How can our actions be welcoming? How can we show God’s love and welcome? The parable of the sheep and the goats gives us some answers whilst also raising more questions! Not least being over that dividing line, which might be less clear than we’d like to think..
As well as Tom Wright’s Matthew For Everyone commentary I found this sermon (opens a pdf) preached at St John’s Jedburgh very helpful in thinking about how to approach this.
Welcome in Action; Reading: Matthew 25:31-46
When you’re watching the telly or a film how can you tell who the baddies are? It’s pretty easy for some programmes or films isn’t it? If it’s a James Bond film then it’s the rich person with the secret base. On quite a lot of children’s programmes it’s fairly obvious: you can tell just by looking who are the goodies and who are the baddies. They look different, they act different and they never change. On quite a few TV detective programmes it’s the famous guest star who did it.
And that’s how we like it isn’t it? We like clear dividing lines with us on one side and the baddies, whoever they happen to be, on the other. Who don’t change, won’t change and can’t change. Then we know where we are. But, that’s not the case with every film, let alone in real life. In some programmes it’s a lot harder to work out who’s the baddie and sometimes who are the goodies as well. For example, some of you might have seen How to Train your Dragon. How to Train your Dragon. It’s about a group of Vikings living on an island which is over-run with dragons. So, that’s two groups who are often shown as the baddies on many programmes. The Vikings and the dragons have been fighting for years. Many are dead on both sides. Until one young Viking realises that the dragons are basically friendly and can be trained, hence the title of the film. But, of course, for most of the film most of the Vikings don’t believe that the dragons can be anything other than enemies. They’ve drawn their lines and they’re not willing to redraw them. Until they really have to…
The parable of the sheep and the goats seems pretty straightforward to start with. Challenging, but pretty straightforward. Feed the hungry, give a drink to the thirsty, invite in the stranger, give clothes to the needy, look after the ill, visit the prisoner.
God sees how his people are suffering and is deeply concerned about it. And calls his people to do something about it. It’s an encouragement and source of hope for those who are hungry, thirsty, strangers, needy, ill, prisoners.
“You’ve done this for me” Jesus tells the sheep, tells those at his right hand. And they’re amazed! “No we didn’t” they say! “You haven’t done this for me” Jesus tells the goats, those at his left hand. And they’re amazed! “No we didn’t” they say!
Both the sheep and the goats agree that they haven’t done what Jesus says they have. They haven’t recognised Jesus in the people they were helping or failing to help. They were doing, or not doing, those things not because they saw Jesus in the people they met. They’ve all drawn the dividing lines and found that they are on the wrong side of it.
And there’s another problem as well. “Whatever you did do for the least of these, you did for me” says Jesus. “Whatever you didn’t do for the least of these you didn’t do for me”. Um. Well, which side of that dividing line are we on? Let’s be honest. We’ve done both. We’ve helped people sometimes, and we’ve failed to help people too. We’ve done things sometimes motivated by love and sometimes we’ve done things motivated by a desire to buy our way in to someone’s good books, whether that’s God or someone else. Does all that make us bad sheep or good goats?
Because another real challenge of the parable is that we’re all sheep and we’re all goats. We all draw dividing lines and put ourselves on the right side and other people on the wrong side. And that’s particularly the case in the run-up to the General Election. People are going to be drawing dividing lines: bankers, trade unions, immigrants, Europe, the rich, the poor, pensioners, the young, whoever is different.
Let’s be clear: this doesn’t get us off the hook. We are called feed the hungry, give a drink to the thirsty, invite in the stranger, give clothes to the needy, look after the ill, visit the prisoner. But it also tells us that for every dividing line we draw, Jesus is on the other side of it waiting to be recognised. Waiting for us to show the same extravagant love that God shows to us.
And let’s be clear too that helping people is more difficult than we’d like it to be too. That’s complicated and messy and involves hard choices sometimes. Not that that’s an excuse.
Like the Vikings in How to Train your Dragon we are called to recognise that the dividing lines that we draw are wrong. But, not just that. Unlike the Vikings in the film, we’re called to feed the hungry, give a drink to the thirsty, invite in the stranger, give clothes to the needy, look after the ill, visit the prisoner. Whether or not we recognise Jesus in those people as we do so.
Because, the judgement of both the sheep and the goats is shown to be wrong. But, what the sheep got right was how they acted. They showed God’s welcoming love in action. They fed the hungry, gave a drink to the thirsty, invited in the stranger, gave clothes to the needy, looked after the ill, visited the prisoner. God’s love is practical and we are called to show it. God’s judgement is God’s and we’re called to realise that we’re really bad at it. The dragons are less scary than we think, the dividing lines a lot more complicated, but God’s love is real. And we are called to welcome that love into the whole of our lives, so that it flows out, yes, into our actions, but also into how we see the world as well. Let’s see with God’s love, act with God’s love, and know God’s love overflowing from our lives. Amen.