Matt 25:31-46 Sheep and Goats
Our Gospel is from the 25th chapter of Matthew.
Today is Christ the King Sunday. It is also last day of the church calendar. Next Sunday we begin a new church year with Advent! On this day we celebrate the Reign of Christ. While it is true that we remember that Christ is our King every Sunday – on this Sunday we make special efforts to affirm that statement. All the other empires that might strive to assert their power over us – the financial markets, political realms, or status symbols that hope for our supreme allegiance – they do not hold dominance. Instead we end our church year declaring that Christ is our King! God is sovereign ruler of our lives.
Time and again, we are also reminded that Jesus was not a conventional king. He certainly is not a king of great military power. God’s kingdom is not found in an opulent castle, with plush robes, a costly throne, or jeweled crown. Jesus did not surround himself with the wealthy princes, prosperous landowners and the well-to-do of Israel.
Instead Jesus reigns over a Kingdom of Love and Peace. From the very beginning of his ministry, Jesus declares that he is present for the poor and the oppressed. Our ruler is often found eating with tax collectors, standing beside lepers, meeting people just outside the city gate – and only found in places of great power when summoned there by the religious and political rulers of his day.
Furthermore, followers of Jesus are not asked to be successful, wealthy, recite perfect pledges. or carefully obey every rule. When our king stands before all the nations to judge them, his measuring stick is care for those who are marginalized. It is clear that the King we proclaim is an odd kind of king, not one usually found in the movies or fairy tales. Here is a king not making greedy power grabs, but placing himself last and gently serving the lost sheep, the injured lambs, and the little ones being left in the dust.
There are 2 things in our parable today that often cause me to pause.
First, the sheep and the goats that had been divided on the king’s right and left – neither group was aware that they had aided Jesus. Those who did care for ‘the least of these’ were not aware that they had ministered to Jesus. Nor were those who failed to offer care. Both say “Master, what are you talking about? When did we see you hungry, thirsty, homeless, naked, sick, or imprisoned?” When were you the refugee, the drug addict, or the undocumented farm worker? Where did I see you and you were homeless, abused, or a person whose sexual identity doesn’t fit my own norms? Master, I don’t recall seeing you.
This king is more concerned about how we live – God’s kingdom is not just future but also present as we joyfully live in mercy. As subjects of this king we do not calculate how serving might benefit me – how serving these people will get me enough points for the ultimate prize. To follow this king is to live out our baptismal call to care for all – just because we are blessed by God to do that. We are blessed and so we become a blessing in the world. The sheep and the goats just did what came naturally to them. The sheep at the king’s right hand were simply going about life as they always did.
The 2nd thing that is difficult for me is the end of this parable … the judgement. I struggle thinking that the king in this parable is God – and that God, who I believe to be LOVE and to be filled with grace and mercy for all, has now just thrown a segment of the nations into eternal darkness, just for being accursed goats! Ultimately, where is the good news in this parable?
Sheep and Goats. The people who were gathered around Jesus as he spoke would have readily known the difference between sheep and goats. I know very little and I am going to assume that many of you are equally inexperienced. I found the ELCA World Hunger notes about this text very helpful. How might rural farmers who shared common knowledge of animal herding understand this parable in ways that I cannot?
Sheep and goats have many similarities though they are distinct species. They are anatomically very similar. Both are highly social animals. The same diseases and parasites afflict them. The same predators hunt them. However, there are also differences. Sheep are grass grazers and goats are shrub browsers. Sheep lower their heads to butt their opponents while goats rear up. Sheep tend to flock more readily – they are the more docile of the two. Goats are more independent and are often the “bullies” in the farmyard.
Perhaps it would have had significant meaning to the original listeners that those seen as living in the way of ‘the King’ were the ones viewed as obedient followers. The sheep and the shepherd, that tender picture of care and support, is often the ideal lifted in the Bible. But goats are more independent. It is possible that Jesus’ audience would immediately have heard the goats equated to the rulers in Jerusalem – both political and religious. The strong, the dominant, the powerful – those that have no need for Jesus – the “goats” are not the ultimate winners.
I find that helpful in approaching the hard judgement of this parable. If the goats are the headstrong, ‘I’ll do it my own way’, dominant bullies – then fitting into the Kingdom of God would be difficult. Especially as we recognize that the kingdom is one of mutual love and support.
At first glance the gospel reading suggests that the goal is to work really hard to be faithful sheep and not be labeled as unfaithful goats. But truth be told, I am both sheep and goat! I may want to be a part of the flock of God’s kingdom, but I often want to do things my own way, march to the tune of my own drummer, rear up and smash not just keep my head down and munch on grass.
If Jesus is to be taken literally, he suggests that a single failure to care for the least of these is all it takes to be condemned. Who can stand up to that test? Mother Theresa? I don’t give money to every charity that sends me mail. I do avoid the eyes of the person sitting just outside my car window asking for help. I’ve rarely visited the imprisoned. And I imagine each one of you could name a situation when I did not come to your aid in your time of need.
At the same time, a single instance of faithfulness is all it takes. Jesus says ‘Whenever you did one of these things to someone overlooked or ignored, that was me – you did it to me.’ (the Message)
In the end, all people are a mix of sheep and goat. Or, one of my favorite understandings of being a child of God is that I am simultaneously a sinner and a saint. It is only through Christ’s redeeming that any of us can be considered worthy.
On a usual, non-pandemic Sunday, we would meet at the communion table – Jesus’ table where he would feed us with bread and wine to sustain us for the journey. Usually, on a non-Covid Sunday, we would be sent out from the sanctuary where we had been nourished, into the world to spread the love of God.
But we are not in usual times …
The wonderful news is that, even if right now we do not have the opportunity to be sent from the communion table where we have been fed of Jesus’ very self – we will still find that Jesus is waiting for us in the world.
We have always found that we can meet God not just in the bread and the wine, but in every corner of our world. We can meet God in the eyes of the stranger, in the hand of the poor, in our neighbor that we wave to from across the street, in our loved ones as we meet on Zoom, or in the weary cashier at the check stand.
God is waiting for us in this world. It is not just at the communion table – it is in every moment of every day. And when we declare that Christ is our king, we are sent out to are find God in our family, our friends, our neighbors, and even our enemies. As those who already blessed sheep of God’s fold, you are empowered to serve God through all you meet. You can trust that the king we worship brings life and salvation to us all.