fact be the least, the last and the lost, but they are still children of God.  So, you see neither the sheep nor the goats were able to see Jesus – and neither can we so the message is this – treat everyone as if they were Jesus himself. Because you never know when it just might be him!

 

That is what Jesus is talking about here how we treat everyone because you never know when Jesus might be “the least of these,” because we will never be able to discern Christ in our neighbor. That is not our job to discern which person is Jesus and which one is not!  No, our calling is to believe that Christ is already there with them.

 

It is clear in this passage from Matthew that what Jesus wants us to do in response to God’s grace is to have compassion for the least of these – to care for the hungry, the thirsty, the sick, and the imprisoned.  There is simply no way to wriggle our way out of that expectation.

 

Yes, God is a God of grace and love and it is free and undeserved, but there are clear expectations with that grace and the expectation is to love.  The expectation is to open our eyes real wide and see Christ in everyone we meet, especially the hungry and the thirsty and the sick and the imprisoned.  Jesus wants us to treat everyone we meet as we would treat him.  He wants us to see the worth and the dignity of every person.

 

It is not natural.  Naturally we want to turn our heads at the ugliness of it.  We want to hold our noses at the stench of it.   We want to close our hearts to the horror of it.   Jesus calls us to respond differently to open our eyes and our ears and our hearts to see him in those in need.

I love the fact that this is the chosen text for Christ the King Sunday, highest of high days where we crown Jesus Lord of Lords and King of Kings, where we sing, “Crown him with many crowns…” But yet, we aren’t reading a text about a King in our sense of royalty.  We are reading a text where Jesus can be found in the least, the last and the lost and that makes him the greatest King of all.

 

When Jesus comes and tells us we have fed him and clothed him and welcomed him we might say, “When was that?  I don’t remember seeing you.”  And Jesus will smile and say, “Every time you showed compassion and treated someone with respect and kindness that was me.  Every time you lifted your hand to help someone up, I saw, and he says, “Well done my good and faithful servant.”

 

Let us pray: O God, the good Shepherd, hear our prayer that you would open our eyes, our ears and our hearts to respond to those in need; the broken, the grieving, those filled with sorrow, the hungry, the thirsty, the homeless, the imprisoned and the sinner, that all may know wholeness, joy, and forgiveness. Amen.

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