MATTHEW 25:31-46 “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. 32 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, 33 and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 34 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; 35 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, 36 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. 37 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? 38 And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39 And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you? 40 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. 41 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; 42 for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 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. 44 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? 45 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. 46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” *************************************************
Where is the house in your neighborhood where all the kids play? The place where there seems to be either a mom with unlimited patience or one who is on Valium?
Think for a moment about that house; where was it when you were growing up? For me, it was 'around the corner' at my friend Ellen’s house. Her house was green, four stories if you count the basement and the attic; and you had to count them because they were always in use. I don’t know how many kids went through that house in one week, but I do remember that her mom. The woman never seemed flustered no many how many of us were there; she somehow maintained calm if an occasional window got broken by a ball going through it, and never got tired of the same ten 45's we had blasting in the basement.
Now that I have kids of my own, I recognize what a gift she gave us by letting us take over her house. There had to have been times when she wanted peace and quiet, but she gave that up; she knew, not just that we needed a place to go, but that we needed a safe place to go... a place that we could feel non-threatened; a place where we could be free to be kids, with everything that meant. When we were on our way over to Ellen’s, we wouldn't hesitate to invite random kids we happened to see along the way. “Come on over… her mom won’t mind.” Never did we worry that Ellen’s mom would turn on us and say “Hey, that’s one kid too many, you need to go home.” There was more than enough room and more than enough grace to go around. It was truly a great place to be. A little taste of heaven... if I get in, that is....
Today's passage from Matthew gives us a glimpse of those who get in to heaven, and those who don't... Matthew gives us a glimpse of…(insert scary music here)...Judgment day! Jesus' parable of the sheep and the goats is clear cut; the sheep are on the right, the goats are on the left. Jesus affirms the sheep… "You guys did great! When I was hungry you gave me food, when I was thirsty you gave me a drink, you clothed me you visited me in prison. Good job!" The sheep look back at Jesus… "When did we do all those things for you? We don’t remember that!" But Jesus says “When you did it for the least of these, you did it for me.” (sheep look at each other, confused....)
Then Jesus looks at the goats on his left. Instead of affirmation, they get admonished! "You guys really messed up. I was hungry and you didn’t feed me, I was thirsty, you didn’t give me a drink... (long pause, so Jesus continues)... you never visited me, you didn’t give me anything to wear.” The goats look back at Jesus… “When did we not do these things? We never even saw you!” But Jesus tells them, "You didn’t do it for the least of these, therefore you never did it for me.” (goats look at each other, confused)
You know, as many times as I had heard this story, I could never get past a couple of things. First of all, if all the nations of the world are being judged; ALL the people... who are “the least of these?” Are they up there getting judged too? Second, both the sheep and the goats are blindsided by Jesus' statements, and consequently, at where they will spend eternity.
If this is really a judgment story, (as I had been told all my life) wouldn’t we understand what we’re being judged on? As much as I can buy that Jesus may have to point out to us where we messed up, would he really have to tell us where we did well? After all, if we are part of the kingdom of God, part of the elect, part of the group Jesus died for, shouldn’t we be aware of what we’re doing to insure that we get into heaven in the end? What makes the sheep so special that they automatically get in, especially when they didn't even realize they were doing the right things?
I believe it comes down to one word. Security…
The first time we hear of God calling God’s people "sheep' is in the book of Numbers 27:17: to go out and come in before them, one who will lead them out and bring them in, so the LORD's people will not be like sheep without a shepherd." The next time we see sheep as a reference to God’s people, it’s from the mouth of David. 2 Samuel 24:17 When David saw the angel who was striking down the people, he said to the LORD, "I am the one who has sinned and done wrong. These are but sheep. What have they done? Let your hand fall upon me and my family." That story is repeated again in Chronicles. Then we get to the Psalms. Several times in Psalms God’s people are referred to as sheep; the most memorable in Psalm 23, the Lord is My Shephard. In Psalm 100:3 Know that the LORD is God. It is God that made us, and we are God’s ;we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.
Through the Old Testament, through the Prophets and into the New Testament, God’s people are called sheep. So, as we go back to the Matthew story...who are the sheep on the right? God’s people. The one’s Jesus died for, the ones who have been made righteous before God, the ones who have been set apart as a royal priesthood… that's us. I believe that Jesus is saying to God’s people, (us) through this passage, “This is how my sheep act…. Here is what they should be… here’s how they treat others… and how it looks when they minister to the least of these." Yet personally I feel so far from that. Not that I don't help others- the least of these... but there are times when I help someone, that I walk away and tell myself what a good person I am; or I give a dollar to a homeless person and feel so pumped up about my good deed as I make my way to my warm house and full dinner. And I tell myself, I can’t do any more… Then I read this passage. God, I really am a goat! I’m never going to get it. My intentions might be good but when it comes right down to it, I don’t want to be uncomfortable either. Even my meager generosity is really just a camouflage for my selfishness.…
But come on! You can almost sympathize with the goats can't you? They were shocked too… just like the sheep… they didn’t know they were hurting Jesus… and even after they are cast into the gnashing of teeth place, there is nothing in the text to say that they understood what just happened. And not for nothin'... how much is enough to give anyway? How many homeless can you really make a difference with? And aren’t we supposed to be able to enjoy life without embracing poverty ourselves?
Here’s the difference, at least in the best way I can understand this passage. I don’t think it’s how many people we can give to… or how many homeless we help or whether or not we give everything away. The point is we need to recognize that we are sheep. Is it really that simple? Well, yes and no.
Lets think about sheep. How do sheep behave with the shepherd? First, they are totally dependent on the shepherd. I don’t know if they realize that, as sheep, but I know that the shepherd is there to protect them from predators, make sure they arrive to the grazing grass safely, get enough to eat and enough water to drink. Without the shepherd leading them, they would be at the mercy of their own will; unprotected, lost. Another interesting thing about sheep... They never worry about whether or not the shepherd will take care of them or whether the shepherd loves them. They already know he loves them. That knowledge brings a freedom that enables them to be relaxed, free from fear, from worry, from trying to insure a place with the shepherd… they are secure in both who they are and whose they are. Oh to have that kind of security! But in truth, that is the kind of security that God offers us. What would you be like/ how differently would you behave if you truly knew your place in the kingdom of God was secure? And that you couldn’t lose it? Oh, I know that’s what we’re taught; that there’s nothing we can do to earn salvation, keep it, or lose it… well then why don’t we act that way? Why do we continue to hurt each other? Why do we want to exclude people that don’t fit our view of a good Christian type person?
If we were truly secure in God’s love; if we were so secure in the fact that God’s love for us was unconditional, we would be free to truly love, and wouldn’t have to think about comparing ourselves to others and pointing out what others are doing wrong. You see, we would be like the kids going to that house in the neighborhood where all the kids play! We would be inviting people along the way, because we know there is room for everyone there. We would know that everyone is welcome and everyone is included.
So what about the feeding when hungry, and the giving drinks to those who thirst? Well, that is the natural result of living in security. You know you will always have your needs met, so it doesn’t matter what you give away. You are sure that the shepherd will care for all of you, and that since everything we have comes from God, we aren’t concerned about what we will put on, or what we will wear… we know that God will provide. And better than that, is that in feeding the hungry, and clothing the naked, we are sharing Christ with them... and further we are able to minister to Christ when we allow ourselves to minister to others.
And it’s not about helping others in order to get recognition or to say, “Look God, see what I did for you? Or even secretly saying “Wow, I did a great thing for the kingdom today by going to that soup kitchen.”
When you are truly secure in your own place with God, you don’t worry about helping because you think you’re picking up recognition or eternal merit; you help because you can’t stop yourself... because its the natural, instinctive, response of a loving heart touched by the love of Christ. And while I can choose to continue to measure myself by this passage, and name all the ways I don't live up to Jesus' description of the sheep I'm supposed to be, I choose instead to listen to the words of Jesus, confronting me as His sheep; pushing and nudging me onward... saying, "Come on Linda, we’re going to do this again, I’m showing you all of me, bit by bit. You’re still mine, still in the fold, no threats. I don’t work that way. It’s called love… take more of it, so you have more to give out. I love you. I accept you, even with your faults. You are my sheep."