Well another new year has begun. For some, 2017 may be better than 2016, and for others it may be worse, but what the future holds is totally unknown. As they say, hindsight is 20/20, but we don’t have the same effectiveness in gauging what is to come, otherwise we all would have put money on the Cubs to win the world series. And yet we try and make guesses about the future all the time. People are claiming who is going to win the super bowl, people saying Trump will be the best president ever and others saying the worst ever, some saying that the Red Sox will never win another world series title, that’s me, although it’s more hope than prediction, some predicting economic collapse, and they have predicted 20 of the last 2 recessions, and some are predicting huge economic growth. And for what applies to the church, some predicting who will go to heaven, and who might go somewhere else. It’s that last prediction that we seek to tackle today based on the passage we just heard from Matthew, known as the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats.
If you’ve been attending here for a while, you have heard me say before that I think the question many Christians use to try and bring others to the faith, which is “if you were to die tonight, do you know where you would go?” is an awful question. It’s awful for several reasons, one them being that it makes an affirmation of faith all about fear, not about trust or love, and that’s not a good place to start in any relationship, let alone a relationship with God. But more importantly it’s a bad question because the proper answer is “No, and neither do you.” Of course, that is not what the people asking the question think, but I believe that is the appropriate answer because of what Jesus tells us in this passage. This is the only scripture passage in which Jesus talks about a final judgment, the only one that says anything about how a decision of which way people might go is made. The only one. That may seem surprising based on how much emphasis that some in the church put onto the issue of the afterlife, but we should remember that Jesus’ message was always much more about life here and now, about God’s kingdom here and now, then it was about some time to come. That doesn’t mean those things are unimportant, and this parable does deal with that and, for me at least, it is always one of those passages that leaves me not only a little uneasy, because I’m never sure if I am reading it and interpreting it the right way, and if I am I’m always happy and deeply disturbed at the same time with the conclusion.
This is the last teaching that Jesus does in the gospel of Matthew before the passion story begins. It has followed Jesus teaching the disciples, and they appear to be alone, about what we refer to as the second coming, and includes some passages with which most of us are familiar including the parable of the fig tree, the ten bridesmaids, which is a really big wedding party, and the parable of the talents. All of them have the warning to be prepared for the coming because we don’t know when it will happen, so we better be ready and we better be doing the right things. That then leads into today’s parable, in which we are told that when the Son of Man comes in his glory, which is an apocalyptic image coming from the book of Daniel, he will gather all the nations before him and separate people one from another as a shepherd separates sheep and goats, hence the name of the parable.
While there are some arguments that take place around who the nations are meant to represent and who the least of these are, which I don’t have the time to go into this morning, personally I accept the more traditional reading, and hear this passage as being about everyone, that literally all the nations are gathered before Christ. I think this understanding matches Matthew’s injunction after the resurrection for the disciples to make disciples of all the nations. But, the word used here for the people who are judged is a singular, not a plural, so each person is judged on their own actions. Now as we think of the context of scripture, especially the prophets, we should remember that people are held accountable for the actions of their nations as well, so I don’t think we can say that it’s only our actions that are important, but for the moment that’s not what Jesus is talking about. Jesus is talking about how we respond to those who are in need, and what we choose to do about it. Because notice he does not say, “you noticed when I was hungry,” or “You prayed for me when I was hungry.” What does he say? “You fed me when I was hungry, and gave me something to drink when I was thirsty, and clothed me when I was naked, and visited me when I was in prison and cared for me when I was sick.” And because of what we do, or don’t do, for the least of these will determine how the sorting goes. Notice it is not about what we say we believe, or what we profess, it is not about thinking the right things, orthodoxy, but about what we do, right practice, orthopraxy.
Now here is where it gets tricky for us as protestants is that this could smack of works righteousness, that is that we earn salvation through what we do, or we are saved by works, versus saying that we are saved by faith alone, which is the Protestant position. I think you can definitely see it that way, and it’s how it was interpreted for centuries. But, that is certainly not the only way it can be read and interpreted. Instead it can be see through several different lenses, but certainly the letter of James is the best, where James, the brother of Jesus tells us, “If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill’, and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So, faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead. But someone will say, ‘You have faith and I have works.’ Show me your faith without works, and I by my works will show you my faith.” That is that faith leads to acts of mercy, and we might also argue that acts of mercy can also lead to faith, but you cannot have faith without acts. It doesn’t happen because as John Wesley, the founder of Methodism would say, once you accept the saving grace of Jesus on your behalf, the only appropriate response to that is to work in the world. It’s not that we are saved by works, but because we are saved we do works. Because we have received God’s love, we love. Because we have received God’s good news, we offer good news. We have been called to serve, just as Jesus served. We don’t do this because it earns us anything. We don’t do it for calculating reasons, or reluctantly saying “well I have to do it because Jesus said I have to.” It’s not done by compulsion. Instead we do it because it is the right thing to do and we can’t think of doing anything less.
And there are several other points that we need to make sure we understand, or pay attention to in the passage. The first is that both those who are found righteous and those who are accursed are surprised. Neither group says “Yep, I knew it all along, nailed it.” That’s why, I believe, it’s so dangerous us to be so proud as to say “I am saved” which often comes with something along the lines of “and you are not.” It’s dangerous to say that because first it can lead to that sense of self-righteousness, and if we read scripture, it’s very clear what Jesus thinks and says to the self-righteous, but even worse it means that we are doing the judging, not just about others, but about ourselves. But it’s clear who is the judge, and it’s not us. It’s Jesus. Jesus is the judge and it is Jesus who sets the criteria for that judgment, not ourselves, and when we begin to think otherwise it can lead to a path of self-righteousness, of self-justification, which is a path of destruction, because it leads us away from searching our own lives and souls for where we have gone astray. As Paul says in his letter to the Philippians “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling;for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” (Philippians 2:12-13) And notice Paul’s statement about working in that passage. And that’s why this parable can and should be so challenging for us.
Rev. Will Campbell was a white civil rights activist. He helped integrate the University of Mississippi and Little Rock High School, and as a result was not always well thought of within the Southern Baptist Church in which he belonged. But he worked on these issues because he thought he was not only on the right side of history, but also because he thought he was on the right side of God, always a challenging thing to claim. But Campbell recalled a time when there was an ice storm in the mountains of Tennessee where he lived and few people could get out and get around to get supplies. He said, "My white, liberal neighbors who never use the n-word stayed at home and did nothing to help their black neighbors, but my white, conservative neighbors who sometimes used the n-word were the ones out delivering coal and milk to their black neighbors." He added, "Who, really, was more offensive?" We might also ask who was the sheep and who was the goat? It is stories like that that always make me feel uncomfortable about the ramifications of this parable. In another parable, Jesus tells of a man who has two sons. He asks the sons to go into the vineyard to work. The first son says he won’t, but then he does, and the second says he will, but then doesn’t. Then Jesus asks, “which of the two did the will of the father?” Of course, it is the first, and then Jesus says those interrogating him, the deeply religious, “Truly I tell you, the tax-collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you.” Who is the sheep and who is the goat? Both sides are surprised.<
And so, the second thing to remember, and this builds upon this is about who is king. This passage is filled with royal language, first you have the Son of Man, then he is sitting on a throne, and he is a shepherd, a royal title, and he is the judge and he is called Lord, even by those who are accursed, remembering Jesus saying Many of you will come to me saying ‘Lord, Lord’ did we not prophesy in your name and cast out demons in your name and do many deeds of power in your name? Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you, go away from me you evildoers.” (Matt 7:22-23) That matches this passage exactly. It starts with recognizing that Christ is King, and pay attention that the King has a kingdom that is inherited by the righteousness, but the devil and his angels do not have a kingdom, nor do they have any royal titles. I think some people get that confused. But there is only one King and there is only one Kingdom, and that belongs to Christ, so we have to recognize whom is our king and then we have to start following that king and doing what the king asks us to do, and that begins with a profession of our allegiance, and then continues with picking up our cross and following and serving the least, the last and the lost, just as Christ himself did.
Christ does not ask us to do anything that he didn’t himself do in his ministry, we are called to be more like Christ-like in our behavior, but the question we should ask ourselves is not what would Christ do, but instead, what are we going to do? And here is the good news. When Jesus said that it was easier for a camel to get through the eye of a needle then it was for a rich man to get into heaven, the disciples asked: ‘Then who can be saved?’But Jesus looked at them and said, ‘For mortals it is impossible, but for God all things are possible.’” Our salvation is not dependent on us, and we are not the judge. It is dependent on God, but we are called to respond to that salvation and to offer God’s love to the world, just as it has been given to us. So, as we begin this new year, this is the perfect opportunity to reaffirm our allegiance, linking into the Methodist tradition of gathering on either new year’s eve or new year’s day and saying the Wesleyan covenantal prayer:
I am no longer my own, but yours.
Put me to what you will, rank me with whom you will;
put me to doing, put me to suffering;
let me be employed for you, or laid aside for you,
exalted for you, or brought low for you;
let me be full,
let me be empty,
let me have all things,
let me have nothing:
I freely and wholeheartedly yield all things
to your pleasure and disposal.
And now, glorious and blessed God,
Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
you are mine and I am yours. So be it.
And the covenant now made on earth, let it be ratified in heaven.Amen.