Scripture: Matthew 25:31–46
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. 32All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 34Then 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; 35for 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, 36I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” 37Then 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? 38And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” 40And 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.”
Thank you Jesus! Finally, after all of this weeping and gnashing of teeth, after all of these depressing parables, we get to a good one! The sheep and the goats! Finally, something that we are pretty good at. I mean, look at our newsletter, and compare it to the six types of people in need in Matthew 25.
- Give the hungry food and the thirsty something to drink. How many of you all were at the Harvesters food pantry yesterday? How many did we serve? Check that one off the list.
- A stranger in need of welcome? We are all over that! Another reminder in here this week about Family Promise, to make sure we sign up, even if it is not in our place. This is the new model we are doing, and we need you to jump on the signup genius for that one.
- Someone in need of clothing? How many clothing drives did we do this winter? Coats. Gloves. Scarves. Professional clothing for students at Ottawa. Check. Check. Check.
- Visit those who are sick, or those who are in prison. Those folks don’t always make it into the newsletter, but our prayer team is all over that. And the Deacons. And part of what I am able to do as your representative is to make those visits to the hospital or to those who are incarcerated. You got those two covered, too.
- In fact, six up, six down. If only the Royals could be that successful!
As a matter of fact, I think that’s all we need to do for this sermon. We have it covered, right? We filled out our Sheep BINGO card. Evelyn, let’s fire up that organ and get over to Jade Garden or LuLu’s a bit early!
But it’s not the whole story, is it? As much as we’d like to cut the Scripture short, Jesus doesn’t. As much as we think we have this one covered, there is more to say. In fact, I would invite you to stand again for the rest of the story. The rest of the Gospel reading. The rest of the kingdom proclamation of Jesus.
41Then 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; 42for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43I 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.” 44Then 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?” 45Then 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.” 46And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.’
I love the look on some of your faces whenever I read a passage like this. This is the Word of God for the People of God? Are we sure? In fact, it is. This is the last parable teaching of Jesus in our series. Let’s be honest…they have been pretty hard. There has been an inordinate amount of weeping and gnashing of teeth over these last few weeks. Weeds separated and thrown into the fire. Houses built on the sand and washed off to oblivion. Guys tossed out of wedding banquets because they don’t have the right clothes on. Risk-averse servants thrown in prison. Unforgiving servants thrown in prison. A lot of folks have been thrown in prison the last few weeks! But if you think that is bad, by the end of this passage, half of the population is doomed for eternal damnation and separation from God!
And as much as we’d like to assume that we are the sheep, because after all our newsletter tells us that we have filled in our Sheep BINGO Card, here’s the rest of the story: “Whenever you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” Whenever. Anytime that there is someone hungry or thirsty. Or someone unwelcomed at the border or without clothing. Or sick or in prison, and you did not care for them, you failed to do it to me.
Jesus doesn’t say tally up your sheep points and your goat points and average them out. Jesus doesn’t say as long as you tried hard this week. Jesus doesn’t say that if you averted your eyes when you drove by that homeless person, then it doesn’t count. Jesus says “anytime.” Whenever. Let me make it clear. If we read this story, if we read this Gospel, and come out feeling proud of ourselves, we have misread something. I have not done enough. You have not done enough. Our newsletter is not enough. “Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” We are all goats.
But that isn’t the end of the story. Matthew wouldn’t have included it if it just left us feeling hopeless and worthless. It seems to be that there is good news in this parable, but you have to look for it. Let me suggest a few ways that this story gives us a clear hope about how we are to live.
First: Don’t do. Be. If we use this story as some kind of Sheep BINGO card, then we are never going to win. In fact, if we see the life of faith in terms of winning and losing and keeping score, we’ve missed the point. We talked about this a few weeks ago, with the vineyard workers. So, if we aren’t keeping score of the ways that we have fed and clothed and visited the poor and vulnerable, what’s the point?
Don’t do. Be. Robert Williamson is a New Testament scholar and minister with the poor, and he drives to the heart of this: This is not about a calculated plan to care for the poor so that you can be judged as a sheep and get praised. Or to avoid the eternal fires. It’s not a transactional box check. This is about people who care for the poor because they care about the poor. That’s who they are. It is reflexive. They treat people like people. They see someone in need or lonely or sick, and they take care of them, because they care about them. They listen to their needs and try and meet them. I saw a bumper sticker a few years ago that said, “Jesus is coming soon! Quick, look busy!” Like Jesus is the teacher coming back into the room while the whole class has been messing around. The sheep and the goats tell us that we cannot simply do our way into heaven. It is about a way of being that lives out of the Beatitudes, that consistently yearns to be with and care for the poor because they are people, not because we get some kind of Jesus points if we do.
The stories that Jesus tells, especially in Matthew, have a pretty rigorous ethical expectation. But they aren’t simply about earning our way into heaven. They are the best way to live. Caring for your neighbor, instead of trying to one-up them. Listening to the other, instead of making sure they don’t get ahead of you. Be someone who lives out of this idea of neighbor love…because it really is the best way to live! Don’t do. Be.
Second piece of good news here: You are not the King! Last week in the Two-way [Sermon Discussion Group], we spent a lot of time trying to defend the poor goats in the story. What did the goats do wrong? But really, the point of the metaphor is more about the separation. Scholar Anna Case-Winters makes this point. Sheep and goats would have been kept together during the day. Grazed together on the same fields. But then at night, they would have been separated. Sheep have their own natural insulation, but goats have different needs, so shepherds would have had to separate the two groups.
Which is the point that Jesus seems to be making here. The separating. The division. Matthew 25 is an echo of Daniel 7, where Daniel has this apocalyptic vision of the Empires of his day doing all of these horrible and violent things to the people of earth. Overlapping with this violent Empire is the Kingdom of God. The two exist concurrently…kind of like the old days when we took pictures on film, and we would have a double exposure: two images exposed on one piece of film, so it looks like your cousin Brad is the size of Pikes Peak because the two images exist together. Daniel is saying that the Kingdoms of the world and the Kingdom of God both exist together…for now. But there will come a day when the two are separated, and the violent Kingdoms of Empire will be judged and the peaceable Kingdom of God will be lifted up.
This is kind of the thesis for the Gospel of Matthew. Do you notice how many separation stories there are in Matthew? Wheat and the weeds. Foolish and wise bridesmaids. Wedding guests who reject the invitation and those who accept it. Wedding guests who show up in the right clothes and those who do not. The Gospel writer wants to make this point over and over again, that there are the violence and the depravity of the Kingdoms of Herod and Rome and Empire, and the way that things are now. But concurrently, coexisting with that Kingdom is the Kingdom of Heaven. The Kingdom of peace and humility and meekness and righteousness and forgiveness of 70X7. The Kingdom of Jesus. Right now, we read throughout the Gospel, both of these Kingdoms exist, and you have to look really closely to see which one is which. But there will come a day when the two will be separated, like Daniel 7.
But the good news here? You aren’t doing the separating. You are not the King! You’ll notice that the sheep in the story aren’t the ones who profess Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior. They aren’t the ones who can name all the books of the Bible. They aren’t the ones who can quote all of the hymn lyrics of Isaac Watts. They are judged on right actions, not right belief. Then who are we to judge if they have the right belief to get into heaven? Good news is…we don’t. That’s not our job. We aren’t the landowner deciding between weeds and wheat. We aren’t the bridegroom. We aren’t the king. It’s not up to us…so don’t worry about it!
So how do we live in between these two kingdoms? The third word here is this: Start with prayer. You may wonder where prayer is in the text today, and I think it exists between the lines. Remember a few weeks ago, where Jesus taught that the greatest commandment is actually two commandments interwoven. The second is neighbor love, which is highlighted in today’s passage. But how do you get there? Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, and strength. We cannot be people of love… We cannot set aside our need to judge… If God doesn’t do that work in us. And that happens through prayer.
Richard Rohr this week wrote about what he called the “beginner’s mind.” All great spiritual traditions include something in their teachings about this idea of the beginner’s mind. Jesus talks about it in the Sermon on the Mount. It is a humility and meekness, an openness to assume that you don’t have all the answers. Even after a lifetime of walking in faith, you approach your life of faith and prayer like a beginner. Rohr suggests that if there are fifty thousand levels to the mystery of knowing God, we might be on level 45. For us to have our hearts turned toward the poor, for us to release our desire to be the King in the story, it requires us to enter into a spiritual openness to God. We cannot ever do enough, but God can make us enough. “Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief.”
One final piece of good news here: You cannot do it all. But you can do something. As we learn to be people who care about the poor, reflexively and naturally, sometimes we have to “fake it til we make it.” Not with the assumption that we are filling our BINGO card, but with the assumption that in the doing, we are learning how to be.
Perhaps you saw a portion of the quote from Oscar Romero at the beginning of the service. Romero was a rather mild-mannered, kind of quiet and pious and conservative priest in El Salvador. But then he saw what the government was doing to his people, to the poor and vulnerable in his midst, and began to speak out, never in a totally radical way, but in a straightforward and clear way. And so he began to speak, and to speak more and more, and he drew more attention as others began to understand that what he was saying needed to be said. I would love to share with you now the whole quote from Romero:
“It helps, now and then, to step back and take the long view. The Kingdom is not only beyond our efforts: it is beyond our vision. We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is the Lord’s work. Nothing we do is complete, which is another way of saying that the Kingdom always lies beyond us. No sermon says all that should be said. No prayer fully expresses our faith. No confession brings perfection. No pastoral visit brings wholeness. No program accomplishes the Church’s mission. No set of goals and objectives includes everything. That is what we are about. We plant the seeds that one day will grow. We water seeds already planted knowing they hold future promise. We lay foundations that will need further development. We provide yeast that affects far beyond our capabilities. We cannot do everything and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that. This enables us to do something, and to do it very, very well. It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest. We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the Master Builder and the worker. We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs. We are prophets of a future that is not our own.“
We are learning to be sheep. One prayer at a time. One planted seed at a time. One relationship at a time. “Lord, we are sheep. Help us to be less goat tomorrow than we are today.” Amen.