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The Sheep and the Goats | A Sermon for Lent from Matthew 25:31-46

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Narrative Lectionary text: Matthew 25:31-46.

I’d like you to imagine something with me.

Imagine that you work in customer service. You have the kind of job where your pay is reflected in the type of feedback you get from the people that you help. One day you are doing your job and you have been helping people all day long. It’s getting to the end of the shift and there are two customers waiting for you, and you have to choose. On one side there is a well-dressed, middle-aged couple that seem very pleasant. On the other side there is a gruff, older man who looks like he may have just rolled out of bed, or out of the gutter. You know you need one more good review today if you want to get bumped up to the next level in your job.

Be honest with yourself right now. Who would you choose to help in that moment? I’ll be honest. I would help the couple. It only makes sense, doesn’t it? I’m working, and the goal of my work is to get paid, right? So, why wouldn’t I choose to help the couple first? The chances are much higher that I would be able to relate to them, give them better service, and they would give me better ratings. They are valid customers, aren’t they?

Let’s imagine that you make the same choice I would. You completely ignore the gruff dude, and focus on the couple. Then, on Friday afternoon there is a company party and everyone is invited. It’s a nice party and everyone is mingling. The announcer gets on the platform and calls everyone’s attention. Out of the corner of your eye you see the gruff dude. He is heading for the platform. As he ascends the platform he takes off his wig and peels away the fake beard.

Who is it? The CEO of your company.

He tells everyone that he has been on the show Undercover Boss.

What goes through your mind at that moment? Busted.

How might your actions had changed if you knew that the gruff dude was your boss?

I think that story paints the picture for how the people in Jesus’ parable must have felt.

Let’s look at this parable again.

Before we drill down on this story, we need to zoom out one last time.

Do you realize that this story is the very last teaching that Jesus gives in the Gospel of Matthew? Everything else in Matthew, from this point on, is the story of the Passion Week, when Jesus was arrested, crucified, and resurrected.

That means we have come to the end of this journey. Not only have we come to the end of our Lenten journey that started on Ash Wednesday, but this brings us to the end of our journey that started back in September. Throughout this entire school year we have been looking at the big theme, Blessed to be a Blessing. God blessed Abraham’s family so that all the nations of the world could be blessed through them. They are the vineyard, planted on the earth so that the whole world could get drunk on the love of God. This is the Kingdom of Heaven.

Jesus came to remind the people of Israel about this Kingdom and what it looks like to live as a blessing to the nations. He came to show us that the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand, and that the Kingdom of Heaven is upside down compared to the way we tend to distort it.

For the past few weeks we have been looking at Jesus’ confusing parables where he contrasts the way we normally handle power, politics, and economics, with the way Jesus invites us to handle them.

And we’ve been trying to make sense out of why the main character of Jesus’ parables keeps throwing people in the outer darkness and shutting the door in people’s faces.

I don’t know if you have been tracking with the daily readings during Lent, but the reading from Thursday really helps us to understand this whole section of Matthew.

This whole section takes place in the middle of a huge conflict between Jesus and the religious leaders of Jerusalem. He calls them things like white washed tombs and a brood of vipers.

Look at Matthew 23:13–15 (NRSV)

13 “But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you lock people out of the kingdom of heaven. For you do not go in yourselves, and when others are going in, you stop them.

Then he goes on to say:

Matthew 23:23 (NRSV)

23 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others.

Then, in chapters 24 and 25 Jesus describes the end of the Age. Here’s what I think Jesus is saying.

You think that the Kingdom of Heaven is about the city of Jerusalem, this big fancy Temple, and preserving this political identity.

 

That is all going to come crashing down when Rome finally destroys this place. That will be a time of great suffering and pain.

But, it won’t be the end of the world. The Kingdom of Heaven is so much more than that.

That’s what today’s parable is all about.

If you were here back in November, then you might remember that I preached on this passage during our Loving Generously series. I showed you this picture about the unequal distribution of wealth in the world.

The sheep and the goats were separated over one criteria. What was it? How they treated the “least of these.”

Here’s the surprising part of the story. The sheep didn’t know that doing this would give them reward!

Think about this.

The goats were goats because they were seeking their own reward. The sheep are sheep because they were simply loving everybody, just because it’s the right thing to do. Once the goats find out that getting the reward is about “doing it to the least of these” then they want to label “the least of these” and start serving them. Why? Because that is how they get the reward. As soon as that becomes the motivation, then you’re a goat.

Here’s the upside down part of the parable. Jesus said that when the Son of Man comes in his glory he will sit on a throne. Then, what is the very next thing he does after teaching this last lesson?

He hands himself over to be crucified.

That is God’s glory!

Here’s what I think. The Kingdom of Heaven isn’t about thrones, or power, or “getting in.” The Kingdom of Heaven is about loving everyone, because that is the right thing to do. Ultimately, we are all “the least of these” and we are equal in the eyes of God.

Story from website:

Once a great order, as a result of waves of anti-monastic persecution in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and the rise of secularism in the nineteenth, all its branch houses were lost and it had become decimated to the extent that there were only five monks left in the decaying mother house: the abbot and four others, all over seventy in age. Clearly it was a dying order.

In the deep woods surrounding the monastery there was a hermitage. As the abbot agonized over the imminent death of his order, it occurred to him to visit the hermitage and ask if by some possible chance the hermit could offer any advice that might save the monastery.

The hermit welcomed the abbot at his hut. But when the abbot explained the purpose of his visit, the hermit could only commiserate with him: “I know how it is,” he exclaimed. “The spirit has gone out of the people. It is the same in all the nearby towns. So the old abbot and the hermit commiserated together. The time came when the abbot had to leave. They embraced each other. “It has been a wonderful thing that we should meet after all these years,” the abbot said, “but I have still failed in my purpose for coming here. Is there nothing you can tell me, no piece of advice you can give me that would help me save my dying order?” “No, I am sorry,” the hermit responded. “I have no advice to give. The only thing I can tell you is that the Messiah is one of you.”

When the abbot returned to the monastery his fellow monks gathered around him to ask, “Well what did the hermit say?” “He couldn’t help,” the abbot answered. “We just commiserated and read the scriptures together. The only thing he did say, just as I was leaving — it was something cryptic — was that the Messiah is one of us. I don’t know what he meant.”

In the days and weeks and months that followed, the old monks pondered these words and wondered whether there was any possible significance. The Messiah is one of us? Could he possibly have meant one of us monks here at the monastery? If that’s the case, which one?

Do you suppose he meant the abbot? Yes, if he meant anyone, he probably meant the Abbot. He has been our leader for more than a generation.

On the other hand, he might have meant Brother Thomas. Certainly Brother Thomas is a holy man. Everyone knows that Thomas is a man of light.

Certainly he could not have meant Brother Elred! Elred gets crotchety at times. But come to think of it, even though he is a thorn in people’s sides, when you look back on it, Elred is virtually always right. Often very right. Maybe the hermit did mean Brother Elred.

But surely not Brother Phillip. Phillip is so passive, a real nobody. But then, almost mysteriously, he has a gift for somehow always being there when you need him. He just magically appears by your side. Maybe Phillip is the Messiah.

Of course the hermit didn’t mean me. He couldn’t possibly have meant me. I’m just an ordinary person. Yet supposing he did? Suppose I am the Messiah? O God, not me. I couldn’t be that much for You, could I?

As they contemplated in this manner, the old monks began to treat each other with extraordinary respect on the off chance that one among them might be the Messiah. And on the off, off chance that each monk himself might be the Messiah, they began to treat themselves with extraordinary respect.

Because the forest in which it was situated was beautiful, it so happened that people still occasionally came to visit the monastery to picnic on its tiny lawn, to wander along some of its paths, even now and then to go into the dilapidated chapel to meditate. As they did so, without even being conscious of it, they sensed the aura of extraordinary respect that now began to surround the five old monks and seemed to radiate out from them and permeate the atmosphere of the place. There was something strangely attractive, even compelling, about it. Hardly knowing why, they began to come back to the monastery more frequently to picnic, to play, to pray. They began to bring their friends to show them this special place. And their friends brought their friends.

Then it happened that some of the younger men who came to visit the monastery started to talk more and more with the old monks. After a while one asked if he could join them. Then another. And another. So within a few years the monastery had once again become a thriving order and, thanks to the hermit’s gift, a vibrant center of light and spirituality in the realm.[1]

[1] http://www.patheos.com/blogs/carlgregg/2011/11/four-spiritual-practices-for-preaching-on-matthew-25-a-progressive-christian-lectionary-commentary-on-mt-25-for-nov-20-2011/

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