We’ve finally made it. Today marks the end of the church year, when we celebrate the ultimate reign of Christ. This also means that we’ve come to the end of the year of Matthew in our cycle of scripture readings called the lectionary. And it means that in today’s passage, we hear the final words of Jesus’ final sermon on the end of the age. Like the three parables that have come before this closing statement, the parable of the sheep and the goats describes what will happen on the final Day of Judgment. So take a deep breath and get ready for what you are about to hear, because this is Christ’s last word on the subject, end of story.
“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left.
Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; or I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’
Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’
Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” (Matthew 25:31-46)
The thing that strikes me about this familiar parable is the element of surprise. Throughout this final sermon, Jesus has repeated the warning that the final judgment will come when we least expect it. When the Son of Man comes in glory, it will be a big surprise to everyone. Back in chapter 22, we heard of a wedding guest who is surprised to be thrown out of the party because he isn’t dressed correctly. The foolish bridesmaids at the beginning of chapter 25 were surprised that they had run out of oil, and they were further surprised to be shut out of the wedding feast when they arrived after the door had been closed. The third servant in last week’s story was surprised that his master had expected him to invest the talent he’d been given, instead of burying it for safe-keeping, as conventional wisdom would indicate.
And now, we see that both the sheep and the goats are surprised to learn they have encountered the Good Shepherd whenever they met “the least of these.” Whether they were caring for the needs of others or ignoring those needs, the surprise is the same: “Lord, when did we see you…?” they ask.
And I think the reason both sheep and goats show surprise is also the same: when responding out of our primary identity, it doesn’t occur to us that we are doing anything special or unusual. It isn’t that caring for the poor, the sick, and the hungry makes you into a sheep instead of a goat. Caring for the poor, the sick, and the hungry simply shows the world whether you already are a sheep … or a goat. The way you respond to ‘the least of these’ demonstrates where your true identity lies.
Because if your identity lies in yourself, or what you think makes you important in the world, you won’t see the needs around you as something that should matter to you. But when you identify with Jesus, you see Jesus in others, whether they are sick or poor or hungry or in prison – you see them as Jesus sees them, and you see Jesus in them. When meeting the Lord in the least instead of the greatest, the righteous will respond out of righteousness, and those who are not righteous … will not.
And that’s where the rub comes in this parable. Because, too often, we don’t see others as Christ. We don’t recognize Christ in the people we encounter every day. We don’t respond to each person in the same way we think we’d respond to Jesus if we met him on the street.
But what would happen if we recognized Christ in each of the people we encounter every day, and responded to each person knowing that he or she was Jesus? How differently would we behave toward the person who rings up our groceries, or hands us our lunch through the drive-up window? How would we react to that obnoxious co-worker, or the people who act like they are better than we are? How could we be changed if we knew that each unexpected meeting was really a chance to look into the eyes of Christ himself?
You see, just as he once came to earth in human form, Jesus will come again to rule as Christ the King. In the meantime, Christ comes among us as one of the least of these, asking for food, in need of shelter, calling our attention to the thirst for living water that we see all around us, if we will only look. And Jesus comes in a way that makes him accessible to us in our need.
Karoline Lewis writes, “At the end of the day, to claim Christ as king, to believe in God’s reign, has to be a claim on our present, and not just the future glory of ‘thy kingdom come.’ … how we decide to live matters. Not just for ourselves. Not just for those immediately around us. But for the sake of … the reign of Christ here and now.”
So what is the point of the parable of the sheep and the goats for us, in the here and now? Do we really need another story of division and separation in this time of growing polarization in our society? In a season when what we long to hear is a word of encouragement and hope, do we really need to be reminded about judgment?
Yes, we do.
In fact, I think Jesus tells these stories about judgment at the end of time in order to offer us some encouragement and hope. And not so we will think ’those people who don’t believe like I do are gonna get what’s coming to them when Jesus separates the goats from us sheep!”
The Hebrew word often translated as “righteousness” in our Bible is rich in meaning. It means justice, or God-rightness. But what we too often forget is that God’s justice includes both judgment and mercy. And that’s a good thing for all of us.
Just as both groups of bridesmaids fell asleep while waiting for the bridegroom, both the sheep and the goats failed to recognize Jesus in the people they encountered – the sick and hungry and naked and imprisoned. Neither those who cared or those who ignored the ‘least of these’ saw Jesus when they met him.
And that’s the point. Whether you recognize him or not, whether your lamp is lit or not, Jesus still comes. Jesus shows up for us. In the mundane, everyday interactions we have with others – and even in pandemic quarantine, we still interact with others everyday, if only in the way we think about them – even there, Jesus comes to us.
Remember that Jesus tells all these parables about the time when God’s reign will be fully established in the context of Holy Week. Within 48 hours, Jesus will wash his disciples’ feet and tell them “I have set an example that you should do as I have done for you” (John 13:15). But just before that happens, a couple of “Greeks” approach Philip and say, “Sir we would see Jesus” (John 12:21). John’s gospel never tells us if they get to have that face-to-face interview, but isn’t it interesting that they ask in the way they do? “We would see Jesus,” or “we want to see Jesus.” I have a feeling that if Jesus had been in earshot, he might have responded, “You would, would you? Well, just look around!”
When we were in the Holy Land, we met with Archbishop Elias Chacour in Galilee. He offered to answer any of our questions the time would allow, but first we had to answer his question: “What did you come to the Holy Land hoping to find?” He waited, and few offered some timid responses. He shook his head and said, “Did you come here looking for Jesus? He isn’t here! Didn’t you get the memo? He is risen! He goes before you, just as he said he would!”
The parable of the sheep and goats teaches us to stop looking for Jesus, stop wishing you could see him face-to-face, and start realizing you see Jesus in every single person you encounter.
Start seeing Jesus in the ones who annoy you because they won’t wear a mask properly in public, and the ones who annoy you because they keep telling you how to wear your mask.
Start seeing Jesus in…
the ones who need the food we put in the Blessing Box,
and the ones who wipe it out daily;
the ones who agree with your political opinions
and the ones who clearly do not;
the ones who are victims of crime,
and the ones who commit those crimes;
the oppressed and their oppressors;…
the ones who’ve hurt you, and the ones you’ve hurt.
Start seeing Jesus, because he’s there, waiting for you to recognize him, to receive him, to accept his forgiveness, to enter into his joy. And when that happens, when you start seeing Jesus in the least as well as the greatest, they won’t be ‘least’ or ‘great’ anymore. They will become part of us, one in Christ. And you may be surprised that, when you see Jesus in them, they will be able to see Jesus in you.
Christ the King A, November 22, 2020
Watch a video of this sermon here.