The Sheep and the Goats | Proper 29

Matthew 25:31-46

31 “Now when the Human One comes in his majesty and all his angels are with him, he will sit on his majestic throne. 32 All the nations will be gathered in front of him. He will separate them from each other, just as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will put the sheep on his right side. But the goats he will put on his left.

34 “Then the king will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who will receive good things from my Father. Inherit the kingdom that was prepared for you before the world began. 35 I was hungry and you gave me food to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me. 36 I was naked and you gave me clothes to wear. I was sick and you took care of me. I was in prison and you visited me.’

37 “Then those who are righteous will reply to him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you a drink? 38 When did we see you as a stranger and welcome you, or naked and give you clothes to wear? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’

40 “Then the king will reply to them, ‘I assure you that when you have done it for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you have done it for me.’

41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Get away from me, you who will receive terrible things. Go into the unending fire that has been prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 I was hungry and you didn’t give me food to eat. I was thirsty and you didn’t give me anything to drink. 43 I was a stranger and you didn’t welcome me. I was naked and you didn’t give me clothes to wear. I was sick and in prison, and you didn’t visit me.’

44 “Then they will reply, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison and didn’t do anything to help you?’ 45 Then he will answer, ‘I assure you that when you haven’t done it for one of the least of these, you haven’t done it for me.’ 46 And they will go away into eternal punishment. But the righteous ones will go into eternal life.” (CEB)

The Sheep and the Goats

This last of the four Advent Parables in Matthew tells of Jesus’ return and the ensuing judgement of the world. Christ the King Sunday gives us permission to hold an early celebration of the universal rule and reign of God and the coming Kingdom of Heaven. I say it’s an early celebration because, while the kingdom is here in part, the kingdom is not yet here fully. While no earthly power can match the power of the reigning Lord, we’re reminded that much is yet promised. Right now, we live in a sort of interim—a time between the times.

The surprising thing Jesus teaches here, which really shouldn’t be a surprise for those who’ve been listening, is that the King of Kings is revealed to us among the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, and the imprisoned. That notion still tends to surprise us even though Jesus was notorious for welcoming prostitutes and other stigmatized sinners into the kingdom of Heaven and telling those who presumed themselves to be righteous that they could go to Gehenna. The judge who sits on the throne surprises because the judgments of Jesus are unlike ours.”

One thing that strikes me every time I read this Great Judgement passage is that neither the blessed nor the accursed realize anything about what they had done or failed to do: they’re all surprised! When Jesus calls the blessed into the kingdom and tells them, “I was hungry and you gave me food to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me. I was naked and you gave me clothes to wear. I was sick and you took care of me. I was in prison and you visited me’” (Matt. 25:35-36 CEB), their response will be one of surprise, “Lord, when did we see you?”

When Jesus commands the accursed to get away from him he’ll say, “I was hungry and you didn’t give me food to eat. I was thirsty and you didn’t give me anything to drink. I was a stranger and you didn’t welcome me. I was naked and you didn’t give me clothes to wear. I was sick and in prison, and you didn’t visit me,’” (Matt. 25:42-43 CEB). The response from those who are accursed also will be one of surprise, “Lord, when did we see you?”

How is it that neither the blessed nor the accursed came to realize what they were and were not doing? I think part of the answer has to do with habit. When a practice becomes habit we often fail to realize that we do the practice. When I’m lost in thought I often pick my lip with my finger. Sometimes, when I unconsciously raise my hand to my mouth in an act of deep contemplation, my thoughts will be suddenly interrupted as Joy smacks my hand away from my mouth and says, “Stop picking your lip.”

When children are learning to tie their shoes they often begin with difficulty, but with practice they can learn to tie their shoes without even thinking about it. When was the last time any of you tried to tie your shoes and had to think it through? It’s just habit: something we can do with our eyes closed.

It seems as though the accursed became so hard, so callous, so indifferent, and their religion so apathetic, that they never recognized the fact that Jesus identifies with other people in love. The accursed closed their ears to Jesus’ command that we act toward others in sincere deeds of compassion—that we take care of each other. The people who were among the goats were not necessarily ignorant concerning Jesus, but they were surprised to discover—just as the blessed were surprised to discover—that they had met Jesus many times along the way and didn’t recognize him in the faces of the poor, downtrodden, and rejected.

Again, the difference between the blessed and the accursed was how they acted toward others. Apparently, the accursed had never developed their faith or love of God beyond their first confession of believing in Christ. Their faith became an empty and dead faith—empty ritual and correct creed—instead of a full and living faith. And while there’s nothing wrong with ritual or creed—which can be wonderful and deeply powerful expressions of faithfulness—there is a problem when we separate Jesus from what we do: when ritual and creed—when faith itself—become empty and removed from Jesus Christ. A citizen of Heaven must be more than this.

For the blessed their habit was doing. Their habit was living out their faith so that it permeated into every part of their being. In Matthew 13:33 we’re told, “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast, which a woman took and hid in a bushel of wheat flour until the yeast had worked its way through all the dough” (Matt. 13:33 CEB). A little yeast permeates throughout, and leavens the entire loaf. As Christians, as citizens of the Kingdom our faith cannot merely be viewed as a part of our lives. Our faith must become our life! Our faith must permeate throughout every part of our being. It should affect us in all that we do, and cause the practice of our faith to become our habit. This habit, however, can only come about with practice.

Practice forms habit. The two go hand in hand. We have to practice our faith in order to allow it to work its way into every aspect of our lives, or we will end up like the accursed do and allow not doing to become our habit. Doing nothing, after all, is the easiest habit to form. It is called sloth.

Some people have taken what Paul said about Justification by faith and twisted it a little too much. We need to understand that Paul was saying that we’re justified by faith, not works of the Jewish Law. He never wrote against the loving, mercy-giving, and justice-seeking works we Christians ought to be doing. If he had, he would have been teaching something in direct opposition to Jesus.

Paul was saying that circumcision, sacrifice, and dietary customs—some of the concerns of the Law of Moses—will not save you. Sometimes we fail to make this distinction between those specific works of the Law and works of love, mercy, and justice. It’s not unheard of for Christians to accept a lazy theology in which we think that because we believe in Jesus and have faith we’re all set. Anyone who falls into this kind of thinking misses the point of being a Christian: serving God through being servants of each other and the world, loving God and neighbor. Our faith is missional by design.

After Jesus washed the feet of the disciples he commanded them to wash each others’ feet. When Paul wrote down those words about how we’re justified by grace through faith in his Epistles to the Galatians and the Romans, he wasn’t sitting on his couch. He was out ministering to an empire! Paul went on three missionary journeys that we know about as Luke recorded in The Acts of the Apostles. He traveled almost Ten Thousand miles preaching the Gospel throughout Asia Minor, Greece, Cyprus, and Italy. He mentioned in one of his letters that he would like to go to Spain to preach Christ there.

Paul’s the one who said, “I’m in trouble if I don’t preach the Gospel,” (1 Corinthians 9:16b CEB). He knew that if he wasn’t living out his faith in what God had commanded of him then he wasn’t living. This is why James wrote, “As the lifeless body is dead, so faith without actions is dead,” (Jas. 2:26 CEB). Or as the late Rich Mullins once wrote, “faith without works is like a song you can’t sing… it’s about as useless as a screen door on a submarine.”

Our faith grows and is built up not by saying ‘I believe,’ but by what we do with the Gospel, this rich treasure that God has given us. Faith grows out of our experience. Saying ‘I believe’ is only the beginning of faith, not the end. If we have faith in Jesus Christ our actions should be those that please and honor God—by doing no harm, doing good, acting out of love and charity, working for the sake of mercy and justice. It’s when we do these things that we’re proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ in our actions.

Jesus Christ tells us, in no uncertain terms, that he identifies himself with the poor. Christ places himself among the least, the poor, the marginalized, the needy, and the oppressed, even prisoners justly convicted of crimes. In other words, we should recognize Christ in people who are on the fringes of society because that’s one place where Christ, undoubtedly, is.

We see this throughout the Gospels as Jesus touches the untouchables, loves the unloved, and gives hope to the hopeless. Jesus came into this world as a poor Jew. He lived among the poor and oppressed every day. He suffered among them. He was judged by them. He shared in their pain and agonies. In Matthew 25 Jesus says, “I assure you that when you have done it for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you have done it for me,” (Matt. 25:40 CEB).

What we do to and for others is what we do to Christ because Jesus identifies with each one of us, and especially with the poor. In the same way, when we fail to do for others, we fail to do for Christ.

How different would the world be if every time we saw a person we recognized Jesus in that person? How would the world be different if every professed Christian saw his or her Lord in the face of every person they encountered in their every day? “Lord, when did we see you?” “Then the king will reply to them, ‘I assure you that when you have done it for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you have done it for me.’” (Matt. 25:40 CEB). This is what it means to be a follower of Jesus.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

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