Matthew 25:31-46

November 23, 2014, by Ken Dale

Our gospel lesson is a familiar passage ? a story about judgment and the reign of Christ in the kingdom of God. Sheep and goats! For the sheep ? ?come you that are blessed? ?inherit the kingdom prepared for you? ? Psalm 100 and our reading from Ezekiel this morning both remind us that ?sheep? are a common metaphor for God?s people. And God the shepherd, as we heard in Ezekiel, will take very good care of those sheep. But for the goats ? ?you that are accursed? ?away into eternal punishment.? How does that feel? How do we hear that? If you see yourself as a sheep it feels good. But if you think you?re a goat?

Isn?t it striking that neither the sheep nor the goats seem to have any vision. Both the sheep and the goats ask the same questions: When we did we see you hungry? When did we see you thirsty? When did we see you in prison? When did we see you naked in need of clothing? Both the sheep and the goats failed to see Christ in the face of those in need ? the poor, the outcast, the suffering. The difference between the two is in their response to what they did see. The sheep fed, gave drink, clothed, visited. And they were just good deeds. They were just acts of mercy. They were not offered to impress anyone or to gain points with anyone. They were not offered to be in good with the king. They were just good things to do. They were just ? well, being sheep I guess.

The goats on the other hand encountered the same need but did not respond. But doesn?t that beg the question ? if they did know, if they did see Christ ? of course they would have acted differently. ?If we?d known that was you?? The great temptation here is to just ask the question ? how would you react or respond if I asked you to raise your hand if you saw yourself as a sheep ? and how would you react or respond if I asked you to raise your hand if you saw yourself as a goat. Maybe raise both hands if you were in touch with both those moments in your life ? times that would say sheep ? and others that said goat. Raise your hand if you?ve ever reached out and helped ? raise your hand if you?ve ever not reached out. I read of that being done with a group of nuns ? the response was that they sat quietly reflecting on the matter until one nun stood up and said, ?I know what this means. We?re all good goats.?

How does it hit us – this sorting of sheep and goats? Is it disturbing? Judgment day! No more second chances. No more do-overs. It?s over ? this is the end. It?s the final judgment!! Like the elevator in our church you go up or down! The kingdom or eternal punishment. It has also been called the great surprise. Both the sheep and the goats are surprised. Again ? their lack of vision ? they both ask those same questions. The sheep or the righteous say ?Who me? When did I do that ? see you hungry, thirsty, a stranger, naked, in prison? I never saw you before in my life! When did I do that? The goats probably thought they were the righteous. They didn?t expect to be sent off to eternal punishment. They thought they were doing what they were supposed to do. ?When did we see you hungry, thirsty, a stranger, naked, in prison ? and not take care of you?? Both the sheep and the goats are surprised!

This is not the end time ? this is not judgment day ? the day of no more second chances, do-overs ? the end. So with this ?great surprise,? what we have before us is what is before us in all of scripture. It is clear what God in Christ calls us to ? care for the poor, welcome for the stranger, visit the prisoner, feed and give drink to the hungry and thirsty. We have the opportunity to see and hear and be reminded every time we hear this story. Chances are very good that the nun was right ? we are all good goats!

Why do we turn away and not help? Not necessarily because we are mean hearted, evil people. Sometimes we become the judge we affirm Jesus is to be. Not knowing anything about certain people we label them and separate ourselves from them. But that?s God?s job not ours. We need to be careful about thinking we know someone and their situation that we have the answer of what they ?should? do. Why do we turn away? Sometimes it?s because we are afraid of each other. Sometimes it?s because we?re just too busy ? or at least we see ourselves that way. Sometimes I question of myself what I?m so busy doing. Sometimes we are afraid that those we want to help won?t welcome our help. Sometimes the need is just too overwhelming. What good can one person do? Sometimes we are too busy to take the time to get to know ?those people? – but if we do we may discover ?those people? are not really much different than us.

Years ago someone gave me a book titled My Grandfather?s Blessings by Rachel Naomi Remen. It?s a wonderful collection of stories. In one of them she tells of her grandfather sharing eight different levels of charity. The teaching comes from the Mishna Torah. She was 5 years old when her grandfather shared them. The 8th most basic level of giving to others is: ?someone begrudgingly buys a coat for a shivering person who has asked for help, gives it to that person in the presence of witnesses, and waits to be thanked.? The 7th level someone does it without waiting to be asked, the next openheartedly, not grudgingly. It continues in similar fashion. At the 2nd level, ?someone openheartedly gives their own coat to another and has no idea who has received it. But the one who receives it knows to whom he is indebted.? Finally is the first or highest or purest level of giving to others: ?someone openheartedly gives their own coat away without knowing who will receive it, and the one who receives it does not know who has given it.? This giving is a just a natural expression of the goodness in us.

Remen then responds to her grandfather?s teaching saying, ?I will only do it the right way, Grandpa.? But he responds with another question. ?Suppose we all gave to those around us as the first man does, begrudgingly offering a coat we have bought in the presence of witnesses to someone who has need and who asks us for help? If we all did this, would there be more suffering or less suffering in the world than there is now?? She thinks for a long time battling with that need to do it right. ?Less suffering, Grandpa,? she said with some confusion.

Then her Grandfather spoke: ?Ah yes,? he said beaming, ?this is true. Some things have so much goodness in them that they are worth doing any way that you can.?

So often those acts are surprisingly simple. We?ve all done them at one time or another ? maybe not even aware that we were doing them. Like those righteous sheep we?re just letting love flow through us ? God?s love flows through us as we respond to the need of others. At other times our motives are mixed ? we want to feel good about ourselves, or look good, or act more out of guilt than pure love. Jesus doesn?t send anyone off because of a bad attitude. But sometimes such simple deeds go undone because we have turned away ? we have found a way to separate ourselves and we have made ourselves the judge. When we do that we have also separated ourselves from God ? the God who has come in Christ.

We need to remember that God in Christ calls us and won?t give up on us ? and calls us only to respond to the need that is right in front of us ? not the whole world ? just what?s right there in front of us in some way. And we are not always called on to act alone ? God calls us as community as well. We need to remember it is God?s love at work in the world in and through us ? and like the sheep we may not even see it happening ? but still it happens.

So as we celebrate Thanksgiving let us count our blessings ? and may we count among them the blessing of being a child of God through whom the love of God flows into this world ? this is the work of eternal life. May we have the vision of seeing Christ in those in need.