Loving Sheep & Goats
A sermon on Matthew 25:31-46
I am getting pretty tired of having to say “The Gospel of the Lord” immediately after describing unfortunate people being condemned to eternal punishment. Seriously Matthew, enough with the judgement parables! How is this gospel? How is this the good news of God’s grace poured out for us through Jesus?
I recognize that judgment is a central theme of Matthew’s gospel, and that judgment is important for understanding the full theology of law and gospel… but stories divide people into the saved and the damned miss that gospel message for me.
However... when it comes to this particular parable of judgment, I have some good news for us all. Because if you - like me – hear this parable and your immediate instinct is to think “oh no, am I am sheep or a goat?” I can tell you the answer:
YOU ARE BOTH!
I am confident of that answer for a couple of reasons:
First, I see what the people of this church do. This church is a giving, helping church. You cook and serve meals at Faith Kitchen, and give rides to folks from Mt. Olive Manor, and you donate to hurricane relief, and bring communion to sick or injured members, and you write letters in support of hunger programs and detained immigrants, and give generously to the ministry of this church. You respond to the needs you see.
But, it is impossible for ANYONE to meet all of the needs all of the time. The needs are just too overwhelming. So, I know there are times when we have all seen people hungry, or thirsty, of a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison and have not helped. That’s just a fact.
My second reason for claiming that we are all BOTH sheep and goats, is that Luther did a lot of biblical and theological work to explain his conclusion that we are ALL both saints and sinners
None of us makes all the wrong decisions or all the right decisions. AND salvation is not about a divine math equation that counts up our good deeds and subtracts our bad ones. It really is about grace.
Also, if we want to understand the real meaning of this parable, we can’t read it in isolation… we have to keep reading to the story of the crucifixion. And in THAT story the events violate the formula described in this parable:
the person who gives Jesus something to drink… is a centurion guarding his cross…
and the people who fail to stay with him after he is arrested… are his closest disciples.
The fullness of Matthew’s gospel makes it clear that this parable is not revealing the secret formula for guaranteeing salvation or damnation.
But, then what is the point? If it is not intended to predict how we will fare at the final judgment, then what are we supposed to learn?
In answering that question, it is important to understand the narrative CONTEXT. The context of this parable, and the parables we read over the last 2 weeks, is of a conversation between Jesus and the disciples about WAITING. In the beginning of Matthew 24, the disciples ask Jesus for a sign of the end of history, when God will come in judgement and righteousness, and Jesus responds with a long, rather frightening picture of destruction and suffering. But then he says “but nobody knows when that day or hour will come, not the heavenly angels and not the Son. Only the Father knows… Therefore, you also should be prepared, because the Son of Man will come at a time you don’t know” (Matt. 24:36; 44)
In essence, Jesus is saying: you’re asking the wrong question! Don’t ask when the final judgment is going to come. Ask what we should be doing while we wait…. And the whole string of parables that follow, ending with today’s parable, are Jesus’s answer to that question – about how to live in the waiting.
So, what SHOULD we be doing while we wait? What does the parable of the sheep and the goats teach us so that we can make the most of the time that is given to us?
I think this parable teaches us three things:
First, it teaches us what Jesus’s kingship looks like.
Today is Christ the King Sunday, and today’s parable starts with Jesus sitting on the throne of his glory… but that glory violates all of the expectations that our world teaches us about those who rule over us. In the revelation of this parable, our king is the least of these.
Our king is hungry, and thirsty… living a life of poverty and deprivation.
Our king is an excluded stranger who looks or acts differently in some way, causing the insiders to think he doesn’t belong…
Our king is naked, exposing the things that we are ashamed of and likely to draw our censorial whispers and sexual judgements…
Our king is sick and in prison, unable to contribute to society and accused of actually harming it…
In other words, our king is the exact opposite of the successful, self-made, charismatic figures that our society holds up as deserving of power, and authority, and glory.
And that identity of our king is really important for us to understand, because it shapes what we worship and how we act. If we are citizens of the Kingdom of Christ, then our priorities, and what we admire, and what we serve will look very different than the priorities, and the admiration, and the loyalties of our culture.
The First thing that this parable teaches us is that while we are waiting for the fulfillment of God’s promises in Christ, we are supposed to be serving the least of these, because that’s how we serve our king.
The second thing that this parable teaches is that in order to serve the least of these, we have to get close to them.
I guess in theory we can give people food and drink and clothing at a distance, through donations to organizations that will do the actual physical contact for us.
But we can’t welcome a stranger without actually letting them get close to us, at least as close as our neighborhoods.
We can’t take care of someone who is sick without actually holding their hand in the hospital, or bringing them a glass of water to take their medicine, or bringing them chicken soup.
And we certainly can’t visit someone in prison without actually… well… visiting them.
And once we are close enough to visit, and take care, and welcome we are close enough to look them in the eyes. To see them as actual human beings, made in the image of God.
Up-close, we see people in all their uniqueness and all their common humanity in ways we can’t see them when they are trapped at the other end of a cell phone camera, or in inner-city slums we never have to enter, or in statistics about food stamps dependence among minimum wage workers.
The second thing that this parable teaches us, is that in order to recognize Jesus in the face of the least of these, a good first step is to get close enough to see them at all. To let them past the barriers that protect our lives from all the mess and the unpredictable danger of the world they are caught in.
The final lesson that this parable teaches us is the practical connection of the two greatest commandments.
A few chapters back, in Matthew 22, the Pharisees had asked Jesus to identify the greatest commandment. This was Jesus’ response:
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” (Matt. 24:37-40).
Jesus was not cheating by giving two answers to a question that asked for the single greatest commandment – Jesus was answering that question. Because love of God and love of our neighbors are indivisible.
This parable paints a picture of that deep spiritual truth – it tells the story of how loving others IS ACTUALLY loving God in Jesus, and failing to love others IS ACTUALLY failing to love God in Jesus. The way we treat “the least of these” is the way we treat God. There is no distinction.
Mother Theresa experienced that same truth in her life of service to the desperately destitute in India. She said: “How do we prove that we love God? How do we prove that we love Christ with undivided love and chastity? By giving wholehearted free service to the poorest of the poor.”
As a Lutheran preacher, I want to be clear that we don’t have to “prove that we love God” in order to receive God’s grace. That grace is a free gift. But I hope we all WANT to love God, don’t we?
The third lesson of this parable, is that we love God by loving those who need our love the most.
As soon as I finish preaching, we are all going to preach to each other. (That’s the liturgical function of the Hymn of the Day – to put the Word of God in the mouths of the people of God).
The song we are all going to preach to each other is a beautifully simple prayer:
“Open our eyes Lord, we want to see Jesus, to reach out and touch him, and say that we love him. Open our ears, Lord, and help us to listen. Open our eyes, Lord, we want to see Jesus.”
As we sing, I beg you to remember that this prayer is not a petition for a mystical, spiritual experience of connection to God. It is a prayer that our eyes and ears be opened to see Jesus where he actually is:
To SEE Jesus in the faces of deepest need:
- the disabled adult who is able to survive and work only because of costly medical care and support;
- the rural Appalachian farmer who feels ignored, left-behind, devalued, and angry;
- the refugee girl who spends her entire childhood growing up in a “temporary” camp.
Just as we do to the least of these, we do to Jesus.
And let us HEAR Jesus in the voices of deepest need:
- the cries of veterans fighting the ravages of PTSD.
- the mourning of black mothers who have lost children to violence – whether gang violence or police violence. All black lives matter.
- the quavering and brave voices of every woman and man who says #metoo.
Just as we do NOT do to the least of these, we do not do to Jesus.
We will all fail at times. I do every day. We will all close our eyes to the pain in someone else's, or the noise of our lives will drown out their cries. And the fullness of the gospel reassures us that we will not be thrown into eternal punishment for that failure.
But we are called to serve a King who shows up in the people we least expect, and we are called to get close enough to see Jesus in their eyes, and we are called to live out our love for God by loving people, especially those who need it the most.
This is our kingdom calling. Thanks be to God.
 Mother Theresa, Words to Love By…, Notre Dame: Ave Maria Press, p. 24