Summary: It's the Last Sunday of the Church Year/Christ the King Sunday. Jesus speaks of separating the sheep & goats on the last day. The question on people's minds: Am I a sheep or a goat? (From our lectionary-based series for November 2017, "BE the Church.")
The Word of God that engages us today—on this Christ the King Sunday—is our Gospel read-ing, from Matthew 25. We’ve been looking at this chapter for a couple of weeks. And now we get to this section: the separation of the sheep and the goats. And it’s a difficult text. Not difficult to understand, mind you. No—we get it, loud and clear. Love your neighbor, love your King. When we serve the least of these, we are unwittingly serving Jesus. And when you don’t do these things, well, sorry. We understand the imagery and the whole concept. Love your neighbor, love your King.
This is perhaps one of the easiest of Jesus’ parables to grasp; we get the picture. But it’s precisely because we understand it so clearly that makes it difficult. What makes it difficult is our interpretation of it. What makes it difficult is what you might call a sort of “separation anxiety,” because Jesus is talking about Judgment Day, and eternity is on the line—where are you going?! What makes it difficult is…we’re Lutheran, and this Jesus just doesn’t sound very Lutheran! Not at first glance, anyway. He sounds too works-righteousy. So we stand there, like the young man asking Jesus, “What must I do to be saved?”
On the one hand, it sounds as if Jesus is offering a formula for salvation: “Do THIS in order to be saved. Do THIS in order to be a sheep. Do THIS in order to be judged righteous.” On the other hand, we know we’re saved by grace and not our good works. So, the temptation is to correct Jesus, and just brush past these words of His, as if to say “He didn’t really mean it. You can’t do anything—so do noth-ing!” But, as the story goes, when a famous preacher was once asked, “What must I do to go to hell?” The preacher responded with, “Nothing.” But it turns out Jesus isn’t exactly telling us HOW TO be saved, but WHO WILL be saved. You can do nothing to save yourself, but He still calls us to do something. So much for an easy parable!
This simple parable becomes all too difficult for us, because our human minds frame it in terms of “cause and effect.” If you do THIS, then THAT happens. We just want to know, “What must I do to be saved?” But Jesus isn’t quite speaking that way in Matthew 25. He’s not really answering that question. See, Jesus is not so much giving us a PREscription for how to be saved, but a DEscription of what it looks like to be one who is saved. As one writer put it, “A prescription is something we must do if we are to achieve a desired end. A description is a picture of the ways things are, or will be…Therefore, judgment is not a threat of something to be feared in the future, but a warning that one day all people will be revealed for what they are now…This is the surprising truth about judgment: it depends ultimately not on what we do, or fail to do, but on what we are—sheep or goats.” (Excerpts from The Divine Trap, by Richard Carl Hoefler. The C. S. S. Publishing Co., 1980.). It’s not a PREscription, but a DEscription.
So what does Jesus describe? He describes the Son of Man, the Messiah Himself, coming like a King. This King comes in all His glory. Angels surround Him—ALL the angels, it says. And all people are brought before Him, and the separating begins. How does the separating happen? Do legions of angels swoop down and grasp us, putting us in place in an instant—like vineyard workers plucking grapes at harvest? Does the King divinely divide us with His royal scepter, like Moses parting the waters with his staff? Or, maybe through simply hearing the voice of the Good Shepherd, the sheep are led away from the goats? He doesn’t exactly say how it happens...it just happens. Sheep to His right—at the hand of mercy. Goats to His left—the hand of judgment.
Notice, though, that when we look at the Son of Man’s separating the sheep and goats, they don’t become sheep or goats by His judgment. He’s simply identifying them for what they really are. It’s really all about our identity. And we see this play out as the King speaks to these two groups.
To the sheep He says, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” “You who are blessed,” He says. And this is important to note, because it is vastly different from what He says to the goats. To the goats He says, “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” The sheep are blessed, the goats are cursed. And I think to understand why the sheep are blessed, we first need to look at why the goats are cursed.