A congregation of the United Church of Canada
Yr A ~ Reign of Christ ~ Matthew 25:31-46
Today’s reading draws Matthew chapter 25 to an end. It’s a chapter filled with complex parables about the Kingdom of Heaven, or Kingdom of God. Saying that, I don’t think this story of the sheep and the goats is actually a parable. It doesn’t do the main thing that parables do – there’s no thought-bomb. It doesn’t seem to upend conventional wisdom, but it does critique it. The reading is pretty straightforward.
As we get into it, I’d like you to try to ignore all the judgment language. It’s just story-telling to set the scenario up as one you’re supposed to pay critical attention to, and to remind us that Jesus’ teachings do have consequences in the real world. Consequences are different than judgments. So instead of hearing it as ‘judgy’, let’s try to hear it as ‘consequency’!
It’s a very famous teaching. One group – called the sheep – are called blessed because they spend their lives loving others. The other group – called the goats – are called cursed because they spend their lives loving only themselves. It’s really that simple. The Kingdom of God is revealed when compassion and love reign supreme – and it’s hidden when self-interest and self-aggrandizement reign supreme. One way or the other, somethings gonna reign – we get to choose which path, and what reigns in us.
Jesus says that the sheep are blessed because, and this is Jesus talking, “When I was in need, you helped me.”
The sheep reply, “But Jesus, we don’t remember ever helping you directly.”
And Jesus says, “Of course not – helping me would miss the point! You’re blessed because you helped those who needed helping whether you thought I, or anyone else, might hear about it or not! You helped people because it was natural for you to do so – because you’re living out your gratitude for God’s gifts. You’re offering God’s love.”
This is what the reign of Christ is like when it takes hold in your heart – you see Jesus, the Christ, in everyone. The word Christ literally means “anointed one” – you see all as anointed – blessed by God – all are worthy – all are valued – all are God’s – all are one body – all are your brother or sister or sibling – all are your neighbour – and because you Love God you naturally are led to love your neighbour – which is what Kingdom people do. It’s very sheepish!
Matthew 25:34 Jesus says to the sheep, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” That’s really important – inherit the kingdom – not earn it. What does it mean to inherit something? It means that it’s already in the family, so to speak. It’s already something that you expected might get passed down to you. To be crass, it’s actually yours for the losing – you have to mess up pretty bad to get written out of a will. The thing that Jesus is saying you’re inheriting is the thing you’ve had all along – abundant life in the kingdom of God!
Everyone has already been gifted the kingdom – both the sheep and the goats too. Remember, the kingdom of God is within you according to Luke’s gospel – but just because it’s in someone doesn’t mean they access it. Hence, the goats.
And so Jesus turns to the other group, the goats, and says, “When I was in need, you did NOT help me.”
The second group is shocked to hear this. Even more shocked than the first group. These people are 100% certain that they’d never NOT helped Jesus, or the prime minister, or their boss, or some other ‘important’ person.
You get the sense they spent all their time looking for ways to help Jesus, or to help those who could help them – looking for ways to be seen doing good for those who would reward them for being seen.
You can almost hear them thinking: “Jesus is spiritual, I want spiritual rewards, so I’ll be on the lookout for times when I can help Jesus, and impress him, or at least impress people watching me, and I’ll get my reward.”
Jesus turns our human transactional economy on its head and speaks of God’s spiritual economy. He says, “It’s not what you did for me you dummies, it’s what you did for the least of these, for those people who can’t help you, because that would mean you were doing it out of love and not for gain.”
And it’s their self-centredness – their me-first-ness – their ingratitude for the gifts of God that they too were showered with – that cuts themselves off from the abundant life that they so loudly whine about not having. God isn’t in the punishing business – doesn’t have to be. We do too good a job of that on our own.
Thomas Merton said, “Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy. That is not our business and, in fact, it is nobody’s business. What we are asked to do is to love, and this love itself will render both ourselves and our neighbors worthy.”
Like I said, this isn’t really a parable, because the teaching is too obvious. Participation in God’s kingdom is marked by how you love people generally, and without regard for how it reflects on you. Those who love others experience blessing – and those who don’t love others are, by their unlovingness, choosing to separate and distance themselves from God’s love. Consequences.
But here’s the part that confounds me about this teaching. It really is an obvious teaching. It’s obviously better to love others than be self-centred. It’s obviously better to live with integrity, and character, and love.
But we don’t. As a society, we don’t.
Conventional wisdom, the world, says that you get ahead by helping people who can help you. That’s kind of human nature. We’re probably more favourably predisposed to help when there’s something in it for us. God’s kingdom turns that worldly thinking on its head.
The problem is that the problem is too binary. We’re not ‘all this’ or ‘all that’. We’re complicated, conflicted weirdos called humans. And like so many things, our integrity, and character, and love seem to get expressed on a continuum. Not all or nothing – but constantly sliding around along the spectrum, hopefully striving to be more sheepish than goatish!
I think Jesus is challenging us here to live with integrity, and character, to practice what we say we believe – to not just rhyme off ‘love, love, love’, but to actually live it.
But it’s hard. It’s unbelievably hard to live a life of absolute integrity. It’s hard to love. It’s hard to stand up for what’s right when it might cost you. It’s easier to just relax and cut some ethical corners because, well, you know, nobody’s really gonna find out anyway. But you’ll know.
Jesus says to love. Period. And the truth is the times when no one can see you loving are probably the times when you’re being the most authentically loving.
Look, it’s pretty near impossible to always be a sheep and never have a little goat creep into your character. Again, we’re human. God doesn’t expect perfection. It’s not our occasional stumbling that turns us into goats – it’s our blatant hypocrisy.
One of the things that has historically turned people off of organized religion is the sense that some people go to church on Sunday morning and they’re all “God loves us – share everything you have – Jesus is Lord and King and I follow him” and then Monday morning they go to work and all bets are off.
“Well, geez Larry, you just don’t understand how the real world works” – says the goat.
I guess what frustrates me is that I don’t understand why the world seems to celebrate goats and not sheep. If Jesus’ way is so much better, and so much more loving, and so obviously a more powerful way to live, then why aren’t we overrun with sheep? Why are the self-centred goats of the world so much louder and stronger?
And talk about consequences! Our goatish world wreaks havoc on all sorts of people. I could make a list that went on and on. Or I could just point to the stories in the news – war, genocide, corruption, greed. Or just look at the whole Black Friday cycle of people going wild over saving a buck or two on ‘stuff’. This might be the goat-iest weekend of the year.
How does one stand up and speak a sheepish word into such goaty behaviour? I don’t want to be sheepish about sharing my sheepish convictions, but it feels like trying to empty the ocean with a thimble.
What was it about Jesus that made his sharing of God’s love so compelling? And remember, he did it without having a world-wide notoriety and a multi-media communications platform. He basically taught one small group of people – called disciples – and they in turn taught small groups of people – called disciples – and it slowly grew, and grew, and grew, and now here we all are – disciples. I guess that’s why Jesus used images like a tiny seed that grows into something big, rather than images about big and powerful things that steamroll their way into influence.
Like Jesus, I don’t think our goal should be to turn all the goats into sheep. Heck, we have a hard enough time keeping ourselves sheepish! But if in our own small way, with character and integrity, we love, love, love – and then love, love, love some more – perhaps that love will become contagious. And maybe our loving can awaken some of the goatier types and inspire them to feel a little more sheepish.
What might our loving look like? Yes, we the church can use our resources to meet the needs of the hungry, the thirsty, the lonely, the naked, and the sick – just like Jesus said. But shouldn’t we also be thinking about deeper kinds of loving?
What if you go beyond physical, material needs?
What about feeding spiritual hunger?
What about slaking theological thirst?
What about being community for people far away from their support systems?
What about offering loving compassion to those whose lives have been laid bare by hardships, loss, and disappointments?
What about offering an alternative worldview for those who might be feeling discouraged by the way things seem?
Who are the ‘least of these’ these days? How about this? – Anyone in need.
And we all have needs! Deep needs. And love is the remedy for just about all of them.
The key here is not to love the ‘least of these’ because it’ll get them into the church. If that’s our motivation, then we’re exposing our goatishness.
I’d rather us be more sheepish. The point is to love others because we are filled with God’s love, and love can do none other than love.
“I was in need and you loved me.”
I pray you won’t feel sheepish about being sheepish!