Rev. Susan M. Hudson, St Pauls Presbyterian Church, November 23, 2014

“Lord, when was it that we saw you?”
[Ezekiel 34:11-16; Matthew 25:31-46]

Let us pray.  Lord…as we meditate on Jesus’ last teaching in the book of Matthew, may it seep into our very souls…permeate our hearts… and transform the way we live our everyday lives. We pray in the name of the One who promises to come again in glory…the One whom we will see face-to-face. In Jesus’ name, we pray, Amen.
            For some of us in our jobs, the New Year comes January 1st; for school teachers and students, it feels like the New Year starts in late August, when the new school year begins. For people who work in finances… the crucial last day of the year may be April 15th when taxes must be filed. My daughter, Rebekah worked in the Funds Development Office at a small college and the financial end of the year for her was the last day of June.  In the church, today, November 23rd is the last day of the church year, when we celebrate the Reign of Christ and think about Christ’s Second Coming, prophesied and promised in Scripture.
            So, unlike last week’s Parable of the Talents, which began like this:  “It is as if a man, going on a journey…” today’s Parable of the Sheep and the Goats, which is the last teaching in Matthew 25, has no ambiguity…there’s no “as if” in this story.
            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.  There is no “as if” --- This day will occur… and when it does, Jesus describes what the day will be like. “All the nations will be gathered before Christ, 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.”
            If you recall an earlier parable about the Wheat and the Weeds, Jesus advised the disciples not to try and “weed out” people who pretend to believe in Christ, lest we mistakenly pull out some of the good wheat in the process.  There will be a Judgment, but Christ will be the Righteous Judge of all nations and all people everywhere.  Today’s parable gives us a vision of what that ultimate courtroom will look like, and suggests how the final verdicts will be rendered.
            Barbara Lundblad… gives a powerful analysis of this parable and suggests that this story fills up all the metaphors of what the Kingdom of God looks like… building upon the foundations already laid in Matthew 25.  She writes:
            “This is what it looks like to stay awake when the master comes at an unexpected hour. This is what it means to bring extra oil for the long nights of waiting. The oil has become food and drink, clothing and hospitality. This is what it means to invest your talents while the master is away. Invest in those who have nothing to eat or drink, those who are naked and sick, those who are strangers or imprisoned—those who probably will not increase your stock portfolio. This is Jesus’ last lecture in his fifth and final teaching block in Matthew. Surely he must have saved the most important for last.”
       She also suggests his final teaching is wholly consistent with everything else Jesus says and does in the Gospel of Matthew. The story of the Sheep and the Goats does not appear in any other Gospel, but fulfills and completes what Matthew understands to be Jesus’ definition of authentic righteousness.  The “righteous” don’t just show up suddenly in heaven at the end of time because they said the right words once in their lives. Heavens no! The righteous are consistently living the kingdom life here and now.
            At the beginning of Matthew’s Gospel, Joseph was called to go beyond “legal” rightness when he took Mary as his wife, by trusting that true righteousness always EXCEEDS the expectations of literal laws. He took a leap of faith to marry Mary… and thank God he did!  He didn’t fear for his own reputation in the eyes of others.
            The Sermon on the Mount shows Jesus’ passion for a righteousness that always exceeds the letter of the law. This passion for righteousness is never “passive” – it requires movement on our part, and effort, which many times feels counter-intuitive, unnatural, like rowing or swimming upstream rather than floating along with the current of the times.
            Jesus calls us to active righteousness, but never leaves us on our own to figure out what that means.  Whatever Jesus mandated, Jesus did. He said:  Be reconciled with your brother or sister before worshiping God; love your enemies and pray for those who hurt you. “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they are doing” was Jesus’ first statement as he hung on the cross.  Of course, it’s difficult, but that’s where the tire of our faith meets the road of life.
            Look at Jesus’ life:  he fed the hungry on the hillside; he dined with tax collectors, sinners and other strangers. Jesus exercised judgment every day… demonstrating time and time again the difference between sterile beliefs and fertile actions. That’s why he was so tough on the Pharisees and other religious leaders: he pointed out the disparity between their “knowledge of God” and their daily lifestyle choices.  He called them goats to their faces quite often!
            None of us will ever know the timing of Christ’s return, even though many people love to make predictions. That’s a futile pursuit, according to Jesus.  Instead, Jesus wants us to spend our very brief time on this earth WISELY: feeding the hungry, quenching thirst, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, caring for the sick and visiting those in prison.
            This same commentator, Barbara Lundblad, points out that separating the sheep and goats is obviously a metaphor, because Jesus is not giving a lesson in animal husbandry! However, Jesus’ pictures of righteousness are NOT metaphors.  Giving food to hungry people is real… and relevant to anyone in any culture anywhere.  When Jesus talks about visiting people in prison, he is not speaking metaphorically. We may not know anyone in prison, but a lot of people do. The U.S. imprisons more than 2 million people, more than any other country on earth, and 67% are people of color, even though they make up only 30 % of the population.  When we met the woman who was healed of multiple sclerosis recently, the compelling part of her message for me was what she is presently doing with her life. She and her husband minister to people in prison, who have come to call her “mother.”
            Lundblad suggests that today’s story of Judgment intersects with our present behavior, like a double-exposed photograph:  the last day and the present day are part of the same picture.  She says: “Judgment is happening all the time, and righteousness is happening all the time, and Jesus is with us all the time.”
            I’d like to close with a brief reflection on the fact that Jesus is always “disguised” – and chooses to be found in the “least ones” of this world.  At the final judgment neither the sheep nor the goats were “conscious” of having seen Jesus.
            Those Jesus calls “the sheep” – simply showed care to people in need without discrimination or distinction. They cared for people of all nations and faiths.  The sheep responded instinctively to people in need with compassion, rather than making excuses about why they could not. Those Jesus calls “goats” – have other priorities, which cause them NOT to see the concrete needs of people around them.  Their intentions are not bad; they are just blind to opportunities on their doorsteps. If Jesus had knocked on their doors and asked for bread, of course they would have responded.  Wouldn’t we all?
           There was the same unconscious naivité in both responses. “When did we see you, Jesus?” They were unaware of God’s presence. Neither the sheep nor the goats discerned that they had served or neglected Jesus. The purpose of this story is not to create a new “law” or introduce a heavier “burden” on the lives of believers.  God is NOT a finger-shaking, guilt inducing task master, who is counting “notches” or putting tallies on the final report card of our lives.
Another commentator on this passage, Robert M. McClellan, writes from a pastoral perspective. He says that the story of the sheep and goats is absolutely a story about us, but it’s not told faithfully if it is used to incite fear that we have somehow fallen short of God’s expectations. Fear paralyzes and that’s NOT the purpose of this story. Jesus motivates and moves us by showing how SIMPLE it is to please God!  The resources are right at our finger tips. We know how to feed people, how to offer a glass of water. Used clothing is available all around us: in our own closets or at the nearest consignment store! By offering time we can give companionship, by opening our homes we offer hospitality.  We don’t have to know how to explain what we believe to offer what we have. “Whether it is food or water, a compassionate ear or an open heart, everyone has something to share.”
           Andy Mendez, a junior at St. Pauls High School, asked me to be his Junior Project Supervisor, as he is researching the problem of “poverty.” I put him in touch with Rufus McQueen, facilitator of the Men’s Fellowship in St. Pauls. Rufus explained to Andy that the members of his group attend different churches, but getting their churches to endorse all their activities involved too much bureaucracy. The Men’s Fellowship exists independently & simply responds to human need. They are free to ACT whenever and wherever needs arise.  Andy helped chop fire wood for needy elderly citizens with the Men’s Fellowship Group and was invited to serve Thanksgiving dinner to people at the Hooks Center next Wednesday.  By the end of five hours of working with Rufus McQueen, Andy glowed. The men welcomed Andy’s help instinctively, modeling what it means to care for people in need.  Andy didn’t need to fill out an application or wait in line to serve. He showed up, raked, chopped wood, and delivered it to needy senior citizens… keeping Jesus’ sisters and brothers warm for another day. One sheep helping another….let us pray.

Barbara K. Lundblad, “Homiletical Perspective on Matthew 25:31-46,” Feasting on the Gospels, Matthew, Volume 2, Edited by Cynthia Jarvis and E. Elizabeth Johnson, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013), p. 267.

Ibid, p. 269.


Robert M. McClellan, “Pastoral Perspective on Matthew 25:31-46” Feasting on the Gospels, Matthew Vol. 2 (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press), p. 268.