Text: Matthew 25:31-46
This is the last Sunday of the lectionary cycle, meaning we’re at the end of the church calendar. Next week is Advent 1, the beginning of the new church year.
This is called “Christ the King Sunday,”or “Reign of Christ Sunday.” In closing out the year, the lectionary goes all in with it really being the end. It gives us a judgment scene, the story that Jesus tells in Matthew 25, commonly known as the sheep and the goats. Or, commonly known for the phrase “the least of these,” which becomes the surprise criteria by which people are judged. “Whatever you’ve done to the least of these, you’ve done to me,” says the king/judge/son of man/human one/Jesus.
It’s an important line for social justice minded Christians who believe faith has to do with how we live in this world, especially toward vulnerable people. Yet the scene of a gentle and sacrificial savior turned eternal judge also has its own problems. They are problems that the story itself begins to raise, as the sheep and the goats both talk back to the king, questioning why such an arrangement has been made.
I invite you to listen closely to the reading of the text, and then enter with me into a purely speculative continuation of the story.
31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33 and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 34 Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38 And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39 And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ 40 And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family,[a] you did it to me.’ 41 Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42 for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ 44 Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ 45 Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ 46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
When the king finished saying these words, there was silence. It may have lasted minutes or hours. Everyone was too stunned to speak, or move. All eyes were pointed down. They were aware that something tremendous had just happened. Something that would define everything going forward, but it had not yet sunk in. They were shocked and confused.
Not long before, they had been one mass of humanity, a family. A highly dysfunctional family to be sure, but a singular vast tapestry of cultures and nations, old and young, all succeeding and failing in some way or another to be the kind of person they thought they wanted to become. They had been mostly oblivious to how their small lives affected those around them, for good or ill. They were faint lights flickering in the dark cosmos, occasionally possessed by heroic or demonic impulses. Mostly trying to survive and stay sane and enjoy the good things in life they had been given. More alike than different.
Now a clear and undeniable line had been drawn between them. They’d been separated, as a shepherd separates sheep from goats, some to the left, others to the right. No one in the middle. Not a one with one foot on one side, and one foot on the other, of that line. No both/and, no in-between, no room for gray or ambiguity.
After…a while…a few of them, and then all of them, starting looking up, looking around to survey the scene. They made eye contact with those near them, stood on their tip toes to see those far away, all the while increasingly aware of the overwhelming Presence of the One, the Human One, the King.
They all stood there, soaking it in. Trying to come to terms in their own minds with what this meant. After a while, neighbors began talking in hushed tones, all discussing a version of the same question: What is going on?
Finally, one of the goats spoke up, clear and loud enough for all to hear, directed at the king.
“Is this a metaphor or is this for real?”
The king, unstartled, replied: “This is as real as it gets.”
Another voice from the goat side, emboldened by the first: “But I’m a person, not a goat.”
“That part’s a metaphor,” said the king.
“What about the eternal fire part,” asked a third goat from the very back, “Is that a metaphor?”
Everyone, goats and sheep, waited anxiously for a response that never came.
The goats, who were actually people, began murmuring among themselves, tension in the air.
The sheep, who were actually people, began murmuring as well, and now it was their turn to speak up. One of them asked: “So, just to clarify, the only determining factor as to whether we have been assigned to the sheep or the goats is whether we gave you food when you were hungry, welcomed you when you were a stranger, gave you a drink when you were thirsty, clothed you when you were naked, took care of you when you were sick, and/or visited you while you were in prison?”
“Yes, that’s correct,” replied the King.
“Even when we didn’t know it was you?”
“Yes. Whatever you’ve done, even to least of all these,” replied the king, sweeping his hand across the countless mass of humanity gathered in front of him, “you’ve done to me.”
“And to further clarify,” said the same sheep, “you have separated the goats from us not because of bad things they’ve done, but because of these things just named they haven’t done.”
“Yes,” was the reply.
And so it began to sink in. They had each unwittingly chosen their own fate. Every day of their lives they had made small decisions that had added up to major consequences, for others, and now for themselves. They had made their own judgments, and now the Human One was making their judgments visible for all to see.
But there was more than just that. It was impossible to ignore or forget those final words the Human One had uttered. “And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
The King seemed to motioning now, to the angels, as if to bring this ceremony into its second Act. Act One: separate sheep and goats. Acts Two: reward and punishment? Now to shepherd the sheep into the kingdom prepared for them from the foundation of the world. To herd the goats away, to a place where they would forever feel the pain of those they had oppressed, or simply ignored.
But then, another twist.
“No,” shouted one of the sheep. Everyone, including the king turned their heads in the direction of the voice. She was small, perhaps just a child. A likely candidate for one of those the king had dubbed, “the least of these.”
“No,” she shouted again, and started slowly making her way through the crowd of sheep. As she walked, people parted in front of her. After a short distance some of them began to realize where she was headed. Not toward the king, as if to confront him on the throne, but toward the line of separation, toward the goats. As she got closer, her destination near, her resolve evident, several people along her path began to caution her.
“Where do you think you’re going?” challenged one person, who already knew the answer.
“Don’t throw your life away,” chided another. “They have made their decision, and the king has made his. You’re safe here. We’re safe.”
But she kept going, through the crowd of the righteous, until she reached the edge. There was no real line, no wall of separation. Just a gap. She walked into the gap, out of her group, into the onlooking and disbelieving crowd of goats.
“You’re a fool,” shouted one sheep across the gap. “You heard what the king said. They’re on their way to hell.”
To this, she had a ready reply: “We were given favor by the king because of how we treated the least of these. And who is more the least of these than the recently damned?”
Moved by her response and courage, several more sheep began moving toward the goats, defying the gap of separation. Then more, and more.
Observing what was happening, it donned on some of the goats that there was nothing stopping them from also crossing that gap, joining the sheep who had stayed in place.
Soon the orderly scene devolved into chaos. There were sheep on the goat side willing to risk their eternal destiny to be in solidarity with their fellow humans. There were goats on the sheep side trying to blend in and gain a reward that was not theirs. There were goats on the sheep side who thought they could ruin the purity of the righteous and drag them down with everybody else. There were sheep on the goat side who thought that if everyone was changing sides then they could still be with the sheep if they stuck with their flock. There were goats on the goat side and sheep on the sheep side too baffled to budge. There were goats on the goat side who felt they deserved the punishment and therefore would accept their fate. There were sheep on the sheep side convinced that if they stayed put the king would sort this all out and set things right again.
But the king was nowhere in sight. During the confusion he had stepped down from the thrown. His radiant presence was noticeably absent.
It was just the people who remained. The distinction between sheep and goats had all but gone away with the mixing, the crossings back and forth. They were just people, undivided and unmarked as righteous or unrighteous. They were, once again, one mass of humanity, a family. A highly dysfunctional family to be sure, but a singular mish-mash of cultures and nations, old and young.
Not only had the king left, but the throne was gone as well. In its place was a great banquet table, filled with good things to eat and drink. It was set for a feast, and everyone moved toward it. There were seats and places set for everyone.
As they ate they began to talk about what had just happened. Some mourned the absence of the king, while others reveled in their recovered freedom.
Some concluded that this had been humanity’s final test. To defy and dispense with the god of wrath who assigns people to eternal fates. Human kindness and solidarity had triumphed over the god of judgment. The human race had freed itself from the shackles of oppressive religion.
The girl who had been the first to risk her own life on behalf of those formerly known as goats, who had been the recipient of scorn and anger, was hailed by all as a hero.
The feast was so good and rich, many wondered whether this might be paradise.
The feast continued day after day, and soon the judgment scene of the sheep and the goats seemed more like a dream than a real event. A shared hallucination.
And then, late one evening, as the day’s festivities were drawing to a close, an old man looked out from the banquet table and saw someone barely clothed, shivering at the outskirts of the gathering. With wonder and compassion, the elder left the banquet table and approached the ragged one, putting his coat around her.
In the following hours, weeks, years, there were similar kinds of sitings around that massive banquet table. Some caught site of a stranger, in need of a companion. Some noticed a person who was hungry, in need of food. Others glanced out and saw a person who was sick, in need of care.
Some believed in their hearts this was the Christ, the king who had returned to be with the people, the Human One. Others simply saw someone in need and responded with kindness. Many went out to her, extending a hand of welcome, or a plate of food, and or a caring touch. Others saw whatever helpless creature she appeared to be, but turned their heads away, continuing with their own feast. Others were so busy feasting, they never noticed there was anyone there but themselves.