TEXTS: Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24; Matthew 25:31-46
Today we share the well known parable of Jesus concerning the sheep and the goats. It is a parable that is found only in Matthew and was offered, quite possibly, as an answer to the question, “What happens all those who not believers; our families and our friends and our neighbors who have not given themselves to Christ?” I offer this suggestion because Matthew has Jesus addressing his disciples in the parable using the Greek term ‘ethnos’, the word from which we derive the English words ‘ethnicity’ and ‘ethnic’. Our New Revised Standard Version of the Bible translates ‘ethnos’ as ‘the nations’. The word is clearly meant to describe all people rather than any certain group people. So, contrary to popular belief, this parable is not about faithful Christians, or at least not only about faithful Christians, and the manner in which Matthew used the Greek language, it was probably originally not meant to even include the faithful of Matthew’s community.
The question behind the parable is one that is asked to this day when good Christians say, “We know what is supposed to happen to us, to the ones who have accepted Christ as Lord and Savior, but what about them? You see, we must remember that the Gospel of Matthew was written primarily for a Jewish Christian audience, for the Children of Abraham who had come to embrace Christ as the promised Messiah, the Messiah who had come from among the people of Israel to save the people of Israel. But these Jewish Christians did not live in a vacuum.
They lived and worked with Gentiles / some even intermarried w/Gentiles
The parable itself is pretty simple and straight to the point. There will be a moment of judgment when Christ comes again, when the reign of God is fully realized in heaven and on earth. At that moment of judgment there will be a simple division of people, people of all ‘ethnos’, people of all nations, people of all types, all ages, all races, people even of all religions. The division of people will be based upon how each person has lived in relationship to Christ, how each has cared for and extended love and grace toward Christ throughout their lives. And when people, with great puzzlement, ask Christ when they encountered him in the variety of situations that he has outlined, Christ will say to each, “You encountered me in the persons of your fellow human beings.
Charles Cousar, professor Emeritus of New Testament at Columbia University, notes in his commentary on Lectionary texts, “it’s ironic that neither the sheep nor the goats saw Jesus in the suffering and the needy; it’s just that the sheep responded as Jesus would, because they grasped, ‘the essence of discipleship,’ and ‘what it means to be a Christian.’” The goats of the parable were clueless when Jesus offered examples of their sins of omission. They had no idea that their treatment of those around them, especially of those in various states of need, were in effect how they were treating the Son of God, and so their response was the expected, “Lord, when did we see you?” But in this parable Jesus characterizes those who had responded with love and grace as just as clueless! The sheep seem to have no greater inkling than the goats that their actions and the manner in which they related to those around them equaled their attitude toward and their treatment of Christ.
Of course the fact that everyone was clueless simply highlights and multiplies the difference between the two groups. for neither did what they did because they saw the Son of Man standing before them. It was not as though the sheep-ish people were able see Christ in the face of a person in need, because that fact surely would have caused them to react differently toward their neighbor than did the goat-ish folk. It was simply that the sheep-ish people had it within their very being, whether due to their faithfulness, to their upbringing, their personal experience or because it was simply part of their DNA. The sheep-ish people had within their very being the ability to empathize, to show kindness and understanding, toward anyone, anywhere at any time.
Sometimes I believe that it really could be part of our DNA that causes us to be good or not so good toward others. A long time ago now a fellow by the name of M. Scott Peck became a very popular author and philosopher and self-help guru with the publishing of a book called The Road less Traveled. Dr. Peck also wrote other books. One that I found particularly interesting was titled People of the Lie. In the book he explored the phenomenon of good and evil, concentrating upon instances in which individuals were raised in deplorable conditions with no positive family support or environmental influence, yet were in their adult years good, honest and upright throughout their entire lives; real sheep-ish sorts of folks. At the same time there were rare instances that Dr. Peck documented where persons might grow up in a tremendously loving and gracious surroundings with a supportive family and every opportunity in life, and yet ended up as goat-ish as any individuals could be, real scoundrels by any measure of humanity. Dr. Peck wondered whether there was just something in our DNA that directed certain people, against all odds, to be good or to be evil.
I remember a case not too long back in which a member of my church came to me absolutely mystified that her year old daughter had come up with a statement that just blew both parents away. She was preparing for a birthday party for the daughter and were creating an invitation list of about a dozen girls from school and from her girl scout troop when the daughter, out of the blue, said to her, “Mom that the girls will probably be bringing me gifts, and I know that there kids who don’t have many toys, and I have piles of toys. Could we ask my friends to bring gifts for those other kids instead of for me?” Now don’t misunderstand me, this was a good family; faithful church members; the two kids could not have asked for a more loving environment. But for a seven year old to come up with such a statement, totally unprompted, was in my humble opinion simply extraordinary!
So the question for us, faithful or unfaithful, the question for all us as part of the “ethnos” that Jesus brought forth in his parable, is this: Can we see Christ our Savior in the face of the hungry and the thirsty, the person ravaged by disease; in the face of a stranger that we have never met, a person in need of an adequate coat for the winter; in the face of a prisoner who may just be a justly convicted criminal? I firmly believe that one of the jobs of the Church of Jesus Christ locally and universally is to educate and to sensitize, to deepen the faith of those in the church so that they can as individuals see Christ in the faces of those around them. Unfortunately we far too often push the care for others off to the higher levels of our church and social structures. And while it is often better for the regional and national church or civic entity to pool the support of individuals and congregations so that their combined impact is greater than the impact of a multitude of smaller efforts, we also, as individuals and as congregations, can become separated and isolated from the original need. In our isolation we also forget to support our regional and national bodies; we forget to contribute our own portion that can be combined with the efforts of others. And all the while we sit around telling ourselves and each other that the national church body is only interested in our money.
Friends it is not as though the teachings of God are not right here before us. It is not as though we have no tools at our disposal. Jesus offered this parable to his followers, to this disciples, for a reason. Matthew saw fit to include this parable in his Gospel for a reason. Through hundreds and even thousands of years this parable has been proclaimed to the faithful for a reason. It is time, just as it has always been time, just as it always will be time that we open our eyes and our hearts to know that Christ Jesus our Savior stands among us, full of mercy and grace. If we look carefully into the faces of those around us, friend and stranger alike, we just may be able to see the face of Christ residing there.
Thanks be to God for placing God’s own presence into our midst. Thanks be to God for coming to us in the person of Jesus Christ. Thanks be to God for the gift of sightedness so that we may see Christ forever before us.