The Sheep and the Goats
Matthew 25: 31 - 46 - The Sheep and the Goats
As you know, today is the Feast of Christ the King – the Sunday before Advent. It put here, in the church’s year, to remind us to keep our eyes fixed on the end of the story, while we contemplate the beginning of the story at Christmas. The humble babe of Bethlehem was destined to be the King of Kings, and the Lord of Lords…Christ the King. To help us picture that ultimate destiny, Matthew gives us today’s story, of the separation of the sheep and the goats.
There is one particular 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.
Something I’ve learned through my trips to Africa in recent years is that primitive breeds of sheep and goats are remarkably similar. It is actually quite difficult to tell them apart. Woolly, English sheep, and strong wiry English 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.
The story of the Sheep and the Goats 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 not by the way they look, but by the way they behave. The difference is seen in 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".
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. Adolf Hitler was famous among his friends for the gifts he gave them.
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 the 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, or 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.
Let’s look at Jesus himself as an example. 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. And then, when the moment of testing comes (as it did for Jesus) the way we find ourselves behaving will be the evidence for the kind of life we have led.
Another thing I’ve observed in Africa has been the immense generosity of people who have nothing. Before I went on my last visit to Ghana, I told Bishop Matthias that I didn’t want to sleep in a hotel anymore, costing money that could be used for mission. He had always put me in a hotel because he felt slightly ashamed of the poverty of his house. But instead I begged him to be allowed to sleep somewhere in his house…anywhere. A mattress on the floor would do me. Imagine my surprise (and also my slight horror) when I found on arrival that Matthias and his family had refurbished an entire room for me to stay in. They had repainted the walls, and even bought some new lino for the floor! I felt awful…but at the same time reflected yet again that in African Christians I so often see a kind of generosity, even in the midst of extreme poverty, that is a beautiful thing to see. It flows from a lifetime of responding to the need of neighbours all around.
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. It takes years to realise that God calls us to live not as individuals, but in communities that care for each other.
What Jesus called 'the Way' is, in fact, 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 refugee, the Ebola victim, to the sick and imprisoned.
Anything else is just an illusion of true religion. And nothing at all like the real thing