Well, are you a sheep or are you a goat? When Jesus, the great shepherd, the great King, comes to carefully study your life, will he decide that you belong on the right, with those who fed the hungry, gave drink to the thirsty, welcomed the stranger, clothed the naked, took care of the sick, and visited those in prison? Will you be one of the inheritors of the kingdom of heaven? Or will the Son of Man decide that you belong on the left, with those who didn’t? Will you be sent off into eternal punishment?
I ask because, according to the Gospel of Matthew, it’s not obvious. In the parable I just read, there is a lot of uncertainty about who will end up with the righteous, and who will end up with the unrighteous. You may be struck that those whom Jesus calls “accursed,” and sends off to the “eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels,” are shocked. They have no idea that they missed the boat: “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?” I don’t think these are awful people. I think they probably think of themselves as pretty decent folk. Very few people actually intend to live a life of pure evil; even the harshest dictators like to think they’re doing what’s best. The unrighteous in Jesus’ parable don’t know they missed opportunities––their surprise is genuine.
Interestingly, those who do take care of those in need are also shocked. The ones who get welcomed in the kingdom of heaven also ask, “Lord, when was it” that we did all these things? Just as the unrighteous have no idea they missed the boat, the righteous have no idea that they were on it. They have no idea that they actually belong on the sheep side. They, too, go about living their lives the best way they can, and it is a complete surprise to them that Jesus says they are deserving of eternal life.
(And, just as an aside, because this isn’t where I’m going with my sermon today: I do think it’s interesting that when Jesus splits the people up into sheep and goats, he does it completely on the basis of the good they’ve done in the world and not at all on whether they call themselves followers of Jesus. This isn’t like the Gospel of John, where only those who follow Christ and recognize his voice are the ones who are saved by the Shepherd. With Matthew, we could go so far as to say that everyone who cares for the least among us will be welcomed by Jesus into the kingdom of heaven, even if they’re atheists, while those who call themselves Christian but walk by the poor or even abuse them will not be.)
In any case, having heard Matthew tell us that we have no idea whether we’re going to be sent to the sheep side or the goat side, I have to ask, how do you feel about that? How do you feel about not knowing if what you’re doing in the world is good enough to get you assigned to the sheep side?
It makes me feel anxious. I mean, I try to do the right thing. I tithe 10% of my income every month to the food bank, and the women’s shelter, and SOS Children’s Villages, and PFLAG. When there is some major crisis in the world, I give to that, too. I never have cash in my wallet because I keep giving it away to the increasing number of people standing at the stop lights needing money. But, I know it’s not enough. I eat dessert even though I know there are people starving in the world, I have more than one pair of winter boots even though I know there are children who have no shoes at all, I stay at home in the evening and watch TV even though I know the hospitals and prisons are full of people who are alone and in need of company. I live quite securely with all my clothes and books and belongings in my nice, warm house, even though I know that in Calgary, 10% of the population, including 10% of the children, live below the poverty line, and 1/3 of us worry about not having enough money for housing. I’m not out there feeding and clothing and welcoming and visiting them. I’m not out there taking care of the least among us. What I am doing is not enough. And so I’m anxious that Jesus, the great Shepherd, my King and my Lord, has good reason to send me off to the eternal fire, to suffer the way those around me are suffering on earth right now.
So, I’m feeling kind of depressed now, and the children have been sitting here so nicely, so I am going to take a break and go talk to them for a minute. Children, can you come forward up here?
[So I have here a picture of someone who looks like they would be a great king. He is tall, and strong, and powerful. And here is a picture of someone who doesn’t look very much like a king. He is old, and he doesn’t look very strong, and he looks like he doesn’t even have anywhere to rest his head and sleep at night. Which one do you choose to be the king? The powerful and strong one? But if you had done something bad, and you knew you had to go and tell the truth about the bad thing you did, which one would you choose? Our King, whom we call Jesus, was actually not very strong and powerful. He was not at all like the first king. Our King actually died. And when people went to him to tell him the bad things he had done, he forgave them. And I bet he gave them a hug too. Our King, Jesus, is much more like this second person than the first. That’s what makes him a very special King, not like any of the others, and that’s why we love him and follow him and try to do what he does. Because he died for us and he forgives us and he loves us, and we are so glad to belong to him. Let us pray: Dear God, thank you for loving us and forgiving us and dying for us. Thank you for being a different kind of King. Help us to be like you. Amen.]
Our King, the one who will come to judge the living and the dead, does not want us to end up on the side of the goats. Our shepherd has no desire for us to end up in eternal fire. Our king would rather take care of us, and nurture us. In our reading from the Old Testament this morning, from Ezekiel, God says, “I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed (the Hebrew says cast out), and I will bind up the injured; and I will strengthen the weak. ... I will feed them with justice.” In fact, just a bit earlier in Ezekiel, in the chapter before our reading, God says, “I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from their ways and live.” Our shepherd-King, our God, is not all excited about sending anybody “away into eternal punishment.”
And so, our shepherd-King, our God, takes steps to ensure that that doesn’t happen. Rather than crushing us for mistakes we make out of weakness, God strengthens us. Not by threatening us, but by loving us. Rather than punishing us when we fall, God lifts us up and sets us back on our feet. Rather than thundering over us with proclamations that we are unjust, God feeds us with justice. Rather than putting us to death for our role in the deaths of others, as we so rightly deserve, God dies for us.
Our King dies for us. And in his death, our efforts become enough. Because our King dies for us, rather than demanding we die for him, we are brought from the side of the goats over to the side of the sheep. We are carried from eternal punishment to eternal life. We are made righteous. In dying, our King sends us God’s own Spirit, so that we, too, might seek the lost, and bring back the cast out, and bind up the injured, and strengthen the weak. We, too, might feed the least among us with justice. We, too, might die for others. And where our work is not enough, God’s Spirit strengthens it, and makes it enough.
When I hear our Gospel reading from Matthew, I tend to imagine in my head that Jesus ends up dividing the nations roughly in two, with half going to the righteous side and half going to the unrighteous. But you know, it doesn’t actually say that anywhere in the reading. It doesn’t say anywhere how many inherit the kingdom and how many go to the fire. And when I read Ezekiel, and when I think about what it means that Christ is our King-who-dies-for-us, I begin to think that maybe, just maybe, the kingdom of heaven is full and the place of eternal fire is empty. Maybe the answer to the question of whether you are a sheep or a goat is actually obvious after all. The shepherd-King of the nations died for the nations, so that all may have life, and have it abundantly, and that includes you. Keep on doing the best you can in feeding the hungry, and welcoming the stranger, and clothing the naked, and visiting the sick and those in prison. Through the Holy Spirit within you, the very Spirit of Jesus Christ the King, you will end up caring for the least, and you will end up caring for Jesus. And the King who cares enough for you to give up even his life to make you righteous will welcome you with open arms into his kingdom and into eternal life. Thanks be to God. Amen.