Our last Sunday reading from the Gospel of Matthew offers a vivid portrait of the end of days. The judgment of the sheep and goats closes out a series of teachings from Jesus about faithfulness, patience, and justice, each with its own dire warning of the fate of those who fail to do what is right. There was the unprepared steward; the foolish bridesmaids; the servant with one talent; and now the uncharitable goats. It is difficult to hear these threats of everlasting torment and exile from God’s loving presence voiced by the Jesus who we know as our brother, our shepherd, our loving teacher and Savior.
Sheep and goats are genetically close cousins, descended from a common ancestor about 4 million years ago. They are often herded together, in one community, and sometimes it’s hard to tell them apart, although a good shepherd will always be able to distinguish one from the other.
The question that hovers over this parable is, “Are you a sheep or a goat?” We all want to think we are among the sheep, chosen for eternal bliss, on the right side of history, God’s special people. We want to know that the wicked will get what they deserve, that those we regard as “other” will be on the outside at the end of the story. But I believe that each of us is part sheep and part goat; that our life in the community of faith is intended to train us to minimize the goatness and encourage the sheepness, so that we learn to look beyond our own needs and wants to the needs and wants of those who have less, without expecting payment or reward; I believe that God does not want any of God’s beloved children to end up in outer darkness.
Sheep and goats aren’t the only “either or” pair in this Gospel. There are also the haves and have nots: those who give and those who receive. And this distinction is even more blurred in our experience than the sheep and goats. Take a moment to think about a time when you were able to help someone in need, with a simple gesture of generosity or service. Now think about a time when you received help from someone else. When were you a stranger, or hungry or thirsty, or sick, or feeling trapped or vulnerable? Who came to your rescue? None of us is purely victim or purely benefactor.
This sense of fluidity, of ambivalence between the “them” and the “us”, can be hard to grasp until we pay serious attention to our own lives and stop defining our identity as either in or out, either giver or receiver; until we are ready to accept that there is no essential division between one and the other. It would have been even harder for those who first heard Jesus’ words. As Richard said last week, in Jesus’ time and throughout history until the industrial revolution, there was little sense of upward social mobility. You were born into a demographic segment and stayed there for your whole life. It was almost impossible to move from peasant to nobility, from goat to sheep, from the last and least to the chosen and saved. And the Jewish Christians for whom Matthew wrote were conditioned to think of themselves as God’s chosen people, who were uniquely privileged to belong to the Jesus movement, the elite of the chosen if you like. That’s why Jesus addresses his words to those who have the resources to give and to serve.
But Jesus also turns this hierarchical worldview on its head. He starts the parable by saying that when the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all his angels with him, all the nations will be gathered before him. All the nations. Not just the favored few. This teaching and warning isn’t just for God’s chosen people: this is for everyone, whether or not they live by the Law of Moses. And Jesus reveals the shocking perspective that he himself is among the lost, the last and the least. “When you visited the sick, fed the hungry, clothed the naked, you did it to me,” he says. We are to look for the Christ in those who are in need, and when we are in need, we are to acknowledge the Christ in ourselves.
Focusing on seeing Christ in ourselves and others helps us, I think, to move away from a transactional view of serving or being served. When you give a meal to a destitute person or visit someone in prison, you don’t have any expectation that they will return the favor: I for one don’t expect to be in prison any time soon! But you might have a sense that you’re earning Brownie points from God with your virtuous act. And when you accept help from others, perhaps you feel a compulsion to find ways to show that you aren’t really needy and that you have the resources to return the favor: an invitation to a dinner party demands a return invitation, a visit made carries an expectation of a later visit welcomed.
But I think it’s pretty clear that Jesus expects us to do these things with no expectation of reward, in fact, the way he tells it, the people who give and serve, aren’t even aware that what they are doing is anything special. “When did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or in prison?” And on the other side of the coin, the people who failed to do these things didn’t recognize the innate value of the people in need. In fact, the only way to follow this teaching in good faith is to behave as if every person you encounter is Jesus in disguise, is worthy of dignity and life abundant, is someone whom you can help and who has resources to help you, regardless of your relative status or economic situation.
Every single one of us is sheep and goat, giver and receiver. And every single one of us is beloved of God, who wants nothing more than to gather us all into the Kingdom, where all will have life abundant and all will have everything they need. And this is why we gather each week to give thanks through the Eucharist, to celebrate the free gift of God’s grace, the sacrifice of Jesus that we can never repay or deserve. And so we pray in the words of today’s Collect: “ Almighty and everlasting God, whose will it is to restore all things – ALL things – in your well-beloved Son, the King of Kings and Lord of lords: mercifully grant that the peoples of the earth – ALL the peoples – divided and enslaved by sin, may be freed and brought together under his most gracious rule; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.” Amen.