This parable today, of the sheep and the goats, is not often selected by artists to paint, or of musicians to sing, or of even preachers to inspire. It is not often selected as anyone's favorite parable.
There are a lot of paintings of the waiting father embracing the prodigal son and the Good Samaritan helping the man in the ditch, the Good Shepherd helping the lost sheep, but there aren't any pictures of the goats being damned to hell on the walls of Sunday school classrooms.
If there are hymns on this parable, nobody sings them. In Bible studies, this is one of those passages where the teacher ends up saying, "Okay, we agree that Jesus didn't mean what he said, but what did he mean?" Most of the time we just skip this part-and with good reason. (Brett Younger, Lectionary Homiletics, November 2014)
I could have done that today, skipped this reading, as always there are some perfectly good Scripture passages provided that I could have taken up and completely ignored this one. It is after all, Christ the King Sunday, I could just focus on that. But then I wondered, why did those putting our lectionary together choose this passage for this day, in the first place. Yes, I could have ignored it, and perhaps should have, but alas, as so many here are well aware, sometimes I am not that smart.
The reality is, if this passage is taken on its face, and if it is preached as it is so often preached, it would, in fact, contradict much of what we know of the message of Jesus. It would contradict the message of grace, and of salvation open to all, and instead reveal a grace and salvation based on works alone.
Those concepts, grace through faith not works, salvation open to all, are pretty much hard core theological truths for us, and to take this parable on its face would, I believe, contradict them, tell a different story, about a different God entirely.
I also, every time this comes around and I have to preach it, can't help myself, I just, almost immediately, head to google, and start researching, trying to learn a bit more about sheep and goats, you know, in the real world. Why did Jesus pick on sheep and goats?
I looked for reasons you would separate them, in the first place. One is copper toxicity, sheep can overdose on too much copper which is found in a lot of goat feed, goats, on the other hand, could care less. I could be wrong, but I have a feeling the shepherds in Jesus' time had no idea about this.
Some say it is because of cross breeding but while this has happened, it is very rare. The best reason, most scholars say, shepherds of the time separated them was that at night, to sleep, Goats actually preferred warmer, closed in spaces, and sheep more open ones. When the day rolled around, it was right back to the mix, no problem, but at night, they preferred different surroundings. All over the internet you will find very happy farmers, who on a daily basis mix sheep and goats with no real problems, but often separate them at night.
And so, with all of that, what do we do with this parable, which flies in the face of a Kingdom where Jesus yearns for unity, and that we all be one?
I do not purport to have the answer, but I am beginning to think that taking this in some of the more literal sense is yet another Christian Adventure in missing the point. Bear with me, if you can.
All biblical inquiry should start with context. It is important to note what all comes before this, and what the meta point of Matthew is in the first place.
The three parables that precede this one, the Talents, the Bridesmaids, the Unfaithful and Faithful Slaves all stress waiting for and preparing (or not) the return of Christ, the King. This parable today, takes listeners forward to the moment the Son of Man comes in glory (v. 31). The nations are assembled and the sheep are separated from the goats (vv. 32-33).
The parable emphasizes the connection between seeing a need and acting on it. It is reminiscent of the parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke. That parable says that all three observers of the man in the ditch "saw him." The first two engaged in a twofold action. They "saw him" and then, in response to that sighting, they "passed by on the other side." The response of the third person is threefold. He "saw him," he was "moved with pity," and then he took concrete action to express his compassion and assist the injured man. (Pathos, online, Judging Sheep and Goats)
Which brings me to my point, or I should say points, I know a sermon should have three, but I really only have two. The first is this, it could best be summed up in a statement one of my seminary professors used to say to us students, he would say, the one thing Christians have to get clear on, if this faith is going to mean anything is this, God is God, and you're not.
And that is what I would say is an often missed point in this parable, there is only one person who judges in this parable, one person that does the separating, the Shepherd. It is not ours to do, to even take up, or consider.
We are not the shepherd, we are at the end of the shepherd's crook. That should relieve us, I would say, from somehow taking on the judging role. For all we are called to in this parable, we are not called to this, judgment of others, that is not in our job description.
The Second point is this, Judgement Day is every day.
I am not going to argue with you if you still need that big courtroom in the end of all things, but I don't as much anymore, if it is to be, it will take care of itself, and God, the only judge, will deal with that. Judgment Day is not someday, or one day, it is every day.
Reminds me of a song, by the Texas band, the Flatlanders, The song's title is, Judgment Day was Yesterday, and it goes like this,
Judgment Day was yesterday, how'd ya do, how'd ya do
were you runnin from tomorrow, when the past caught up to you?
Did you lay down in heaven? Did you wake up in hell?
I bet you never guessed it would be so hard to tell?
Judgment day, as in what we have to make judgments about when it comes to which way we will go, which life we will live, whose way we will follow, comes every day. When those who saw the man in the ditch, looked, and then decided to go around, judgement day had come.
When the Good Samaritan came and saw the man in the ditch, judgement day had come.
When Jesus talks of all the times you fed the poor or recognized that one we so often want to ignore or visited the one everyone else wants to forget, he is speaking of judgment day coming.
Judgement day comes every day, many times a day. In short, I now look at this parable and see myself as the field, with both sheep and goats in me. There are many days I feel as if I am a goat, and others when I might at least feel I am living like sheep. And at the end of the day, just before I sleep, and I assess the day, there are usually some sheep moments, and some goats too. I have to tell you, in my mind and heart I do some separating of the two, in hopes it might help me the next day.
In Mark Rutherford's Revolution on Tanner's Lane, one character remarks about this parable, " He says, "That is a passage I have never quite understood, I never, hardly, see a pure breed, either of goat or sheep, someone that should go straight to heaven, or someone who should go straight to hell." Judgment day is going to be real difficult"
Exactly, there is a bit of both in all of us.
In a moment we will rehearse our Baptismal Covenant, and in it we will be asked some pretty daunting things, truly sheep like behavior, and we will answer, "I will with God's help." With God's help, with the Shepherd's help.
Jesus was trying to point out, once again, what we all know is true, inside ourselves we are torn between two worlds, the one he challenges us to live, and the one we often succumb to in this life, the path of least resistance that blinds us to the Christ in others.
Judgment Day is every day, but in the midst of that reality for us, our shepherd is always there. Christ the King, whose will it is to restore all things, who promises to free us, and to bring us together under his most gracious rule.
That promise is true, on our first day, our last day, and every day in between.