The last two weeks and again today, we have been reading the parables in the 25th chapter of Matthew, which is often called “The Little Apocalypse”. Today we come to the end of the chapter and once again we are listening in as Jesus gives his disciples some farewell instructions before he faces his death. All through this lesson he has been telling them to prepare for his return, but he does not tell them when or where that will be. He cautions them to be watchful and to be ready, to not sit around but to use the gifts that God has given them. Again today, Jesus does not mince words but gets down to the bottom line, telling a parable of responsibility, expectation and yes, even judgment.
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,[a] 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.”
May God bless to our understanding, the Words that we hear today.
Today is an interesting day in the life of the church. It is the last Sunday of the liturgical year, remembering that church-time is different from world-time. It means that next week we begin a new year as we start the season of Advent, which is all about waiting for the Christ. This last Sunday of the year is the day that we celebrate Christ the King or the Reign of Christ depending on what your historical faith background might be. Whatever you call it, it is the Sunday that we are given an opportunity to think about what it means for us to live within the rule of Christ and we get to figure that out amidst the sheep and the goats. Will you pray with me please?
May the Words of my mouth and the meditation of all of our hearts and minds be acceptable in your sight O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
My first reaction whenever this particular parable is read is that I feel sorry for the goats. Based on the number of Facebook posts many of you send me you have figured out by now that I like goats, they are funny and crafty, and they make me laugh, (especially when they are dressed up in pajamas.) I can’t say that I feel the same about sheep who look all nice and cute and wooly but who are, in reality, dumber than a box of rocks and that might be insulting the rocks.
This is a difficult parable to hear on this last Sunday of the year, or anytime really, because it requires us to wrestle with things that we might prefer not to wrestle with…sheep and goats and judgment, and this strange concept of the Reign of Christ. It’s a little confusing sometimes, this whole idea of the Son of Man returning in his glory and separating farm animals into categories, so they are either bound for glory or destined for eternal damnation…it’s a dark and stark contrast, an all or nothing FOREVER.
It’s an uncomfortable story because this is one of the few times that Jesus comes right out and mentions the eternal fires and the devil and all of his angels…just as a side note…the notion of a devil and eternal fires is a very Christian convention, so these words were probably added in later…but even if we don’t have to worry about hellfire and damnation, there IS still an overlay of judgment and responsibility that comes through. It obviously requires us to do something, to somehow take an accounting of our lives as followers of Christ. Jesus is totally getting at something here today so our job is to figure out how to separate this judgment and these sheep and goats and figure out what we are supposed to do with this now, 2000 years later?
I think part of the problem we have with this parable is that we spend too much time trying to figure out who are the sheep and who are the goats in the world, because if we were to be totally honest, there is some sheep and goat in all of us…I think that maybe we put too much emphasis on the whole idea of possibly ending up in the eternal fire with the devil and we miss the point…the point is, that on this particular Sunday, and really every day, it is not about us, it’s about Jesus and honestly, I am a little more interested in trying to figure out who he is, this Son of Man , this Jesus who hangs out with the least and the lost and the poor and the imprisoned. But Seriously? What is he getting at? Why do we get messed up in this story if we are supposed to be thinking about the Reign of Christ? I thought the reign of Christ, the realm of God was going to be all sunshine and light… instead it feels like Jesus is saying that we are supposed to know to look for God in the dark and dirty places of the world. Seriously? But that is, without a doubt where Jesus is pointing us to. So lets figure that out.
One of the things that always gets me about this story is that both the goats AND the sheep are surprised at where they find Jesus and both sheep and goats are more than a little surprised about finding Jesus in the mundane messiness of life and not living up on some glorious mountaintop…I guess that would be a little bit like us expecting to find Jesus here every Sunday instead of at the cold weather shelters, and the hospitals, and the food pantries and the jail cells and the house around the corner that always looks so messy... Both the sheep and the goats are surprised to find out that instead of holding himself above all that and coming to sit in a nice bright sanctuary with us, Jesus is in the down and dirty, right where the action is.
Maybe the goats are surprised because they were all about being watchful and being ready, but they totally overlooked the Christ that was already around and within them. They were saving their big effort for the king who shows up looking and acting like the big shot they imagined him to be, not the humble carpenter that he is and because they were busy doing that, they failed to see Jesus at all.
The sheep may have been looking for Jesus too…but instead of just waiting, they were busy doing the things they understood as their responsibility to do, taking care of neighbors in need and ministering to the folks inside and outside of their community… but somehow, they too, failed to see Jesus in the face of those in need.
So, I ask again what are we supposed to make of this story? How does it intersect with our lives?
To me, this parable is a promise. Jesus promises to always be with and for those who are in greatest need. If we want to experience his presence fully, deeply, and truly, we will look for him in the need of those around us and, indeed, in our own need as well.
In order to be in relationship with us, Jesus was not born in a big city, into a royal powerful family, he was born in little backwater Bethlehem, to ordinary, everyday people. He came not to conquer the world with political might but instead he conquered the world– in the scandal, shame, and pain of the cross. And he continues to come where we least expect him to be: in the plight of the homeless, on the side of the poor, in the face of the needy, and in the company of the sick and imprisoned. I happen to think that in this parable of the sheep and the goats that we are being reminded of exactly where we need to be for the reign of Christ to happen in order to meet Jesus face to face,
On this last Sunday of the church year, we are given the opportunity to hear Jesus say once again what he has been saying through his whole ministry, of teaching and doing, what he said in his life and what he will soon say in his death:
God loves us and all the world so much that God has decided to identify with us fully and completely. Because of that, we are able to recognize God more easily in the face of our neighbor, meet God in the acts of mercy and service we offer and, just as importantly are offered to us, and live in the blessing of God as we seek to serve as Christ served.
And so once again, the Reign of Christ lets us hear the good news: that God is with us, here and now, revealed in the fellowship of broken people we call church, made manifest in the ordinary elements of bread and wine, and available to us in the seemingly small gestures of mercy we offer and are offered every day. It may not be where we expect God to show up, but it is just where we need God to be. HA