Sermon: Christ the King, Year A : Sheep and Goats

Text: Matthew 25:31-46

In the name of the +Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

Many of us know the classic verses in the Bible by heart. We may not know all of the Bible verse perfectly, but there is enough in our very soul to be able to call to mind key words: to know and to understand the core meaning.

Let me illustrate. I will start the Bible verse and when I pause, you fill in the key word or words. You will be surprised at how much you know…

John 3:16: (You fill in the blanks after my pause.) For God so loved…THE WORLD…that he gave his only begotten…SON…that who so ever … BELIEVES in him will not perish but have … EVERLASTING LIFE.

See what I mean? You knew the key words, and so did your neighbour.

Let’s do Psalm 23: The Lord is … MY SHEPHERD…I shall not …WANT; he makes me like down in …GREEN PASTURES… he leads me beside…STILL WATERS

See, you know it. You may not be able to recite all the words of the twenty-third psalm perfectly, but with a little help, you know the important words. And wasn’t it impressive to hear so many people filling in the blanks.

Let’s try the same process with another classic passage from Holy Scripture: Matthew 25.

In Matthew 25, Jesus talks about the final judgment, the sheep and the goats. This passage, too, is engraved and indelibly imprinted into our soul. This passage lives deep within us. Now, no cribbing from the sheet, but have a go…

I was hungry and you gave me … FOOD. I was thirsty and you gave me…DRINK. I was a stranger and you …WELCOMED ME. I was naked and you…CLOTHED ME. I was sick and you took…CARE OF ME. I was in prison, and you…VISITED ME. When you do these things to the least of people, you do them to…ME.

You got it. You know the essentials of this classic passage about the final judgment, and God’s call to care for hurting people in the world. We know that when we care for the hungry, thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, the imprisoned, we are actually taking care of Jesus who lives behind these faces of these people. Christ lives within these hurting people, behind their eyes, their tears, their pain.

We all know that. Our desire is that we are numbered among the sheep and not the goats. It is our prayer that we not only know who these people are, but that do what God wants us to do. The doing of compassion is much more difficult than the knowing about compassion.

Years ago, one of my friends told me a story about his visit to Israel. He was out in some remote hills of Israel and he came upon a band of Bedouin tents.

At a distance from his car, he could see that there was a herd of sheep and goats around those Bedouin tents. It has long been practice in the Middle East to keep herds and flocks together: Goats feed by browsing and so have a habit of wandering, but as flock animals they like to stick with the whole flock, and grazing sheep are less likely to wander into harm: the sheep and goats are actually (and it might surprise you in the context of this parable) quite good for each other.

From a distance, the sheep and goats looked very much alike. As my friend approached this Bedouin camp, he could then see that the sheep had been recently sheered of their wool. When the sheep were sheered, the sheep looked very much like the goats. But up close, he could see which ones were sheep and which were goats.

Similarly, God sees our lives up close. We can’t fool God. God is up close to us and knows whether or not our hearts are compassionate like the sheep in this story or if our hearts are pretending to be compassionate, like the goats in this story. From a distance, we cannot discern true compassion or pretending of compassion, but up close, God knows clearly the difference.

God know the hearts of truly compassionate people, and God wants our hearts to be truly compassionate, not only to our favourite family or favourite friends. The whole Gospel of Matthew is very challenging to those who put family before God, kinship before Christ. Christ suggests that old orders have now changed and there is something much more important that we are called to.

To be compassionate to our favourite family or favourite friends is quite easy and comes quite naturally, but it is another thing to be truly compassionate to the hurting people of this world…to the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, the imprisoned.

God wants our hearts to be truly compassionate to the hurting people in our world around us, and not merely to kith and kin, and those who are similar to us, who like us, and are from the same social background.

This Gospel does not say that just by doing good works, we will attain the Lord’s favour, for that is the heresy of Pelagianism. The good works which we are called to are an outpouring of our faith, and faith and good works are not mutually exclusive, in fact they depend upon each other: to separate works and faith is like splitting an atom: it has terrible consequences.

There is not some kind of Spiritual or even Moral Examination at the end of time – nothing we can revise for. The point of our Lord’s teaching is not the Judgement: the facing up to our past (which is, as I have often said, is what the real torment of Purgatory probably is), and the horror-filled realisation of those who has passed by on the other side, that it was Christ himself on the Street Corner, In Prison, In Hospital and In Trouble.

The point of this most fundamental teaching is that the Kingdom of God extends far beyond what we might like to term polite society, that involves people like you and me, and lots of others whom society deems unpalatable, and that what shines through this is precisely those key tasks which you have, I know, installed in your heart.

Once more:

I was hungry and you gave me … FOOD. I was thirsty and you gave me…DRINK. I was a stranger and you …WELCOMED ME. I was naked and you…CLOTHED ME. I was sick and you took…CARE OF ME. I was in prison, and you…VISITED ME. When you do these things to the least of people, you do them to…ME.

“Go then,” and as he taught us, “do likewise…”

Amen.