he Sheep and the Goats
Matthew 25: 31 - 46 - The Sheep and the Goats
[Jesus said:]‘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; for 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.’
As you know, today is the Feast of Christ the King – the Sunday before Advent. Its put here, on the last Sunday of the church’s year, to remind us to keep our eyes fixed on the end of the story, even us as prepare to 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.
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. Woolly, English sheep, and strong wiry goats are the result of selective breeding over many centuries. But in hotter countries, where thick wool would be a distinct encumbrance, there is only one way to tell the difference between a sheep and goat in a hurry… namely that sheep's tails point downwards, and goat's tails points 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. 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. Or to quote Jesus, earlier in Matthew’s account, “By their fruit shall ye know them”.
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 what’s going on inside of me. Every human being is capable of being generous, from time to time. 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 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 hanging there, 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 best indicator of the kind of person we are.
And of whether our tail points up or down.