Matthew 25: 31 - 46 - The Sheep and the Goats
Today is the last day of the church's year: the new liturgical year begins next week, with the first Sunday of Advent. The church's calendar encourages us to begin the year with a time of preparation and contemplation, before the arrival - again - of the Baby in Bethlehem, the celebration of the Christ Mass.
Here, on the last day of the year, we are asked to consider the ultimate destination of that Baby. The baby who arrives in a manger will grow to be at first a wise child, then an inspiring preacher. He will become a crucified messiah, then victor over the death itself. He will ascend into a heavenly state, hidden physically from his followers, but will then be found among them again in the form of the Spirit of God. Then, at what the Bible calls 'the end of the age', he will return as Christ the King - Lord of the Whole Universe.
What are we to make of this final story? This story of the Christ who separates people into two groups - like a Shepherd separates sheep from goats. Well, first of all, let's remember that this is a story. Like all of the stories of Jesus, it is not meant to be taken literally. It contains lots of story-telling references, which people of Jesus' day would have understood instinctively.
Take, for example, the use of repetition. Great stories of the Eastern World used repetition all the time. It was a way of making the story stick in our imaginations. We have some examples in our own culture. Take the story of the three little pigs. How does is it go?
"Little pig, little pig, let me come in"
"No no Mr Wolf, by the hair of my chinny chin chin, I will not let you in!"
"Then I'll huff, and I'll puff, and I'll blow your house in!"
This story of the sheep and the goats uses very similar (but not so comical) repetition:
"I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in. I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you visited me"
That litany is repeated four times in this one story...twice for the 'sheep', and twice (in a negative form) for the goats.
There are other, classic, story-telling devices on display here too. Take, for example, the response of the crowds - either the sheep or the goats. It is inconceivable that a whole crowd of people, totalling half of all human beings who have ever lived, would respond in exactly the same way to Jesus' statement. Among the sheep, surely, there would be some who would understand exactly what Jesus meant...those who had read their Bibles, perhaps! They would not respond by saying "When did we do all these things?". They would, rather, say, something like "Yes, Lord...we did our best". Or "thanks for noticing!". But in this story the sheep and the goats all respond in exactly the same way. It’s a story-tellers’ trick - like the way that all the children of Hamlyn respond to the Pied Piper, or the way that every girl in the Kingdom wants to marry the Prince in Cinderella.
There is one other little detail about this story that is worth contemplating - before we get to the heart of what it is saying. When I say the word "sheep" to you - I daresay that you have a vision in your mind of something round and fluffy, with a big thick woolly jumper. On the other hand, the word "goat" brings to mind something bigger, stronger, with a rough wiry coat, and big horns. In fact, that was not the image that Jesus had in mind.
A few years ago, when I was in Uganda, I was shown that primitive breeds of sheep and goats are remarkably similar. Ugandan sheep and goats are very similar to those in the area around Jerusalem. It is actually quite difficult to tell them apart. Woolly, English sheep, and strong wiry goats are the result of selective breeding over many centuries. In fact, a shepherd who might be separating them, one from another in Palestine, has only one visible marker to guide him in a hurry - namely that sheep's tails point downwards, and goat's tails point up.
So, knowing that what we have heard is a story...not a description of exactly how things will be, but a grand, metaphorical parable...how shall we interpret it? What does it mean?
The story comes at the end of a long section of Matthew's gospel, when Jesus has been talking about the End of All Things. It all starts back in Matthew 24, when his disciples say to him "Tell us...what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?"
So this parable, which is part of Jesus' response to their question, could easily start with the words "At the end of the age"...or, as we might say, "at the end of the day".
At the end of the day, this parable teaches us, there are only two kinds of people. They are pretty similar, these people - it’s hard to tell them apart, in fact. They all lead fairly normal lives, they marry, have children, go to work, watch Eastenders. But there is a difference. And the difference is found in the way that they relate to other people.
All the people of the world, the sheep and the goats, are surrounded by others in need. There are homeless people, and hungry people. There are thirsty people and naked people. There are sick people and prisoners, ripped away from their families by their own fault, or by the oppression of the countries they live in.
At the end of the day, the difference between the lost and the saved is indicated by the way they respond to the hungry, homeless, thirsty, naked, sick and imprisoned. Jesus is saying "if you want to know who will be saved, look at the quality of a person's life...at the decisions they make about others in need".
Is that it? Is that all that I must do to save my soul? Well, yes, essentially. That is the heart of the story of the sheep and the goats. At the "end of the age", at the "end of the day", how I have lived towards other people will show whether or not I have attained the salvation of my soul.
But of course, it’s not as simple as that. How I have lived towards others is only an indicator...it is the outward sign of something much more profound that is supposed to be going on inside of me. Every human being is capable of being generous, from time to time. Even the most evil human being you can imagine is capable of generosity, occasionally - if only to their own family members.
I wonder how many of us have supported Children in Need this year? Good for you, if you did. Nothing wrong with that, at all. But woe to you, if that is all you have done for others this year! I feel nothing but sorrow for those who can only respond to the plight of others when it is put in front of them in graphic detail on the television. My friends, such people are goats. They are the ones who look like sheep, but whose obedience to radical call of the Gospel is only skin deep.
Becoming a sheep - a true believer, a true Christ-ian, takes a complete transformation of our inner being...or what the Bible calls being 'born again'. Crucially, it takes a daily commitment to the abandonment of 'self'. Earlier in Matthew's gospel, specifically Chapter 16, Jesus says this...listen to him:
"I anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life, will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it. What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul?"
Salvation, being 'born again, is not achieved at a moment in time...just by saying a prayer. It is the work of a lifetime, to keep on keeping on...carrying our cross. When Jesus died on the cross, he gave up his rights to everything, even the robe that he wore, and the life that he had. But even while he was doing so, he found time to forgive his executioners, make provision for his mother, and give a comforting word to a thief. When Jesus calls us to 'take up our cross', he means that for us to find salvation, we need to embrace that kind of radical giving. We need to be willing to give up everything we have, everything we think, everything we are, in order to truly find the salvation we seek.
Now I realise, of course, that this is a hard Gospel to hear. It's a million miles from the faith that some of us have inherited...the kind of faith which assumes that all I have to do is go to church on Sunday, believe some basic theology about Jesus dying for us, and somehow, our salvation will take care of itself. But that is the Gospel. Jesus has said it. "Whoever finds his life, will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it"
As I've said, this is the work of a lifetime. It takes time to gradually pull down the walls of the ego and the self we have built around us. It takes years to come to the realisation that it truly is in giving of ourselves that we receive, and that in dying to ourselves we are born to eternal life. But it is possible to start that journey, that lifetime of work today! Perhaps we could start with the most basic call of Christian discipleship - the biblical call to give 10% of our earnings to the work of God. That’s a good place to start. Perhaps we could join Jeff Harvey and the pastoral team, giving just one hour a week to the task of visiting the sick of this parish? That’s a good place to start. Perhaps we could offer a little of our time, once a month, once a fortnight, once a week to a charity which serves others, or to the Community Café. You don’t have to cook…you don’t even have to serve coffee. What most of our customers in the café are after is a friendly face, and a listening ear.
But that is only the start. What Jesus called 'the Way' is a way of life. It demands a complete re-imagining of what we consider important in life. It means a complete emptying of self...truly giving up my rights, my desires, my feelings, my wants, my purposes, and the giving out of all my resources to the service of others. To the hungry and the thirsty, to the naked and the homeless, to the sick and imprisoned.
Anything else is just an illusion of true religion. And nothing at all like the real thing.