Texts: Micah 6:6-8 and Matthew 25: 31-36
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 African shepherd who might be separating them has only one visible marker to guide him in a hurry - namely that the tails of sheep point downwards, and goats’ 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, even volunteer to be Councillors and, yes, Mayors. But there is a difference between these two kinds of people. 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 or collapsing economies 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".
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', and the development of a mindset which puts others first.
To offer us a different perspective, consider the words of Micah, which was our first reading, just now. Micah asks how he can please God. Perhaps burnt offerings might do it? (I do hope not, because it will make a mess of the Altar!). Perhaps the Lord will be pleased with thousands of sacrificed rams, or rivers of olive oil? Perhaps I should offer my firstborn, as a sign of penance for my sin. (My only daughter is sincerely hoping not!). But no, Micah concludes, these things will not please God. If we want to win God’s favour, or (to put it another way) to be on God’s side, all he requires is that we should “do justly, love mercy and walk humbly” with him.
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 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, to the sick and imprisoned. This is true for all citizens, whether we are elected to public office or simply living private lives.
But perhaps, as our new King demonstrated graphically last weekend, it is those of us who are called to public office who have the most responsibility to ‘do justly, love mercy and walk humbly’. Whether we like it or not, we are exemplars for the communities we serve. Other citizens take their lead from us. So if we act like goats, grabbing resources to enrich ourselves or our friends, then those we serve will take their lead from us. Lawlessness, tax fraud, and the accumulation of personal wealth will become the norm. But, if we dare to act like sheep, to do justly, love mercy and walk humbly, then perhaps, just perhaps, we may lead others to live on the side of God. Amen.