The sheep and the goats
This is one of those stories that has shaped our national life and consciousness.
This is one of those stories that has shaped our national life and consciousness.
It could be argued that this story that Jesus tells is THE story that created the values which motivated those who set up our welfare state. Why should there be no person who is hungry, thirsty or naked in our society? Why should no person die of sickness without us doing what we can to bring healing or comfort? Why should we not welcome the stranger? Why should we ensure that there is some compassion in our prisons?
It is not universal. In many societies there has been no reform of prisons; strangers are dangerous and you have nothing to do with them; the sick will die and if you want to stay healthy you avoid them; the hungry, thirsty and naked are hungry, thirsty and naked because they deserve to be hungry, thirsty and naked.
We live in a society which has been shaped by this book; our values have been shaped by this book – and we reject this book at our peril.
So what is this story saying?
Is it telling us that if we want to go to heaven we should be more loving?
That is what you expect the church to say - to tell you to be a nicer person.
But actually it does not say anything of the kind.
1. There will be a judgement
‘When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.’ (Matthew 25:31-33)
The idea of judgement is a bit of a joke to people who feel secure with our material possessions and our relatively comfortable life. And we have our myths about death: we will die and go off to be with granny. There is no basis whatsoever for that belief, apart from wishful thinking. I have far more time and respect for atheists or humanists who say that you die and that is it.
But because of Jesus and because of his resurrection, I cannot accept that death is the end.
Jesus is the one person who has been there and who has come back.
And so when he speaks of death, we need to listen. He has an authority.
And he tells us that there will be a judgement, a sentencing and a separation. He is the Son of Man (it is a reference to Daniel 7). He is the King who sits on his throne. And he will separate the sheep and the goats. The righteous to life, to that which has been prepared for them ‘since the creation of the world’, and others to death, that eternal punishment.
It is the consistent teaching of Jesus and the New Testament. We live once, we die and we face judgement
2. The basis of the judgement is on how we respond to Jesus.
On first reading, it appears that the judgement is based on what we do, our actions. It appears that the judgement is based on how much we have shown love and practical compassion to others.
If that is true, there is a problem!
There is a big danger when you say that our eternal destiny is determined by how loving we are. It can lead to deep anxiety: have I been loving enough – when was the last time I gave a hungry person a meal, or visited someone in prison? Or it leads to exhaustion: I must do more. Or it leads to legalism: you’ve got to provide so many meals, so many clothes, visit so many people. One thinks of the Pharisees of Jesus’ day, with their lists of what you could and could not do. Or one thinks of the 5 pillars of Islam: if you do them then your credit rating with God improves significantly. Or it leads to pride and judgementalism: I do such and such. I am such a loving, kind person – I must be a sheep – unlike those wicked people over there.
But the good news of the New Testament is that we are told that judgement is not based on how loving we are, because we are not loving enough. Instead it is based on how we have responded to Jesus, to his love for us, to his gift of forgiveness, to his promises and to the power that he would give us to enable us to change.
So what is going on here?
The nations, all peoples, are judged by how they respond to Jesus’ brothers and sisters who are in need.
Come with me: it is a little bit complicated! When Jesus speaks about his brothers and sisters he is not speaking of everyone. He is speaking of a specific group of people. He is speaking of those who have welcomed him, come to him and put their trust in him.
Matthew 12:46ff. Jesus asks ‘Who is my mother and who are my brothers and sisters?’ He points to his disciples. ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother’.
So the judgement, the separation between sheep and goats, is not dependent on whether people, ‘all the nations’, showed love in general, but on whether they show love specifically to Jesus’ brothers and sisters. Because when they show love to Jesus’ brothers and sisters, they are responding to Jesus.
This story is a commentary on Matthew 10:40ff, ‘Anyone who welcomes you, welcomes me, and anyone who welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me ... and if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones who is known to be my disciple, truly I tell you, that person will certainly be rewarded’.
Now please do not get me wrong. We need to show love to all people.
Jesus tells the story of a man who is a beaten up and left for dead on the side of the street. A priest ignores him, a religious official ignores him, but a moslem goes over and cares for him. And Jesus says, ‘You have got to be like that moslem. You need to show that sort of love to whoever you meet’.
But this particular story is not about showing love to all people.
This particular story is saying that because Jesus identifies himself so much with his people, the nations will be judged by how they have responded to the people of Jesus.
Remember to whom Jesus is speaking. This story comes at the end of a long section in which Jesus has been having a private discussion with his disciples. It begins in Matthew 24.3
And Jesus is speaking to those who would go hungry, and thirsty and be strangers and have nothing, who would suffer imprisonment and sickness because they followed him. They would become the outcasts of society. They would be rejected and ridiculed and persecuted.
One thinks of the believers now in the Syrian refugee camps, forced to flee their homes from militants because they are Christians. They are exactly the hungry, thirsty, naked, stranger, sick and imprisoned who Jesus has in mind.
And what Jesus is saying is that the world, people, will be judged on how they treat you.
Do they mock you? Do they patronise you? Do they treat you as a joke? Look at how popular culture treats women who choose to give up everything for Christ in order to live in community and become nuns.
Or do they show you love? Do they feed you, give you a glass of water, welcome you, provide for you, care for you and support you. Because when they show love to you because you bear the name of Jesus, they are showing love to Jesus.
A society will be judged by how it deals with the weakest and most vulnerable of society. Peoples will be judged by how we treat our outcasts. And in the C1st, Christians were the outcasts.
That is why there is surprise in this passage.
People who would not have expected to receive mercy from God, but who showed love and compassion to the people of Jesus, discover they have an astonishing reward. Why? Because in showing love to a follower of Jesus, they were actually welcoming Jesus himself.
And people who thought that they lived good lives, and that God owed them a place in heaven, but who ridiculed or neglected other Christians, especially those who find themselves on the bottom of the heap – discover that they are excluded. Why? Because in rejecting those followers of Jesus, they were rejecting Jesus himself.
And Jesus is saying to these first Christians. Don’t worry. I am with you. You are going to be hungry, thirsty, strangers, naked. You are going to get sick and be imprisoned. You are going to be at the bottom of the pit. But I know. I am about to be crucified, but I will rise again. And I will be so close to you that what people do to you is what they do to me. Their eternal destiny will rest on how they treat you.
So what is this passage saying to us, who are followers of Jesus but who are not hungry, thirsty, strangers, naked, sick or imprisoned?
1. We need to re-examine our Christian faith.
The expectation of the New Testament is that because of our faith, Christians will be at the bottom of the heap. Paul says in Timothy that those who wish to live a godly life will be persecuted.
And there is a verse which constantly stands over against me, as it did for many believers in the first few centuries, when Jesus says to the rich young man, ‘sell all you have and give to the poor and come follow me’.
Jesus identified himself with us in his becoming human and in his death on the cross. He identifies with us when we are hungry, thirsty, naked, strangers, sick and imprisoned. Am I really prepared to identify with him in, as Paul said, ‘participating in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death’ (Phil 3.10)?
That is the challenge
2. We can take comfort from his presence
Jesus identifies himself with his people, with us. He is our brother. But he is more than that. He is so close to us, closer than our breathing. Communion is that picture of how, by faith, he comes deep within us, into us. And that is particularly true when we are in those places of desperation.
3. We can ask God to change us, to make us more like Jesus
I return to where I began.
We give thanks for our Christian heritage. We live in a society which has, for many years, chosen to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, care for the sick and provide relief for the prisoner.
They are what God wants done for his people. They are good things, and they are things that should be done for all.
But we can’t just leave it to the State. We need to allow God to work in us, to change us, to give us a new vision of others, so that we see them with his eyes. We need to pray that he will change us so that we learn to provide for, welcome, care for and visit not only those who are our brothers and sisters, but for all people.
I was reading about Hugh, Bishop of Lincoln, who died in 1200. A monk writes of a visit that he paid together with the Bishop to a hospital. He writes of how the bishop kissed the diseased men and then adds, ‘Have pity, sweet Jesus, on the unhappy soul of the narrator! I cannot conceal, would that it were concealed from your vengeance, how much I shuddered not merely to touch but even to behold those swollen and livid, diseased and deformed faces with the eyes either distorted or hollowed out and the lips eaten away! To an eye darkened by arrogance the pearl of God did not gleam in the mire. But your servant Hugh, whose eyes you had completely blinded to external superficiality, saw clearly their internal splendour, and therefore those seemed to him the more beautiful who outwardly were the most horribly diseased.’
So we pray that he will work in you and me, so that we look at people with the eyes of Jesus, and love them with his love.