Saturday, March 25, 2023

“Sheep and Goats” - March 26, 2023

Text: Matthew 25:31-46

Have all of you all done your taxes?  Have you even started on your taxes?  I’m offering this as a public service announcement: if you haven’t already, you might want to think about your tax return.

In other news, students may way want to keep in mind that we are now 2/3 of the way through the semester.  Can you believe that?  Papers and reports and projects are going to be due, and final exams will follow.  If you haven’t started on those projects or if you haven’t yet opened the textbook this semester, you might want to think about getting started.

Following an NCAA tournament game, a player was interviewed and I heard him talking about all of the running and drills and conditioning work they did before the season started.  Everybody hated it, but when they were really put to the test in this physically and emotionally draining tournament game, all of that hard work had paid off.

One way or another, we are going to be audited.  We are going to be tested.  And not just on the court or in the classroom or by the Internal Revenue Service.  Our scripture this morning, another parable that Jesus tells in the gospel of Matthew, speaks of a spiritual audit of sorts.

This is almost the last teaching that Jesus gives to his disciples before he is arrested and before his death.  He could have shared with them on any number of subjects, but this is what he chose to say to them.  So we can assume it is important.

Later in Matthew, we have what is known as the Great Commission, in Matthew 28.  “Go ye therefore and make disciples of all nations...”  That is the Great Commission.  And then we have this morning’s passage, which is known as the Great Judgment.

It is a vision of the end of the age.  The Son of Man comes in glory with his angels, and he separates people like a shepherd who separates the sheep from the goats.

Now, you might not be familiar with a shepherd separating the sheep from the goats - I’m certainly not - but this was not uncommon in that day.  Goats and sheep were often herded together.  They would go out and graze together during the day, but when they got back home in the evening, they would be separated.  Sheep were wooly and they didn’t get cold.  They were also more valuable than goats.  On a cold night, goats might congregate near a fire or huddle a bit more for warmth.  The needs and care of sheep and goats were a bit different, and so they would be separated.  There was nothing especially profound about this, but it was a common and familiar practice.    

If you have been with us these past Sundays, we have had some really tough parables of Jesus.  And many have to do with things mixed together.  There are the wheat and the weeds, growing together.  Sometimes it’s a little hard to tell which is which.  There are the wedding guests with their fancy robes, but one among them is not dressed appropriately.

Then there are the wise and foolish bridesmaids.  Ten of them, five who planned ahead and brought extra oil and five who did not.  They are all together, waiting for the bridegroom.  And now we have the sheep and the goats, all together in one herd or flock or group or gaggle or whatever you call it - until they are separated.

In each of these parables, there is a mix of similar plants or people or animals, and there is a separation.  There is an audit, if you will, or a test or a differentiation, and one group does well and the other – not so well.

We read this story about the sheep and the goats and we might ask, “What is the deal with the anti-goat sentiment?”  What’s so bad about goats?  Why are they the bad guys?

I have no idea.  This just an illustration, nothing against goats.  But I have heard of cultures in which goats are so important that this passage is translated differently, to where the goats are the chosen group and some other livestock are the ones on the outs.  

What we might take note of is that with some of the species of goats and sheep raised at that time in the Middle East, the casual observer could not necessarily tell just to look at them, without a little closer inspection, which were sheep and which were goats.  
That is the situation at this Final Judgment.  You cannot tell who is who.  Even the so-called sheep and goats don’t know.  When they are separated, it is a surprise to them.

Appearance and reality cannot always be clearly distinguished.  The story is told that Charlie Chaplin once came in fourth place in a Charlie Chaplin look-alike contest.  I love that.  Here, nobody really knows who are the sheep and who are the goats – not even members of the flock.  Or herd.

These two groups, these two indistinguishable groups who are mixed together, are separated based on one criteria.  One distinguishing characteristic.

In a faith filled with so much teaching, so many emphases, with so many examples in scripture, what is this criteria?

Now, I have to say, there are a lot of issues out there that church people use and have used to separate and divide.  One of the questions that led to the Nicene Creed is whether the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father, or from the Father and the Son.  Sounds like an arcane, extremely technical theological point, but it split the church east and west in the year 1054.  It’s been almost a thousand years and the Eastern Orthodox and Western churches have been split ever since.

How is the true flock determined?  Does it have to do with the way we worship?  With the amount of water used in baptism?  Or is it about a theological checklist?  Maybe the nature of salvation?

The question might have been about our understanding of atonement and Jesus’ sacrificial death.  But it wasn’t.

These are all worthwhile questions and these have certainly split churches, divided Christians like sheep and goats - or dogs and cats, or rabbits and squirrels, or whatever wildlife metaphor you might want to use.   

The criteria for determining the true flock is not your church’s musical style or its vision statement.  It is not about how closely you have followed rules of ritual practice.

The big question is: How have you treated people in need?  That’s it.  How do you respond to human need?

This comes as a big surprise.  It is not a theology test and it isn’t really about believing the right thing.  But at the same time, it has a great deal to do with Jesus.

“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.”  

In Matthew, this is Jesus’ last extended teaching to his disciples before his betrayal and arrest and trial and execution.  And what happened after this?  In the garden, he said, “I am sick with grief.”  He was arrested - a prisoner.  He was stripped – he was naked.  He was in the company of strangers.  On the cross he said, “I am thirsty.”  

This was not just an abstract, theoretical exercise.  Jesus really did suffer these things.  And when we respond to suffering around us, we are serving Christ.

“I was alone.  I had nobody in the world.  My husband had died.  My kids lived on the east coast.  Did you reach out?”

“I was in prison, cut off from society for my misdeeds.  I was a criminal, but still a human being.  Did you visit?”

“I was hungry, living in a society where an enormous amount of food is just thrown away.  Did you offer me anything to eat?”

“I lacked clothing, waiting for styles to change and hoping for an old coat.  Did you give me anything to wear?”

“I was a stranger, new in town, new at school, new in the neighborhood, new at church.  Did you introduce yourself and welcome me?”

The amazing thing about this parable is that the sheep don’t even know they are sheep.  They almost dispute Jesus’ characterization.  When did we ever do these things?

They are not calculating about it.  They have not acted in this way so that they would get on Jesus’ good side.  I mean, they didn’t even know what they had done.  

This is just who they are.  They have treated their neighbors as – neighbors.  As human beings.

They did not ask themselves, “What should I do if I want to live in eternity in a good place?”  They were just living their lives in relationship with their neighbors.  

It may have come to your attention that society really doesn’t work as it should.  Has anybody noticed that?  The basic issue, I think, is that we do not recognize each other as neighbors or just treat each other as human beings.

Now it helps to give money so that organizations will care for people in need.  That is absolutely necessary.  And this has been important to our church.  We are one of the leading churches in our region in giving to mission causes.  Last year, 14% of our expenditures were to help care for people beyond our church.  I am really proud of our church for that.

That is important, and that is maybe a sign of our collective hearts, but Jesus is saying that what matters is basic person-to-person neighborliness.  In a sense, he is reiterating what he had said when asked what was the most important commandment.  He is saying that we are called to love our neighbors.  That is what this is.  All of our neighbors.

Hundreds of years ago, the Church made a list of the Seven Deadly Sins – sins that gave rise to other sins and could just destroy a person.  Among these were sloth, or acedia.  It basically means, “I don’t care.”

When you see your neighbors in need – do you care?  Do you respond in love?  What is your spiritual audit looking like?

Now that we know what matters most, we can act accordingly.  Amen.


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