So which are you? A sheep? Or a goat? I didn’t notice many of you carefully choosing up sides this morning when you came in, picking instead your regular places. And if you did, I suspect you had to go over in your head a few times as to which side of the church you really wanted to be on. Is it the Son of Man’s left and right? So if he’s standing in front looking at us, then it’s reversed for the crowd, right? Or is it the other way round?
A sermon for the Reign of Christ based on Matthew 25:31-46.
Jesus uses a metaphor that would have been easy to understand back in his day to describe the sorting of people at the end of the age. Shepherds often had mixed flocks back then—sheep and goats mingling together in the fields. But when evening came, they needed to be separated in order to protect them. Sheep could handle the cold better than the goats, so goats needed to be herded inside to be kept warm. Two things helped distinguish one from the other: obviously the wooly coat if the sheep hadn’t recently been shorn. But if it had, the shepherd looked at the tail. A goat’s tail usually goes up, and a sheep’s always hangs down. Tails up to the left. Tails down to the right. Keep it moving, it’s getting cold, and night is coming. And so it will be at the end of the age.
Which sounds kind of harsh. We’ve had three weeks of these parables now—the ten bridesmaids with their lamps, the servants with their talents, and now these sheep and goats. In each case there’s a judgment and separation. The five foolish bridesmaids who forgot their oil miss out on the reception. The servant who buried the talent given by his master in the ground, gets the money taken away and then he is forced into the outer darkness. And now sheep and goats, one group gets eternal life and the other that place where there will be no joy. You might be wondering what’s going on with this angry Jesus. His death is imminent, so it’s likely that his stress level is skyrocketing. But even so, he just seems harsh.
Professor Lindsay Armstrong tells of heading to the doctor every year “for no apparent reason.” She writes, “I make an appointment, pay for parking, sit in the waiting room, and then have a complete physical examination, in order for a team of medical processionals to measure my wellness. It is not an entirely comfortable experience, and I confess that I often want to avoid it. However, heart disease runs in my family, and after I am done, I have a coronary-risk profile as well as a picture of my overall health…. This checkup could save my life, and my insurance company thinks this is such a good idea that they pay the bill.” She then continues, “In many ways, Matthew’s depiction of the last judgment is like a wellness check. It’s purpose is not to condemn or scare but to provide a snapshot of our overall health, development, learning, and growth that should lead to new habits and ways of life. After all, as our doctor wants us to flourish, so does our Creator, Redeemer, Judge, and King.”
So is Jesus being all harsh here for a reason? Is it to get us out of our tryptophan-induced stupor in order to wake up and see the truth? Is he being a bit overly critical so that we see the seriousness of it all and not just coast along on cruise control throughout our lives?
“Come you that are blessed of my Father, and inherit the kingdom prepared for you… for I was hungry and you gave me food, thirsty and you gave me a 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.” “When,” those on his right will ask. “When were you hungry or sick or imprisoned, because we’re pretty sure we would have recognized you?” “When you did it to the least of my sisters and brothers, you did it to me.”
This summer the child poverty in our nation rate doubled. Am enhanced child tax credit first established under the COVID-19 pandemic ran out, and it returned back to its pre-pandemic determinations. What that means is that those of us who make more money get more of a credit for our kids under 18 than those who make less, and the credit runs out before it hits those under the poverty line. As Sharon Parrott, president of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities put it, “The children who need it the most get the least, while higher income children get more.”
The US has the highest prison population in the world, with some 1.7 million people incarcerated. Disproportionately, African-Americans and Hispanic persons are more likely to be imprisoned than white Americans, even though whites make up more than 60% of our population. Black Americans make up under 15% of the population, but they constitute about 50% of the inmates serving life sentences, and nearly 60% of those who are serving life sentences without parole.
In 2021, 8.6% of people in the US did not have any health insurance whatsoever. Texas had the highest level at 18% of residents uninsured. Our state had the lowest level with 2.5% of residents uninsured, which might feel like a victory but that’s still more than 175,000 people here. Yet 21 countries in our world provide 100% of medical insurance for their citizens, and another 14 provide 90% or more. Only 36% of our citizens have government based healthcare.
In a recent report, more than 34,000 people were counted as experiencing homelessness in Massachusetts. During the 2020-2021 academic year, nearly 20,000 students in public schools were unhoused at some point.
The categories that Jesus lists continue to be extremely relevant today. The hungry and the sick, the imprisoned and the stranger, the thirsty and the homeless can still be found in our lives and on our streets. And Jesus is with them.
Make no mistake what the King is saying to those on his left and right: He is among the marginalized and disenfranchised. He lives amidst the poor and forgotten ones, just as he did in his day. Jesus was a poor man. His face is the one you see when you pass a panhandler. And how we treat them is significant. As Ronald Rolheiser put it, “In effect, Jesus [tells] us that nobody will get to heaven without a letter of reference from the poor.” That’s making me feel a bit more like a goat this morning.
But here’s the thing: everyone is surprised in this story. The multitude of people gathered around the Son of Man at the end of the age are all shocked about their morality or their iniquity. “When did we meet you?” they all ask the king. “When were you sick, hungry, lonely or thirsty?” The actions the righteous and unrighteous take flow out of who they have become. Either they reached out to the poor and worked to break down systems of injustice, or not. Their actions became so ingrained in who they are that they didn’t notice anything out of the ordinary.
Which is what our doctor wants for us in terms of our health, right? We know the things we’re to do, getting out and moving, stretching, eating nutritional food, avoiding too much alcohol and the like. Similarly our relationship to the poor. God chooses to be identified with the ones society often pushes out. God wants to lift them up, and God does so through us. God wants it to become so ingrained, so natural for us to help and fight for the fair treatment of those in need, that we don’t even notice it. That we’re surprised whenever anyone mentions it.
So now the choice is before us. We can imagine that Jesus is being just a bit too preachy and ignore him, or we can hear his desire for us to live a life filled with health and meaning and make changes now. He wants us to make the right call, to live more faithfully as his followers. He doesn’t want any to perish. Can we commit today to reaching out and raising up and working alongside the poor, the imprisoned, the stranger, and the sick? It’ll change both their lives and ours through the love of Christ. Will we take up sides with the sheep or the goats?