Ezekiel 34:11-24, Matthew 25:31-46
August 12, 2012
Do you like animals? What’s your favorite kind of animal? I’m a dog guy, as you know. Though in recent years I’ve gone over to the “dark side” and taken somewhat to cats. How about you? Should we take a dog verses cat survey? Anybody have any unusual pets? When I was a kid I had a pet toad. I’ll never forget what I named it. Pigeon. (Get it? “Pigeon toed.”) How about cavys? Anybody ever have those? Does anybody know what cavys are? (Guinea pigs!)
How about goats? Anybody out there a goat person? Has anybody ever had a pet goat? (Anybody have a pet goat now?) They’re not a very popular pet, are they! You don’t see goats in pet stores, and you rarely ever see someone walking down the street with a goat on a leash, do you?
I don’t know how, but somewhere along the line, goats have gotten a bad rap! They’re often seen as a symbol of something negative. Do you remember “Charlie Brown” and the “Peanuts” gang? I grew up with Charlie Brown. And I remember there were a lot of cartoons about Charlie Brown playing baseball. And when Charlie messed up on the ball field, instead of being the hero, he became the (?) goat!
It turns out that sentiment about goats goes a long way back. In ancient times, when the Hebrew people celebrated Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, as part of the religious ceremonies of that day, they would cast the derision and disdain for their sins onto a goat. They would curse the goat, and spit on the goat, and then send him off into the wilderness. I know that sounds strange to us, but it was symbolic of their being sorry for their sins, and having those sins taken away from them by God. That’s kind of sad. But don’t worry! I’ve been assured by my rabbi friends that this is no longer the practice. They don’t spit on goats anymore. But that was the ancient tradition. And by the way, that’s the origin for our term “scapegoat.” Again, though, the goat is the bad guy!
Well, here we have this famous parable of Jesus about the Sheep and the Goats, and here again, who are the bad guys? The goats! The goats are the ones Jesus says did not minister to him through “the least of these.” The sheep, of course, were the ones who did.
Notice again that Jesus is again using very familiar imagery here. Sheep was how God’s people – his true followers, were described in their scriptures. “The Lord is my Shepherd…” “Know that the Lord is God, it is he that made us and we are his. We are his people and the sheep of his pasture.” We mentioned before how important those images were for the people of Israel. That’s how they thought of themselves. Even those who strayed from the faith were referred to as the “lost sheep” of Israel.
So Jesus was invoking all that important imagery here, and he drew the people into this story from that standpoint alone. And the goat symbolism was very familiar to them, too. And it was more than just Jesus choosing something to be the opposite of sheep. They knew the Yom Kippur traditions. So Jesus used all that to make this very powerful point in this parable.
So what is he saying about these sheep and goats? Well very quickly he establishes that it’s all about actions. It’s all about how we treat people, and in this case it’s about how we treat people who are in need. And as is often the case, what Jesus was saying was not new to those people. Their law taught them how they were to minister to those in need. This was nothing new. And it was about actions.
As we put ourselves into this, we might think about the familiar phrase, “What would Jesus do?” That’s about our actions, isn’t it? It’s not, “What would Jesus think?” or “What are we to believe about Jesus.” But “What would Jesus do?” You know that sometimes we get hung up on our beliefs alone. But Jesus was always about actions. The source of that phase is Charles Sheldon’s book “In His Steps.” And in the book he challenged everyone in that town to think “What would Jesus do” before they did anything. And it changed the course of life in the entire town.
So this is about a action. This is about reaching out to those in need. But of course, Jesus raises the bar here. With this parable, he introduces the idea that, “Whatever you do, you are doing for me.” That was a new thought to them. (Though it’s a familiar one to us!) That’s the reason the people in the story questioned. “When did we see you in need, Lord?” Jesus was trying to get them to think about those in need, and how important and valuable each person was. We talked about that in the parable of the Lost Sheep. But now he’s tying that importance and value into himself. When we see someone in need, we should minister to them as we would Jesus! That was a powerful message – for them and for us!
So, the focus of this parable is not about what people “believed.” It’s about what these sheep and goats “did.” (Or didn’t do!) But I want you to notice something else here. I want you to notice that neither the sheep nor the goats in the story knew what they had done! Both asked almost the same question, “When, Lord, did we see you in need and then do or not do.”
Now, we can understand the goats asking that question. That’s pretty simple. They saw need and did nothing, and we kind of expect the chastisement they got. But think about the sheep. They too asked “When?!” And I think that has more to do with them just never thinking this way before. I believe part of what Jesus was saying here is that there are people in this world who do God’s work without realizing it! That even leaves open the possibility that there will be some who do the work of Christ, even though they might not claim to be his followers!
Think about that. Have you ever known anyone who was more “Christ-like” than you, even though they might not consider themselves to be a follower of Christ? I know I have. I’ve known some “non-believers” who put me to shame in terms of service to others. And I think this is one of the great dilemmas of faith. There are people who do God’s work and don’t know that they are doing his work. (Just like there are those who say they are God’s but don’t do his work!) And I think Jesus was very concerned about that. I think that was one of his big “beefs” with the people of Israel! They were chosen as God’s people, but they had failed to do his work. They failed to be the light of the world as they were called to be. And we see his compassion for those who do God’s work even thought they don’t necessarily believe all the right ways.
We find that in a number of places in Jesus’ teaching. Think of the story he told of the two sons. One said he would go and work in his father’s field and then didn’t, and the other one said he wouldn’t go, but then he went anyway. Do you remember Jesus’ question? Which of the two did his father’s will? And while you’re thinking of that remember Jesus’ own definition of love for the father – that we do his will!
Friends, this is one place where I struggle. Are there people who love and honor God by their actions who don’t know him or who don’t even say they know him? And how important is that to God? Sometimes I think we get “formulaic” about our “beliefs.” We base our understanding of salvation on certain things we believe and say about Jesus. “Believe this and you will be saved.” While the very Jesus we follow was all about doing God’s will, promoting God’s kingdom, reaching out to God’s people. And don’t get me wrong. I’m not talking about “Works Righteousness” here. I’m not saying we “work our way into the kingdom.” All that stuff about having faith is important. All that about accepting the atonement of Jesus is what makes us Christian. And we need to be proud of that. We need to know Jesus – not just know about him. But somehow our actions are tied into that. What we do matters. (Or what we do not do!)
C. S, Lewis has been one of my spiritual mentors over the years. And he was the one who first suggested to me that those who honor God unaware, those who care for God’s people even though they may not acknowledge him, those people are somehow in God’s hands and he honors them in ways we cannot know. And we’d better be careful in passing judgment on them. God’s ways are above our ways, and his grace and mercy are beyond our comprehension. We cannot forget that! When we think we have this whole salvation/judgment thing down, that’s when we’d better be careful!
In this parable, I believe Jesus is making that contrast between belief and action. And remember, he was speaking to a people who were being exclusive in their beliefs. They were “the chosen people.” They were children of Abraham, and they were proud of it. But Jesus told them God could raise up children of Abraham from the stones around them! In contrast, Jesus always made their actions the true test of their faith!
Now, maybe I’m not going where you expected in thinking of this parable. But I hope I’ve given you cause to think. I hope you see the new way Jesus was trying to get his people to think. Remember that the overall feeling of both the sheep and the goats here is one of surprise. Neither said, “That’s right, Lord, I did that.” “I ministered to your people.” Or “Oh, I guess you’re right, I didn’t.” Both were surprised. Both said, “I didn’t realize it was the same as ministering for you.”
I hope I’ve given you cause to look at those moments in your life when there is a need before you, or there is a hurting person near you, and to hear the words of Jesus, “When you did it unto the least of these, you did it unto me.”
Eternal God, we are humbled by your love for us. And we are amazed by your grace. It truly is beyond our comprehension. Help us to have the compassion for your people. Help us to see our actions towards others as being actions toward you. That’s hard, Lord. But through your strength we can do all things. We pray this in Jesus’ name, and for the glory of his kingdom, Amen.