IN the same way the world we live in has a calendar, with today being Grey Cup Sunday, but also the First Sunday after Black Friday; so it is with the Church. Today is the Sunday Next before Advent: the solemn season of preparation for the joy of Christmas.
All calendars, Christian or not, are liturgical, which is to say they set out a public work for the benefit of the community.
What exactly is the public work or liturgy for Grey Cup Sunday? Eat chili, drink beer, watch television, jump up and down, and cheer.
And the public work or liturgy of the First Sunday after Black Friday? That would be shopping.
And what is our public work or liturgy on this day? it is to proclaim the life, death, resurrection, ascension, and second coming in glory of Jesus Christ, in the reading of Scripture, the breaking of bread, and the prayers. The benefit of this work for the community? That would be hope.
This is vitally important work we are engaged in here at St. Mary’s, with hope being in rather short supply these days.
i commend the calendar you. it is one of the great gifts of the Church to us, which not only lifts us out of the sea of chilli, beer, and commercials in which we are drowning, but pulls us back into the story of Jesus Christ, and helps us live into the fullness of that story.
Today is also the last Sunday of the current calendar year where we have been working our way through St. Matthew’s Gospel. Everything that Jesus has been teaching us comes to a climax in today’s Parable of the Sheep and the Goats.
“When the Son of Man comes in glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of His glory.”
A popular interpretation says that what Jesus is talking about His coming again in glory to judge the living and the dead, as we confess in the Creed. On this view, what we have in this parable is a judgment story about who is going to go to heaven, and who is going to go to hell.
It’s a popular interpretation, but incorrect.
While the parable ends on a note of judgment, it begins with the announcement of the coming enthronement of the Son of Man.
Now, when in the Gospel did that enthronement take place?
We of all people should know that. The answer stares in the face every Sunday morning from the window above the altar, which depicts the Ascension of Jesus into heaven.
What exactly is the throne of glory upon which Jesus sat? At the beginning of the next chapter, Jesus tells the disciples, “You know that after two days the Passover is coming, and the Son of Man will be delivered up to be crucified.” The throne of glory was the Cross. The Romans nailed a sign on the Cross above Jesus’ head which read, “The King Of the Jews.” They had intended this as a cruel joke, but we know it was no joke. For this Jesus who suffered. died, and was buried, on the third day rose again, and ascended into heaven, and is now seated on the right hand of the Father.
So what we have here is not a judgment story about the end of time, but an enthronement story in the middle of time, and a description of the kingly rule of Jesus Christ in our lives that has already begun.
In our reading this morning from Ezekial, we discovered that it was going to be the job of the Messiah, the Shepherd King of Israel, to judge the nations of the earth. For God’s people that was going to mean going to both salvation and vindication of their faith in their King.
This image of a shepherd separating sheep from goats is something that Jesus‘ listeners would have been well familiar with. To this day in the Middle East, sheep and goats graze together in a single herd. And at the end of the day the shepherd has to separate the sheep from the goats, so the goats, which are less hardy, can be kept warm at night. It’s often quite difficult to tell them apart, because of similarity in colour, with the main difference being, the sheep’s tail hangs down, while the goat’s tail sticks up.
In our parable, on what basis does the King discriminate between the “righteous” sheep, who are blessed and welcomed into the kingdom of the Father prepared for them from the foundation of the world, and the “unrighteous” goats, who are cursed, and are sent into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and all his angels?
The criteria is an interesting one. Everything hinges on how those who are judged treated “one of the least of these my brothers. In so much as you did it for one of the least of these members of my family you did it for me.” It’s an extraordinary statement because it locates the Presence of the King in the faces and in the lives of the vulnerable: the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the stranger, the sick, and the imprisoned.
In the popular moralistic interpretation of this parable, l the preacher, would now berate you the congregation, for ignoring the demands of the Gospel for social justice. In a free market capitalist society such as ours, where it’s every man for himself, the fact that you are well fed, well clothed, and well situated surrounded by friends and family, can only mean one thing: you have done very well for yourselves. The system has worked well for you, and you have worked the system to your advantage.
I have to include myself in this.
But what about those for whom the system doesn’t work so advantageously? This seems to be the group that Jesus is interested in. We who like to be on the winning side, and have a name for this group. We call them “losers.”
But didn’t Jesus have a reputation for being a “friend of losers?” Wasn’t Jesus crucified between two losers? Didn’t He become the biggest loser of them all? Yes. lf you really were as Christian as you say you are, you would be spending more of your time and energy towards serving the needs of the losers.
How is that for a guilt trip? This kind of moralizing preaching may bring results in the short term, but in the long term it produces angry and exhausted Christians. When it comes to meeting the demands of the Gospel for social justice, what we do is never enough. There is always one more injustice waiting around the corner.
This interpretation also assumes a model of mission where we, the privileged, are sent out to exercise charity to the underprivileged.
But what if that was not the model of mission presupposed by our passage? What if, as I think is the case, it is the followers of Jesus, who on account of their following Him have become vulnerable? What if they are the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the stranger, the sick and the imprisoned? What if Jesus is in fact talking here about His Church?
Earlier in the Gospel Jesus said to his disciples, ” Whoever would come after me must take up His Cross and follow me.” Here we have a description of what that means. It means to voluntarily embrace the shame of your life. In practical terms it means embracing the experience of hunger, thirst, nakedness. being an outsider, illness and imprisonment. These are all shameful experiences which we ordinarily run and hide from.￼
You might say to yourself I would rather die than embrace the shame of my life. But you see to embrace the shame of your life is to die, but in union with Christ also to find the possibility of transformation, which is resurrection.
When you voluntarily embrace the shame of your life, you enter into Communion with Jesus Christ who suffered a shameful death on the Cross. You open yourself up to the possibility of His grace. He will come to you, and comfort you. Jesus as we know is in the business of searching out his lost sheep and bringing them home.
In interpreting the parables. the question is never, what does this parable mean?
The question is what does this parable do?
What this parable does is change the way we look at things.
Jesus shows us in this parable how it is through His suffering Church that He proposes to extend His rule throughout the world, as He blesses, and welcomes and includes in His kingdom those who came and comforted His followers in their distress.
It’s not that as Christians we don’t have also have responsibility for those in distress. We do. But the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the stranger, the sick and the imprisoned, are not problems to be solved, but persons to be embraced. Our difficulty is that we think that we can feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, welcome the stranger, care for the sick and those in prison, without actually knowing anyone who is hungry, naked, thirsty, a stranger, sick, or in prison. We would rather throw money at them, and so preserve our status as benefactors of the poor, than actually get to know them, and become their brother or sister. They key I think lies in embracing our own vulnerability so that we might embrace others in their vulnerability, and in so doing embrace the Lord.
What is surprising in this parable is that neither the sheep or the goats had the faintest idea that in serving the poor, they were serving Christ, or in turning their backs on the poor they were turning their backs on Christ.
How are we to explain this?
We explain this by saying each was acting out of the truth of who they were. The sheep were compassionate, because that’s what sheep are and the goats were not, because it is not in their nature.
Who we are is always revealed by the character of our actions.
Bitter words are manifestations of a bitter person. Angry outbursts are the manifestation of an angry person.
Now to the million dollar question.
Who are you? Who am I?
Are we one of the sheep, destined for the Kingdom of our Father?
Or are we one of the goats, destined for the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels?
Looking at ourselves in the mirror, we would have to say, if we are honest that we are a bit of both.
It’s not simply the case that one day I am a sheep, with loving compassion oozing out of every pore, and the next day and a total goat, who couldn’t care less.
It’s more a case that my good desire is never entirely pure, lacking in mixed motives, and our evil never seems to be devoid of good, regardless of how perverted and distorted that desire might be.
In the face of the mixed bag of equal parts sheep and goat that I am, what could the separation of the sheep and the goats possibly mean?
is it a question of my sheep moments outnumbering my goat moments?
One of the ancient Fathers of the Church, St. Gregory of Nyssa, treats this parable as a story of judgment within each human soul rather than a story of one soul verses another. The separation is a separation of the good from the evil that resides in the heart of every human being. So what we have here in effect is a story of God’s rescue of His enslaved creation.
Now it may well be that some people really are goats at heart, while other are sheep. When they stand face to face with Christ, the truth of who they are will be revealed.
But according to St. Gregory we are by nature desirous of God. What happens in the separation of the sheep from the goats is the destruction of that which is not truly our nature. We will then be free to become what we truly are.
i find that a helpful way of looking at it. What it says to me is that every moment of my life, every human encounter is there for my salvation. Even the bad things, and the messes l have made somehow in hand of God is doing me good.
So perhaps the question is not whether I am one of the sheep or one of the goats, but which path am I on? God daily presents us with opportunities in our interactions with others to move towards the right, the path of the sheep, towards the left, the path of the goat. With every opportunity we not only move on that path, but become what the path reveals. (Stephen Freeman)
But thou, O Lord. Have mercy upon us.