Image: Pulpit Fiction
Imagine a preacher, a man who has inspired great crowds with the power of his words, with the depth of his spirituality, with the strength of his actions. But he’s angered the powerful, and he knows his time is short before they come for him. So he gives one last set of instructions to his followers. He’s often been a bit obscure, asking questions and telling stories, but now he speaks clearly and directly.
And that was the situation Jesus found himself in, when he spoke about the sheep and the goats. According to the gospel of Matthew, it’s the last thing Jesus says to his disciples. Thereafter the gospel is all about betrayal and trial and death. So in some ways it’s not that surprising that what he teaches them is about judgement, the coming of the King in glory. Endings must have been much on his mind.
But what he talks about isn’t so much about what happens THEN. It’s about what happens NOW. It’s about how we, Jesus’ disciples past, present and future, are called to live our lives. It’s about the nature of the kingdom of God, and it’s about how we live out the values of the kingdom of God in the here and now.
Because so much of the time when Jesus talks about the nature of kingdom of God, he’s talking about the present reality, about a place and a way of being that we can access now, rather than what we will encounter after death or the last judgement. We heard this in the call to worship, where Jesus talked about the kingdom being among us now. And this passage seems to me anyway to fall into the category of apocalyptic writing, like the books of Daniel and Revelation, where the last things are presented with striking and often quite odd imagery, but the message is really about the here and now.
Part of Jesus’ apocalyptic language is to talk about judgement. Now judgement, in some circles, is Not Cool. Modern liberal society doesn’t quite like taking sides, of saying this is right and this is wrong. And for laudable reasons. Jesus reminds us in the Sermon on the Mount not to judge others so that we are not judged ourselves. But here he powerfully presents a king that judges. The king judges not according to some arbitrary law, not according to his whims, but also not according to what the sheep and the goats believed. He judges them by their actions. He judges them by how well they have feed the poor, welcomed the stranger, visited the prisoner and so on.
And so he follows the route of so many Jewish prophets and shouts out for justice. Because if there is no judgement, ultimately we can’t have justice. At some point, you need to come off the fence and say, these people are being treated shamefully. I will treat them differently. That’s what Jesus calls his followers – what he calls us – to do. Those who follow this will have eternal life.
It’s worth saying that the phrase translated as ‘eternal life’ at the end of the passage is argued by many scholars to refer not to living for ever after death, or not only that, but rather to living fully within this world. It’s the same idea as the kingdom of God being among us. It’s the same idea as Jesus saying in the gospel of John that he had come to bring us abundant life (that was about sheep as well). Jesus is saying that if we want to live a rich and abundant life, full of joy and satisfaction and spiritual uplift – that we can only do this if we also look after those who are in need.
And so the King separates the sheep and the goats. A famous image. You can buy a pair of socks in all good cathedral bookshops where the left one has goats on it, and the right one has sheep on it. I’ve been puzzling about the difference here between the two species though. Images of sheep and shepherds are everywhere in the scriptures, but what’s so wrong with goats? Did the people of Jesus time hate goats so much? The strange answer is that they didn’t really. Both animals were kept for milk, meat and their hides. Both were ritually slaughtered in the temple. The most curious thing about them is that the varieties of sheep and goat in Israel of Jesus’ day were very hard to tell apart. They behaved rather differently, but looked the same.
And that seems to be the basis of the distinction Jesus is making between the two species here. They look so similar, but act so differently. The sheep are those who don’t think about it very hard, who care for God’s people without really being told to do so. The goats – they might be leading moral lives in some sense, but they’re basically those who when faced with human need, give the answer of Cain: “am I my brother’s keeper?” Probably most of us are a little bit of sheep and a little bit of goat, but Jesus is very clear about which one he prefers.
Both sheep and goats, though, are really surprised to be told that their actions or inactions towards the poor and needy have to do with their response to Jesus. But that idea, that doing good deeds towards strangers, has a long history. Abraham met and welcomed strangers and later found that they were angels. In the letter to the Hebrews we are told “Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it”. And many traditional cultures, from the Celts to the Russians, have stories of people meeting strangers. The Celtic blessing known as the Rune of Hospitality ends with the lovely words: “often, often, often, goes the Christ in the stranger's guise”.
This idea of surprise, of seeing Christ in the most unlikely people, was spoken about beautifully by Oscar Romero (archbishop of El Salvador), in a sermon he preached just ten days before he was killed by government agents because he was a champion of the poor and the oppressed in his country. Romero said:
What terror has been sown among our people that friends betray friends whom they see in trouble. If we could see that Christ is in the needy one, the torture victim, the prisoner, the murder victim, and in each human figure so shamefully thrown by our roadsides would see Christ himself cast aside, we would pick him up like a medal of gold to be kissed lovingly. We would never be ashamed of him.
How far people are today, especially those who torture and kill and value their investments more than human beings, from realizing that all the earths millions are good for nothing, are worthless compared to a human being.
The person is Christ, and in the person viewed and treated with faith we look on Christ the Lord.
And with that I would like to say Amen and sit down. Except that there’s one more thing that to me is crucial about this passage. It’s a passage about justice. And it calls us clearly to act. But I believe it calls us not just to feed the hungry, but to ask why they are hungry and to fight for justice that means they are no longer hungry. It calls us not just to welcome strangers, but to stand up to racists and those who would persecute immigrants. It calls us not just to visit people in prison but to ask whether prison is the right place for them, and whether they’re being treated properly there. As we enter Advent next week, we’re once again reminded of Mary’s song about the God who “has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly [who] has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty”. I believe Jesus is calling us to seeking that kind of justice as much as he’s calling us to individual action.
Consider foodbanks. They’re an act of Christian compassion. They’re feeding the hungry, they’re recognising the person of Christ in one individual at a time. It’s important that churches up and down the land are organising them, staffing them, giving food to them. But they’re also, in the memorable words of Liz Dowler, a professor of food policy, "an inadequate plaster over a gaping wound". That food banks exist in a hugely affluent society is a scandal and a disgrace. They shouldn’t have to exist.
Or, to take a different story, I was shocked to read yesterday that Walmart, the largest supermarket chain in the US, puts out boxes so that their poorly paid staff can feed each other. Which I find horrible. Colleagues giving to each other, friends recognising those who are poor and feeding them –those are acts of Christian compassion. But the question first is why Walmart are paying their staff so badly that they have to do such things.
Jesus calls us to be sheep, caring for the needy, and calls us to do it in the here and now. And by doing that we will know the kingdom of God in the here and now. Thanks be to God.