Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
No matter who you are. No matter where you are on life's journey. You are welcome here.
Matthew 25:31-46 The Judgement of the Nations
‘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.’
I think goats are delightful. I like how bossy they are and how they hop around, especially when they are babies. I like how they play queen of the mountain and practice their headbutts. Because I have opted for a lifestyle where I don’t have any goats under my direct care, I get to laugh about their mischievous ability to get out of fences and into trouble. I think goats are great and I have yet to find a good explanation for why Jesus doesn’t seem to have a very high opinion of them. Because Jesus really doesn’t want us to be goats. Ok, that’s not actually the lesson. The lesson is actually about how we know who has followed Jesus’ commandment. It is some of the clearest call to faithful action in the whole of Christian Scripture.
The first metaphor here is of a Shepherd King, looking over a gathering of the nations. Courtney Buggs, in her commentary on this text, describes the first part of the reading as “a fantastical scene – a gathering of epic proportions of many nations, many peoples, many languages [before] the enthroned King.” The gathering of nations is compared to a gathering of herds of animals. Buggs notes that plenty of people in this era kept mixed flocks of sheep and goats together, so when Jesus talked about the nations as a mixed flock, that would not have seemed unusual to them. And, it would not have been unusual for a shepherd to eventually need to separate out the sheep from the goats. This very common action would become an image for how Jesus will judge people when he returns. He will separate people into the sheep and the goats. Again, we should remember: you don’t want to be a goat.
In this parable, the sheep represent the people and nations who most fully live out divine blessedness. The shepherd king will look over the sheep and goats and thank the sheep for having helped him. Notice that the sheep have no idea how they helped him. Buggs points that out in her commentary. They have no idea and ask him to explain. He says that when they saw him hungry, they fed him. When they saw him thirsty, they gave him a drink. When he encountered them as a stranger, rather than run him off or lock him out, they welcomed him. When he had nothing, not even clothes, they made sure he had enough. They cared for him when he was sick and visited him in prison.
The sheep have no memory of doing any of that. They ask him, at the risk of sounding foolish, "um, king... Would you mind reminding us when, precisely, we were able to do such kind things for you?" The shepherd king seems happy to explain. You see, this king was not the kind of king they were used to. They were accustomed to king... emperors... who put themselves above all of their subjects, who often understood themselves to be nearly gods. This king, this stand-in for Jesus, would be very different. This king is not separate from his subjects. He is radically connected to them.
The shepherd king looked at the work of the sheep... the times they welcomed strangers and visited the imprisoned, fed the hungry and clothed the naked and visited those who had been imprisoned... and said that the loving justice expressed in those acts had made its way to him. In fact, offering this loving justice to those considered to be the least of society was the same as offering it to him. The shepherd king also claims the “least of these” as family, an incredible statement for a king to make. He said the sheep met him everyday, in the face of their neighbors, his family, whom they served.
Much to the dismay of goat enthusiasts, Jesus says that the goats did the opposite of the sheep. The king tells the goat people and nations that they refused to help him when he needed it. Like the sheep, they have no idea when they refused to help a king. He reminds them that not helping those in need was just like not helping him. And, there would be consequences for their short-sightedness. "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."
Courtney Buggs argues that the main difference between the sheep and the goats is a question of orientation. She puts it this way: “the group on the right possessed an orientation toward meeting the needs of those at risk of marginalization, while the group on the left did not.” In orienting yourself towards those most a risk of marginalization, you are orienting yourself towards Jesus. It really is incredible to hear Jesus so completely identifying with humanity that to serve other people is to serve him. Jesus, who had been born among the poor and colonized, knew what it was to suffer under a tyrant. In following his own mission, he wouldn’t reproduce those harmful ways of being a leader. Instead, he would orient himself to those most in need. And, he would insist that his own followers do the same. While the empire would not tend to the least of these, Jesus would. And, while waiting for his return, Jesus insisted that his followers do the same.
I spent the last two days among people in the Maine Conference of the United Church of Christ who have been trying very hard to be sheep. I heard one story in particular that reminded me of today’s reading. A member of Williston-Immanuel, a dually aligned UCC/American Baptist church in Portland that is currently housing 34 asylum-seekers in their building, shared a moment when she felt clearly that Jesus had shown up on her doorstep asking for help. A couple, new to the country and with few resources, had been directed to the church for help as they were getting ready to lose their housing. Initially, the church covered a night in a hotel for this husband and wife, who was also pregnant. But, three days later, they were back and shared that they’d had no luck finding more permanent housing.
She said “We have a spare room. I thought we could let them move in.” So, they welcomed these strangers into their home. It was not always easy, for reasons you might guess if you know what it’s like to move in with new people, and also reasons you might not. The citizens learned that the refugee family became unable to access some valuable resources because technically they weren’t homeless anymore. In fact, eventually, the citizen couple and the asylee couple learned that the citizens would need to write them an eviction letter to take to some of the programs in order for the programs to accept them back into care.
Inviting people into their home was not easy thing, but for this faithful woman who shared her story, the “sheeply” act was worth all the difficulty and hardship. Fortunately, and importantly, the two families could partner together, each trusting each other, and each trying hard not to take advantage of what had been entrusted to them. Not every houseguest is so trustworthy. Thank God these two couples found each other and worked so well together. Their experience shows us something important about the Reign of God, with all its messy and beautiful glory.
I don’t know if you’re going to have a refugee family show up at your door. But there will surely be an opportunity for you and for this church to act like sheep in the coming weeks and months. I pray that we will act like sheep when Jesus shows up at our door. And, that we will find ourselves in the flock on the right side, next to Jesus’ family, the ones who may be known as the “Least of These”.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Courtney Buggs’ commentary “A Generous Spirit to the Most Vulnerable,” in the “Because of You” Stewardship Material
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.