The parable of the sheep and the goats does not play out as we think it will. Instead, rising from the dead, our King invites us to dinner, forgives our failings and then invites us to love and feed the least of these.
Pr. Joseph G. Crippen, Christ the King (Ordinary Time, Sunday 34), year A; texts: Matthew 25:31-46; Ezekiel 34:11-24; Psalm 95:1-7; with additional reference to John 21
Sisters and brothers, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
It all changed at that one breakfast. The seven fishermen were sitting in a small circle on the beach as the dawn’s light transformed the sky, and they were staring into the flames of a charcoal fire. Fish were cooking, but they were nervous. Seeing their Lord by the side of the lake as they brought in their boat was at once thrilling and frightening – yes, he was alive again. And yes, once more he had provided a miraculous catch of fish. But none of them, especially Peter, could easily forget their betrayal, their cowardice, their flight. At the least, they all felt the heat of humiliation and shame over their actions. At the worst, they feared the certain retribution that was coming. Now, Jesus had said nothing about it in the Upper Room those first two Sundays. But then there wasn’t much time. The question weighing so heavily on their minds was this: when would he bring up their failure? And then, what would he do with them?
But here was the confusing thing. He was offering them breakfast, and everyone knew you didn’t eat with an enemy; breaking bread was a sign and gift of friendship. This breakfast seemed like a peace offering – what else could it be? And then, he looked right at Peter and said, “Peter, do you love me?” It cut him to the heart. “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” “Then feed my lambs.”
I have been leading to this point for a number of weeks now, and have made the claim in several sermons that the risen Jesus acts differently than he suggests he will in his judgment parables. It seems like it’s time to explore that more fully, and I felt as if that meant we needed to begin with this story from John 21, a story which many years ago profoundly opened my eyes to the wondrous grace of God.
So here is my question, my sisters and brothers: do you see what happened on that Galilean beach that changed the world? The King returns alive, and unlike his warnings before his death, he doesn’t divide his children between those who were faithful and those who were not. The King went into the worst of judgment and darkness in order to seek out the lost – just as God promised in Ezekiel today – and then, risen from death said, “I love you. Come to this feast I’ve prepared for you. Oh, and my other lambs, my other children, the least of these my brothers and sisters – they need feeding, they need love. Would you do that, please?”
Because of that breakfast, I love this parable of Matthew 25 now.
Now I notice that it really isn’t about sheep and goats at all. Jesus just uses the image as a way to describe the division, a common and familiar experience of his audience, who knew what a shepherd did at night, separating the sheep from the goats. After that it’s just about his followers, some faithful, some not.
But on the beach, Jesus puts them all back together again. There is no distinction. Look at the group of seven. There are six who ran away, who failed. And then there’s John, who stayed at the cross. There are goats at this breakfast. And at least one sheep.
But all are at breakfast. And all are forgiven. And all bask in the love of their Risen Lord. And because of that breakfast, we are able to see some important things in this parable.
First, from the beginning of the parable it is assumed that all the characters in the story are loving, devoted subjects of the King. It’s not some sheep, some goats – it’s all devoted followers. Think about it – there’s no question among any of them that had they known it was their King who was being served they’d have done it. If they had known in feeding the hungry and clothing the naked, in caring for the sick and visiting the imprisoned, they were doing that to their beloved Lord, they’d have done it right away.
The difference is some did it without knowing. Others didn’t because they didn’t know. That can fairly be criticized – doubtless the King would prefer compassion and action even without knowing it is for him.
And in Ezekiel the LORD reminds us that sometimes even if we are devoted followers of God, we do actually know what we’re doing, and we still butt and shove and trample and ruin it for others. There’s a powerful promise of a Shepherd, a Messiah in Ezekiel, but also deep frustration from God, as in Matthew 25. It isn’t only that the shepherds of Israel failed the people, though they did, and God promises a new shepherd, of David’s line. But even the sheep, the members of the flock, have hurt each other, left the weak and the helpless to struggle alone.
Even more, they’ve taken all the good things and not even left viable leftovers – trampling the pasture when they’re done and fouling the water after drinking, so that those who come for second best have nothing good. This is an intentional ignoring of the hungry, the sick, the naked, the stranger, the prisoner, an intentional lack of compassion by the servants of the King. And it sounds as if it was written for the 21st century.
And if the true Shepherd is coming, whom we see in Jesus, that Shepherd will not be able to permit such destruction of the least of these.
So there is no easy moralizing here, no easy separation. No easy split of “these are good, these are bad.” In the story, apparently the King wishes that his subjects would have known, would have acted, without being told. And in Ezekiel God certainly is saddened, angered even by the willful neglect of those in need by God’s very people.
But there’s still a relationship in both places, still a King with beloved servants, and God with beloved sheep. And there’s also no denying that the point is that there are people in need whom our Lord and King still needs us to serve.
That’s the second point, that in the breakfast in Galilee we see clearly that the King’s family, “the least of these,” are still in desperate need of loving care.
Jesus only eliminates the division at that breakfast. Those who were faithful and those who were not – all are invited to breakfast.
But what he makes clear to Peter is that there are still beloved sisters and brothers, still beloved children who are not making it. There are lambs who need feeding, sheep who need care. The King is still worried about everyone, fretting that some are being left out, some are being ignored, some are even dying.
And as promised in Ezekiel, the King put himself in the place of the weak sheep, the ones butted and shoved and crushed, the ones who have all the good food taken and the leftovers trampled before they can eat or drink, and suffered all of that himself. To the point of death. And now, risen, calls us to do the same, to stand with those most in need, as if we were standing with our Lord.
The difference is, now we know. And that makes all the difference. We don’t need to worry about this parable because the hard part no longer applies. The hard part for the second group in the parable was not knowing their Lord was to be found in those “little ones,” those who struggle. And maybe that shouldn’t have mattered to them.
But either way, now we know that when we clothe the naked, we are clothing our risen Lord. We know that when we offer a drink, or a bowl of soup to someone who is starving, we are offering it to Jesus. Now we know that when we welcome the stranger with graciousness, we are welcoming our Lord, just as when we visit the imprisoned or care for the sick.
Now we know. And so we know what God needs us to do. Forgiven and loved by our risen Lord, we know that we are needed. We sing joyfully with the psalmist today our celebration of the rule and reign of God over all the world, and our reality that we are the sheep of God’s hand. But always remembering the last part of verse 7: “O, that you would hear God’s voice!”
Our love for our Lord is needed for those who are suffering from injustice, from hunger, from want. If we want to show our love, we know where it needs to go. We know that we are God's beloved sheep; now we are asked to hear God's voice, and do what is needed to be done.
That breakfast on the beach changed everything for those seven.
And just like them we’re about to eat at our Lord’s table, at our Lord’s invitation, fed by our risen Lord Jesus himself, and once again, everything will be changed. We will come together at this Table, and be fed a Meal that forgives us, declares we are no longer enemies but friends, and that calls us together as the embodied Love of our Lord. Our differences and disagreements are overcome at this Table. Our failings and fears are overcome at this Table. Our hesitance and our ignorance are overcome at this Table. When the Risen Jesus is present with us in this Meal, he offers us all this, all the love that raised him from the dead.
And then he looks at us and says, “Do you love me? Because if you do, my other brothers and sisters are hurting. Could you take care of them? It matters the world to me. It matters the world to my children.”
Friends, now we know. Our Lord is found out there, where he always is, hurting, alone, hungry and afraid. Let’s see what we can do. Now we know. God give us the grace to bring this love to the world.
In the name of Jesus. Amen