A sermon for Christ the King Sunday by Rev. Dr. Helen Svoboda-Barber
The sheep and the goats. I don’t know about you, but the first thing today’s Gospel passage brings up in me is either shame or blame.
When I hear this story about the judgement of the sheep and the goats, my immediate reaction is either, “I am a terrible, terrible person. Yesterday I drove by that guy with the sign on the street corner and looked away. And I haven’t written a letter to someone in prison for years. I’m a GOAT and I am doomed!!!”
Or in some other moments, my reaction to this parable is, “Yeah! YOU aren’t doing enough caring for others! YOU didn’t welcome that stranger. You goat!”
And yet, this shame and this blame are exactly the opposite of the point Jesus is trying to make. Let me read the passage for us again so we can have it fresh in our minds:
“Jesus said, “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. All the nations will be gathered before him, 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. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” Matthew 25:31-26
So, an important point about this story:
It is pretty clear in this story that JESUS is the one who does the judging. The sheep and the goats in this story have no agency or ability to judge one from another.
And so any time we hear this story and either have our own shame storm or move to blaming others who haven’t done as much as we think they should — we are completely, 100% missing the point of this story.
The purpose of this story is not shame or blame.
This story was turned on its head for me when I listened to Lizzie and Jonathan McManus-Dail’s podcast this week. Lizzie noted that the tasks in this story are listed in full three times:
“I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”
First, The King gives the list to the righteous.
Next, The righteous list it back to the king.
And Third, the king says it to the unrighteous.
But the Fourth and last time these activities are mentioned, the unrighteous compact them all into a single thought, “‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?”
And Lizzie’s noticing the change in narration here gave me a whole new perspective on today’s passage.
I wonder if how the sheep and the goats interpret this list might give us insight into what is really going on.
The goats’ phrasing, “when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison,” overwhelms me. It puts all the needs of the world in that single sentence and it is too much for me to think about or to do anything about and I simply shut down.
But the sheep speak about each one of these issues separately, “when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?”
These sheep were able to separate one need from another. They were able to say, “Oh, look. There is someone right now who is hungry. Do I have anything to share with them today?” And at another time they could say say, “Oh, look. There is a stranger. Do I have the ability to share welcome with that person today?”
Each time one of these events happened in the life of a sheep, they were able to see the beloved child of God in front of them, and their particular need, and then consider if, in that moment, they had a way to make a difference in that life.
On the other hand, the goats were unable to separate one need from another. When a goat ran into any human need, they would spin out and get overwhelmed. Instead of seeing a single particular need in a moment, they would see a need and think, “Oh My God! There is so much hunger and thirst and loneliness and nakedness and sickness and imprisonment in the world! It Is All Too Much!” And the goat would run away, overwhelmed.
So in an odd and very typically-Jesus-y sort of way, this parable may actually be about self-care as much as it is about caring for others.
When we become swamped or flooded with the enormity of the world, we become paralized about being able to do anything about a particular situation.
Absolutely: in this parable, Jesus is reminding us that Jesus is the judge and we are not.
Perhaps also in this parable, Jesus is reminding us not to be overwhelmed by the needs of the entire world. Instead, all we must do is notice the particular person in front of us, and the particular need in front of us and ask ourselves if there is something we can do to help.
None of us have the ability to fix all the world’s problems.
But all of us have the ability to share a hot cup of coffee, or pick up the phone and call someone who lives alone, or contribute to our Share Your Christmas Fund.
The difference between the sheep and the goats in today’s parable might just be whether or not they are able to be present, to be in the moment with the people in front of them.
Dear ones, do not be overcome by the enormity of the world’s problems.
Simply be present to the person in front of you.
Take stock of yourself and consider whether you have something to offer to lighten the load of that one beloved child of God in front of you in this very moment.
There is a quote from the Talmud which sums this up nicely:
“Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief.
Do justly, now.
Love mercy, now.
Walk humbly, now.
You are not obligated to complete the work,
But neither are you free to abandon it.”
I speak in the name of the Holy and Undivided Trinity, One God. Amen.