Generations upon generations of pastors have used this story of the sheep and the goats to chastise their congregations. You need to be like the sheep they would say; you need to serve the Lord, by doing for the very least, because if you are caught being a goat, if you are caught not serving the Lord, well then, the consequences will be most severe. This story is a great story for warning God’s people, for whipping them into action. If Jesus were to come back to day, if he were to sit on his throne today, where would you be standing, to his right or to his left? Well, you better get out there and start doing something. No sense taking chances. After all, you don’t want Jesus to look at you and say, “Your nothing but a goat.” Yes, many pastors have used this story to chastise their congregations; yet, a closer inspection of what is actually being said in the story leads one to wonder if perhaps generations of pastors have missed the point. Let’s take a closer look and find out.
When we take a closer look at the story of the sheep and the goats, we notice that what distinguishes the sheep from the goats is what they did or did not do. “I was hungry and you gave me something to eat; or, I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink; or, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink.” Either you welcomed me as a stranger or you didn’t. Either you clothed me when I was naked or you did not. Either you looked after me when I was sick or in prison or you did not. This story is about action or inaction; but, the question is, action or inaction for whom. For Jesus? Well, yes, indirectly. Directly this is a story about what is done for those in Jesus’ family.
Both the sheep and the goats, when they are told that they either did or did not do something for the Lord, they both ask the question when. When did we see you hungry and feed you? When were you a stranger and we didn’t welcome you? Jesus’ answer to both of them is the same. “What you did, or didn’t do, for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did or did not do for me.”
Now, when we hear a phrase like “the least of these brothers and sisters of mine,” we tend to think in very general terms, believing that Jesus is referring to all people. But, I don’t think that is the case. Let’s go back a few chapters in Matthew and see what we find there. Back in chapter 12, we read that, “While Jesus was still talking to the crowd, his mother and brothers stood outside, wanting to speak to him. Someone told him, ‘Your mother and brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.’ He replied to them, “Who is my mother and who are my brothers?’ Pointing to his disciples, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.’” Let me read that again, ‘Whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” “I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”
This story of the sheep and the goats is a story of warning; but, not for the purpose of chastising the faithful. This story is a warning to the rest of the world that it will be judged by how it treats Jesus’ family, how it treats the faithful. After, all, we are Jesus’ family, we are his brothers and sisters, because we do the will of the Father. How do we do the will of the Father? By, believing in the one whom the Father has sent, our Lord Jesus Christ. So, this story, used so long to chastise those in Jesus’ family, is really meant as a story of hope for those in Jesus’ family. You see, it matters to Jesus how his family members are treated by the rest of the world, and he will make a judgment based upon what he sees.
Now, I know that some of you are probably thinking; but, wait a minute pastor, aren’t we supposed to feed the hungry, clothe the poor, welcome the stranger. And, the answer is yes, we are; and, there are plenty of other passages in the gospels that speak to our calling to serve others; but, that is not what this passage is really all about. This passage is really about justice.
This story comes at the end of Matthew’s gospel; so, we know that we are coming to the point in the story where Jesus is going to be rejected by the very people whom he has come to save, the very people who are supposed to receive him as Messiah and Lord. He is going to be rejected and he is going to be killed. Of course, that will not be the end of the story. For, he will rise again on the third day, he will ascend to the Father, give the gift of his promised Holy Spirit, and send his family out to proclaim to the rest of the world that our big brother is nothing less than the King of all creation.
Jesus knows that this is getting ready to happen. He also knows that when he sends out his brothers and sisters, that they too will experience persecution. They too will find themselves rejected, mocked, ridiculed, and some will even be killed for being a follower of Jesus. Jesus knows that this is going to happen; so, he tells this story to say listen my brothers and sisters when you are being persecuted for being a member of my family, don’t think, for even a moment, that what is happening to you will go unnoticed, or unpunished. I will take note of everything that happens to you, Jesus says, and I will repay the world for the way it treats you. I will vindicate you; I will give you justice. When the rest of the world, that is, those outside of my family, tells you that you are wrong for being in my family, I will show them that in fact you are right, that following me is in fact the will of my Father in heaven. I will defend you and I will pass judgment on how you are treated or mistreated.
This story is meant, not to chastise those in the family; but, to warn those outside the family of Jesus, to warn them that justice will be served. Jesus will repay based on how his family members are being treated. Of course if we read the story this way, the way I believe it was intended when Jesus first told it, then we might be led to think that this story doesn’t really have much to say to us today, at least to those of us in the church, here in the West. After all, while persecution of Christians continues in other places around the world, it is hard to say that Christians are being persecuted here in America. I mean, yes, there are times in which, as members of Jesus’ family, we are mocked and ridiculed in the media and in television and movies; and, there may be times when being a Christian does have negative consequences; but, for the most part, we don’t see ourselves being persecuted for our family ties to Jesus. So, that being the case, what do we do with a story like this. Well, I think we let this story remind us of what is supposed to be our true motivation for serving the Lord, and that true motivation is love, not fear.
This story, as it reads, seeks to instill a sense of fear. Either you serve the Lord by treated well those in his family, or else there will be severe consequences. If you don’t straighten up and start being a sheep instead of a goat, then you will reap eternal punishment. In this story the motivation to serve the Lord, by treating well, those in his family, is fear. Fear is the motivating factor; and, perhaps for those outside the family, fear is the right motivation for them; but, what about for those inside the family. Are we to serve Jesus out of a sense of fear? The answer is no. When you are in the family, love is supposed to be your motivation for all that you do.
Let’s just think about our own families for a moment. As a father, the last thing I want is for Hunter and Eliza to do what is right because they are afraid of me, which is not to say that fear has never been a consideration, it has; but, that’s not ideal. It’s not what anyone really wants as a parent. You want your children to do what is right because they love you. You want them to do what is right for each other out of love for each other and not because they are afraid of mom or dad. This is how it is supposed to be with Jesus’ family. When asked what the greatest commandment was, what did Jesus say, “Fear God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength? No, he said love God with all you heart, soul, mind, and strength. Of course, we can’t forget the second greatest commandment which says love your neighbor, not because you are afraid of what God might do to you if you don’t, but simply love your neighbor as yourself.
After all, what do we really have to fear. We have already been forgiven. We have already been welcomed into God’s family. The waters of our baptism show that God has already called us to be his own. We already have a seat at the Lord’s table; and, as Paul reminds us, nothing in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. So, we have nothing to fear. We can let love be our sole motivation for serving the Lord and for serving one another.
Sisters and brothers, we are already part of the royal family of Jesus our brother who just happens to be King of all creation. As our brother and as our King, Jesus is already watching over us, taking note of how his family is being treated. As our brother and as our King, Jesus is already defending and vindicating the members of his family. So, thanks be to our Lord Jesus Christ, whom we do not have to fear; but, instead who we can love, with all of our heart, soul, mind and strength.