“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. 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; 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, 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.’ 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? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ 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.’ 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; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 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.’ 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?’ 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.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
My sermon from Christ the King Sunday (November 23, 2014) on Matthew 25:31-46. Listen to the recording at the bottom of the page or read my manuscript below.
After hearing this reading from Matthew – doesn’t it feel like this really should be the shortest sermon ever? I should just stand here and say “Don’t be a goat! Amen.”
This text from Matthew feels simple. This is our last public teaching from Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel. Jesus has been wandering around the Temple and outside of it, teaching to his disciples, those who are curious, and those who are trying to arrest him. And these are the last words in the Gospel of Matthew that Jesus utters before the Last Supper, before Jesus’s arrest, before his trial, and execution.
Jesus talks about the Son of Man returning in glory – returning from Heaven, with a huge entourage of angels, to judge the world. He sits on a throne and begins to split everyone into two groups. On his right – he puts those who he’ll bless and welcome into eternal life and he calls them sheep. On his left, he puts those who’ll be going someplace else and he calls them goats. The ones on his right did good – they clothed the naked, fed the hungry, visited the sick, saw those in prison. The ones on his left didn’t. It seems that their actions determined where they stand in this great judgment. Those who did good are blessed and get eternal life. Those who didn’t, don’t. It seems so simple, really. Here is the list of what we need to do to be a disciple of Christ: visit, feed, care, and love. That’s all it takes.
But – and there’s always a but – that’s not all that is shared in this story because our sheep and our goats do something very interesting. When they are split into two groups, and Jesus pronounces his judgement – explaining why they are where they are – both sides react the same way.
And it’s that surprise that makes this teaching not as simple as it first appears. If the goats and the sheep didn’t say anything – if they were just separated and we never heard them talk back to Jesus – then, yes, this teaching seems to be “do this and God will love you.” But the goats and the sheep – well – they talk back. They question. They look at Jesus and say “wait a minute…when did we help you….?”
So the sheep and the goats – they had no idea they were sheep and goats. They had no idea that their actions were being seen. They had no idea that their actions would have consequences. The goats – well – I think that’s an easy response for them. We hear in scripture, and we experience, selfishness. We know when we don’t give. We know when we don’t care for others. We have all experienced those moments – those hesitations – when we didn’t give that beggar a dollar even though something in our heart told us too. Or we didn’t pick up that phone call from a friend because we didn’t want to listen to them complain one more time. Or we just were so focused on our own needs that we just couldn’t see what was going on around us. The response – the questioning – by the goats makes sense.
But the sheep? That’s the odd bit here. Why are they surprised too?
It’s their surprise that makes this a hard text – a complicated text. If they weren’t surprised, then they knew that this result – this blessing to eternal life – was the way it was going to be. The sheep knew the end result so they behaved the right way. But they didn’t know. Instead, their good deeds were just a reaction to what was already inside them. They loved and cared for those who hungered, those who were sick, those who were a stranger – not because of any reward they would get – but just because that’s who they are. Their actions weren’t forced. Their actions were effortless. Their goodness and love was just part of their identity, their DNA – and it just comes out. These sheep are, to use the language of Matthew, are good trees and they bear good fruit. Their identity – their inner core – their sense of being – caused these actions of love, welcome, care, and support.
And that means these words from Jesus are a lot harder than they first appear. They aren’t about actions – they’re about identity – who we are and what makes us tick. And questions of identity lead into very personal questions – questions like: am I good? Do ethical things just come naturally – or are they forced? Am I trying to hard to do the right thing? Am I a sheep? Or am I a goat?
But before we answer those questions – we need to keep our eye focused on what comes next – on what happens when we turn the page – when we leave chapter 25 and head into chapter 26. It’s there when we see Jesus feed his disciples at the Last Supper – sharing that holy meal with those who’ll betray him, those who’ll deny him, and those who’ll run from him when he’s hanging on the cross. We need to keep our eyes on the One who’ll be stripped and mocked by the Roman soldiers. Who’ll thirst and be fed vinegar. Who’ll be imprisoned and no one will come to him. The One who’ll be nailed to the Cross – he’ll give up his life to reconcile the world to God – he’ll model just what it means to be the ultimate sheep.
This text from Matthew 25 is a hard text. It’s a text that accuses as much as it enlightens. It forces us to ask questions about ourselves – about our actions – about what we have done and about what we have not done – about whether we bear the good fruit that God calls us to bear – or whether we hesitate – make mistakes – fail to live out God’s love – God’s call to welcome the person who we don’t know and who doesn’t look or sound like us – or clothe the naked or feed the hungry or care for the sick.
This is a text that accuses – it shakes its finger at us – it calls us to account – and it forces us to turn to what’s about to come and what has come — and that’s Jesus Christ. Matthew 25 isn’t about what we need to do to be good Christians or faithful or whatever. Matthew 25 is about what Jesus did – about what Jesus brings – about what Jesus does – and about our need for Jesus in our life.
We know we’re not sheep. But, through Christ, we’re not goats either.
So what does that mean then? Where do we go from here? Do we wait until the good just kinda happens – until that faith mojo kicks in and we’re able to just spontaneously do all the good that we’re called to do?
No – we’re not called to wait. We’re not called to hesitate. We’re not called to decide when our faith is strong enough to help others because those in need are right in front of us here and now. We’re not here to decide when we’re enough – when we’ve got all we need to be strong, all we need to be faithful, all we need to be feel secure in helping out those around us. No, we’re not here to wait until we’re enough but, instead, to rest on the promise that Christ is enough. That Christ gives us strength. That Christ is with us. And that, in baptism, in the Holy Spirit, God’s promise is enough.
We’re not Christ but that doesn’t mean we can’t be Christ to our friends, family, neighbors, and strangers. We’re called to welcome – to invite – to share – to care – to love – not because we’re perfect; not because we’re awesome; not because we’ll always get it right. We’re called to do all these things because Jesus promises to walk with us – to be a presence in our life – to help turn us into sheep rather than let us remain as goats.
The challenge, then, isn’t to be filled with faith. The challenge is to live into God’s promise that we will be given that fullness of faith – that we will be given grace – that we are given all that we need, right now, to live, and love, as Jesus did.
The challenge is to be Christ-like: to notice the friend in need; to notice the stranger who needs hope; to notice those who hunger and thirst and who can’t hear the gospel because they’re too busy just trying to find something to eat.
The challenge is to see that next page – to know that, after Matthew 25, that hill on Calvary comes – that the actions of God to reconcile the world through Jesus Christ happened – that they matter – and that we might not be a sheep right now, we might still mistakes, we might still hesitate, we might not care or heal like Jesus did – but that doesn’t mean we don’t try —- not because it earns us favor with God —- but because that favor has already been given to us.
The world has already been saved —- and now, it needs to be loved.