Matthew 25: 31-46
March 26, 2023
I was out on a reporting assignment for a weekly newspaper shortly before I returned to Canada back in the late ‘80s.
I was interviewing an environmentalist about a pipeline proposal and during the course of the interview, we walked out to a fenced-in area of the property to see the angora goats and handful of sheep she was raising to shear and sell their wool.
She grabbed some feed and took it to the nearest goat.
In the midst of her describing angora’s wool, one of the other goats rammed her backside and sent the woman to the ground.
She wasn’t injured, but it was clear that goats can be jerks.
According to the book, “Goat Raising for Dummies,” goats are stubborn … in the pasture, they can usually be found off by themselves and they like to fight for dominance in the herd. And it seems that in a fight between a goat and a sheep … the sheep usually wins because the goat has to posture first and the sheep just gets right down to business.
That little tidbit and today’s gospel passage make it clear that we don’t want to be a goat.
This passage from Matthew is the end of Jesus’ response to the question posed by the disciples as they rested on the Mount of Olives … “what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?”
So far in Matthew’s gospel, we have heard Jesus speak of his coming persecution … his parables about forgiveness and generosity … and instructions to the disciples in the need to remain watchful.
Now, Jesus tells the disciples about the judgement of all nations … of how things will work at the End Times.
Jesus tells the disciples about how humanity will be separated just as a shepherd separates sheep from the goats travelling along with them.
It’s a story about life in the pasture … it’s about living into the upside down values of the kingdom of heaven … it’s about seeing God in those the world considers least worthy of love and compassion.
It’s interesting that some hear this story and automatically believe the sheep are more perceptive than the goats … that they find God in the faces of others.
But Jesus makes it clear that neither the sheep nor the goats know when they have seen the Son of Man in the faces of those they met … they both will ask the same question when judgement time comes … “when did I see you?”
Jesus tells the disciples … and by extension, the people that they instruct … that it’s their treatment of others … the way they have lived their lives … that will make all the difference.
If you live a love-filled life, the signs the disciples are anticipating don’t matter.
The shepherd will lead the sheep to the right hand of the Father … the goats end up on the left. The sheep are called “the righteous” … they’re the ones who seek justice … they’re the ones who lived with generosity and grace.
The goats haven’t lived such a life and are cursed … they will face eternal punishment
This is clearly an anti-goat message.
Jesus’ instructions come across as a warning … be a goat and there is a price to be paid. The instructions in this story … like all the gospel lessons we have heard during our Lenten journey … go to the heart of being a disciple.
Weeks ago, on Ash Wednesday, we began the Lenten season with the disciples arguing over the question of who is the greatest. The story of sheep and goats makes it obvious … it isn’t the goats.
This morning’s gospel lesson is about how we act … how we serve … if we are like sheep who serve all others with mercy and compassion without judging who’s worthy of our love and effort.
Or if we are like goats just posturing in the pasture.
Sheep are the righteous … doing good because that is who they are. Mercy and a sense of justice is ingrained in their being. They aren’t serving others because it will bring them glory … or put them on the right hand … but they serve others because that is who they are called to be.
Goats … on the other hand … well … if they do good for others … they do so when there is a benefit for themselves. They act out of self-interest … for how they look to those around them … even for gaining more power, status or control … that is … if they bother to act at all.
Or, as one Lutheran scholar puts it, it’s easy to give water to the thirsty … food to the hungry … or work for justice and inclusion … when there is no risk to oneself.
And goats are risk-adverse. Remember, they like to pose and posture and can be jerks.
Jesus’ story invites us to consider how we live in this in-between time. It invites us into deep reflection on how we spend the time between the cross and the return.
As we near the end of this Lenten season … perhaps we can consider if we have been living as sheep … living a life of grace and compassion … and adjust the present and the future if we realize we’ve been a bit goaty about things.
Are our actions ingrained in our hearts as a mark of a grace-filled life or are there things that keep us from seeing the world around us and hearing the call to serve … the call to ease the pain, suffering and isolation being felt by others?
The lesson of this story gains even more importance when we consider what is to come in Jerusalem.
A short time after Jesus shares this lesson with the disciples, he enters the city as a stranger and was not welcomed by the powers that be … he is imprisoned … he experiences thirst … he is stripped naked … he is mocked … and he suffers at the hands of those in authority.
Jesus … who entered the world as a refugee and left it as a convicted criminal … stepped into the life of the weak, vulnerable, powerless and defenceless. He joined with the least.
The call of discipleship is to do likewise … to journey with those who are being abused by the systems of the world. To be with those we believe are strangers, but who are in reality our sisters and brothers in humanity.
That is what sheep do.
This story deals with the need for transformation in the life of discipleship … it underscores how a life of faith changes how you love and how you treat others. It calls us to move outward into the world … to share God’s unconditional love, regardless of the cost … so that we can ensure our hearts are aligned toward God.
It invites goats to become sheep.
Next week, we celebrate Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem with the waving of socks … and in turn, helping those who some consider the least. It is a time when Jesus’ suffering and death on the cross is anticipated and felt more deeply.
It is through the cross that we each receive the gift of grace … and through this gift we are called to be sheep in the flock of humanity … a flock that includes most certainly includes a few goats.