Sermon based on Matthew 25:31-46 preached on Sunday 22nd November 2020 for Christ the King
May I speak and may you hear through the grace of our Lord; Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen
Whenever, I’ve read the story of the separation of the sheep and the goats, I’ve always felt a little sorry for goats. After all, who hasn’t seen those delightful pygmy goats bouncing around in paddocks, on bales of hay? No less charming than gambolling lambs in the spring. This sympathy made me feel that the gospel writer had picked the wrong animal to cast as representing the accursed. That was until I met Roger…
Roger was a large, bug-eyed, short-haired, tan coloured goat, who was part of the animal petting area at the zoo. Inquisitive and bleating loudly, he made it very clear that he was entitled to monopolise the fodder that was on offer and woe betide the timid, young sheep who shared his pen, daring to approach. If he wasn’t getting fed quick enough, a few butts to the leg made sure you knew what was required, and if nothing was forthcoming then a large mouthful of your skirt would suffice!
I did manage to get most of my skirt back out of his mouth and I think they retired him from this specific zone soon afterwards.
But what, according to Jesus, is the difference between sheep and goats, after all in many middle eastern countries, sheep and goat are grazed together and isn’t Jesus described as the Good Shepherd? Indeed, yes, but he is the shepherd of sheep not goats, with many biblical references to this fact. From Psalm 95 for example, ‘For he is our God; and we are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand.’
If you were also to look at the habits of each creature you can begin to distinguish the traits that help us to see why Jesus vilifies these particular cloven-hooved creatures
In some parts of the world sheep and goats can look almost identical, so it’s nothing to do with appearances. However, sheep graze, that is they prefer to eat grass as well as peas and pulses and clovers, things that grow close to the ground. They eat what is rich in nutrients and tend to be more selective in what they consume.
They also are more gregarious, preferring to stay together in large social groups; and should one become separated from its flock they will become very agitated and nervous, and as a result, may die. They need a pastor – hence the parable of the lost sheep.
Goats on the other hand like to eat the tender leaves of the tress, cutting off the tips and preventing their natural development. They eat the leaves, suckers, vines, stems and shrubs, even undergrowth – basically they eat it all – and can rise up on their hind legs to reach the highest vegetation, and although they are not discreet in their eating habits, which may seem like an advantage, it turns out to be a disadvantage because much of what they consume is low in nutrients
They are also very agile, independent, and very curious. They can survive entirely in freedom, adapting to the environment without real need of a shepherd.
‘For he is our God; and we are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand.’
So, having briefly outlined some of the habits and differences that exist between goats and sheep, it would be perfectly reasonable to consider whether, spiritually speaking, we are sheep or goats; a question that is not directly answered in this passage. However, we are told that the decision will ultimately be up to Jesus.
What is clear from the text is that neither the sheep nor the goats recognised the king at all when they were either doing, or refusing to do, the acts of kindness and compassion described. It would also seem that what distinguishes the sheep from the goats is not the capacity to discern Jesus in the person in need, but the willingness to do the deed despite this.
Which begs the question about how much of what was done to the people in need, was a conscious act, done to, or for, Jesus and how much was an instinctive action taken in response to need, however or whenever we encounter it . What appears to be more praiseworthy, is the instinctive response to human need and not the act done, or not done, on the basis of whether a person was deserving or not, nor even whether we were doing it consciously as our Christian duty. What matters is our openness to respond compassionately to human need.
Individually and corporately, we are called to help those in need, and we cannot ignore the plight of human beings suffering hunger, thirst, nakedness, homelessness, sickness, or imprisonment. We join with others to find ways to come alongside those who lack the basic necessities of life that we may take for granted. If Jesus’ words in this passage are taken seriously, more may hang on our charity than we realize.
But in the parable of the Sheep and the Goats, we are looking at humans being redeemed and saved, and humans being condemned and lost, and a casual reading appears to suggest that salvation is the result of good works – the sheep acted charitably, giving food, drink, and clothing to the needy which seemed to result in salvation, whilst the goats, who showed no charity are damned.
This is incorrect, because Scripture does not contradict itself, and the Bible clearly and repeatedly teaches that salvation is by faith through the grace of God and not by our good works. From St Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, ‘for by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast’. In fact, Jesus himself makes it clear that the salvation of the sheep is not based on their works—their inheritance was theirs ‘from the foundation of the world’ long before they could ever do any good works!
Consequently, the good works mentioned in the parable are not the cause of salvation but the effect of salvation. As Christians, as we become more like Christ, the fruits of the Spirit, love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control overflow into good works, which result from our relationship to the Shepherd.
Therefore, followers of Christ will treat others with love and kindness, serving them as if they were serving Christ himself. Mother Teresa of Calcutta was famous for being able to see Jesus in the distressing disguise of the poorest of the poor, but she did not gain that awareness overnight. It took years of continuing to care for them until God gradually opened her eyes, and she saw it was literally true: She was caring for them not as if they were Jesus, but because they are Jesus, in whatever disguise it pleased him to assume.