Sheep and Goats - Matthew Chapter 25
Sermon preached by
The Reverend Charles Royden
21 November 1999
Matthew 25:31-46 "When the Son of Man comes in
his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in
heavenly glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will
separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from
the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.
"Then the King will say to those on his right, 'Come, you who are blessed by
my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the
creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I
was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you
invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you
looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.' "Then the
righteous will answer him, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you,
or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a
stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we
see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?' "The King will reply, 'I
tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers
of mine, you did for me.' "Then he will say to those on his left, 'Depart
from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil
and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was
thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not
invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in
prison and you did not look after me.' "They also will answer, 'Lord, when
did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or
in prison, and did not help you?' "He will reply, 'I tell you the truth,
whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for
me.' "Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to
Why do we have a parable about sheep and goats? Of course when Jesus spoke these words they would evoke a vivid image which his audience would easily understand. Sheep and goats often grazed together during the day, but had to be separated by the shepherd at night. Needless to say, goats were less docile and more troublesome than sheep. They came to symbolise evil and the expression scapegoat has become a common expression for someone bearing blame for others. (See Leviticus 26:20-22 for a description of the ritual expulsion of sin-bearing goat on the Day of Atonement.) Goats symbolised an undisciplined and disobedient lifestyle
What does this parable teach us?
There is held out to each of us the alternative lifestyles which we can choose. We can either be sheep or goats, good or bad, in another parable we are challenged to ask whether we are wheat or weeds. This parable is also similar to the parable about Lazarus and the rich man. The rich man let Lazarus die on his doorstep and was doomed to crave for drops of cold water he had not thought of giving to the poor man. How do we behave, what do we do.
Of course there is also another important point brought out in this parable, God will judge us not only for the wrong we have done but also for what we have failed to do. This is about sins omission. God is gracious and merciful and his love compels us to treat others with mercy and kindness. When Martin of Tours, a Roman soldier and a Christian, met an unclothed man freezing in the cold, he stopped and cut his coat in two and gave half to the stranger. That night he dreamt he saw a heavenly court with Jesus robed in a tattered cloak. One of the angels present asked, "Master, why do you wear that battered old cloak?" Jesus replied, "My servant Martin gave it to me."
When we do something for one of Christ's little ones, we do it for Christ. To be sheep means to hear and respond in deed. If we truly believe, we will realise God calls us through the presence of the poor and the needy. Our positive actions will partake in that call and lead us to the Kingdom. We must make an inventory of our lives and ask ourselves how far we have sought to serve others. Perhaps we need to seek out new ways to serve God in our loving actions to others.
It is a constant theme of the teaching of Christ, that God judges us not by our status or achievements, but our continuing willingness to let the life of God be lived through us, concretely: our love for people. Faith demands every aspect of our lives: our minds, hearts, and daily activity. How have you and I exercised faith lately? How has the exercise of faith made us more empathetic and compassionate to others in need?
God gives us clear choice. Do we hear his call, as the sheep hear the shepherd? Or, do we stand fast like the stubborn goats? There was a report last week that a labour politician 'the homeless Tsar' had said that activities like soups runs for the homeless should be stopped because it encourages them and makes the problem worse. They won't go into the hostels provided for them, but stay on street corners. I think the basic gist of what was being said was that people need to be enabled to take employment and earn their own living, not receive hand outs. It is true that we do need to struggle with how we can best care for the needy, as Jesus' parable says we should. How can we do it in a way that doesn't put them or us in bondage? But of course the danger is that we can use this as an excuse to ignore need, rather we must search to see how we can work harder to meet that need in a constructive way.
Ultimately it is no use spending our lives and energy pursuing good causes, defending endangered species, pleading the cause of especially the whales, crusading for the environment, supporting the rights of homosexuals, urging sympathy for people in the third world, defending blacks against discrimination. If we have no time for the old person next door, or if we are rude to people, or impatient on the telephone, or don't make a cup of tea for the plumber. The carpet fitter at St Mark's last week told me that sometimes they go to people's houses and not only do people not make them cups of tea, they won't let them use the toilet, perhaps why they don't give them cups of tea. !
In Jesus view of the kingdom, it is always near, ready to break through the barriers of every day and seize us, impel us, embrace us, challenge us. We don't need to wait for the kingdom or ask when it will come. The kingdom appears in ordinary daily events: a confused child, a sick friend, a discouraged spouse, a troublesome person on the phone, a demand that seems unfair but where we can do much good with little effort. These are the places when we should be prepared to show and experience God's loving power.
The sheep would have know what they did, the kind actions which they had performed. Nevertheless the sheep were surprised at their being told that Christ Himself was the personal object of all their deeds. They did not know that they found Him hungry, and supplied Him with food. Neither did they know that they brought water to Him, and slaked His thirst; that seeing Him naked and shivering, they put warm clothing upon Him, paid Him visits when lying in prison for the truth, and sat by His bedside when laid down with sickness.
The duties which they performed they had done to help others and Jesus sees in these actions care of his children as though it were care of himself. One of the wonderful things about these actions are that they are the sorts of things which we can all perform. You do not need to be special to be kind to the sick. Jesus did not say I was sick and you healed me; or in prison and you set me free; but you visited me and came unto me."
This is ordinary but real, personal service of Christ, we can all do it, but it involves sacrifice of ease, time and property..." There are those who do not recognise need in others. Our hardness of heart to others can become so much a part of our lives that we are unmoved. I remember having to go into an abattoir where leather was tanned and speaking to the workers asking how they managed to work in such a foul stench. The response from them was to say that they had been there so long they no longer recognised the smell. It is possible to be desensitised to things around us. To become unaware that we are sharp, abrupt or difficult to others. Or we can live cocooned in an environment of personal comfort and security so that we fail to understand the plight of others. In a sermon on this passage John Wesley said,
'One great reason why the rich, in general, have so little sympathy for the poor, is, because they so seldom visit them. Hence it is, that, according to the common observation, one part of the world does not know what the other suffers. Many of them do not know, because they do not care to know: they keep out of the way of knowing it; and then plead their voluntary ignorance an excuse for their hardness of heart. "Indeed, Sir," said one person of large substance, "I am a very compassionate man. But, to tell you the truth, I do not know anybody in the world that is in want." How did this come to pass? Why, he took good care to keep out of their way; and if he fell upon any of them unawares "he passed over on the other side."
If are prepared to have our eyes opened then we can all too easily finds situation of want and need. If we seek to have occasions when we can be of help to others then they are all too apparent. Frequently our notices advertise the opportunities to give of our time and talents in the service of others, from carol singing to cooking. God's kingdom is not a place, it is a relationship, we enter into that relationship when we behave as Christ has commanded us, when we are obedient to him. And so we come to the realisation that to help those in need and to serve others is to place ourselves firmly on the road to heaven, to enter into the joy of our Lord.
Do we allow the love of Christ to purify our hearts and to transform our life?
"Lord, may your love control my thoughts and actions that I may do what is pleasing to you. Show me where I lack charity, mercy, and forgiveness toward my neighbour. And help me to be generous in giving to others what you have so generously given to me."