The Parable of the Sheep and the Goats is the last of three parables Matthew 25 which end Jesus’ public teaching in the gospel. Like the previous two, it tells about the end of time when Jesus will return to the earth to complete his work of redemption. Also like the previous two parables, it sends a clear message that there are those who will enter into eternal life with God, and those who will not. However, there are still a couple of surprises in the parable that we can miss if we’re not paying close enough attention.
I am cautious about preaching on this parable because over the years I have heard people misuse and even abuse this story. I have heard this story used to tell me that I should be doing good things, such as giving money to a charity, participating in some sort of program or being part of an organised mission trip to another part of the world, to avoid being numbered with the goats at the end of time, and to ensure that I’ll be counted with the sheep.
I support a number of organisations that ask for our help to make people’s lives better. These groups are able to go places and do things that I can’t, and so I believe that God is clearly at work through them. However, if we think that this parable is just about giving money to professional organisations whose funding is linked to the amount of support they get from donors such as ourselves, then we have missed the point of Jesus’ words.
Ultimately, this parable is about people – people who are hungry, thirsty, alone, naked, ill or imprisoned. We can hear Jesus’ description of people in need in a literal, physical sense, and meeting people’s physical needs is important for us to give a faithful witness to the love of God we encounter in Jesus. However, we can also hear Jesus’ description of people in need in spiritual or emotional ways. In an affluent culture such as our own, this can be where Jesus’ words hit much closer to home.
For example, there are people who were at worship on Sunday or who might be reading these words who are hungry for hope, thirsty for acceptance or a sense of self-worth, or who feel like they are strangers and need a community where they can belong. Others may be experiencing the shame that comes with having our deepest secrets or sins exposed to the world, or suffering from mental illness, or imprisoned in addiction, fear or guilt. It is easy and a lot more comfortable for us to identify the people Jesus is describing as suffering children overseas, and I don’t want to take away from our efforts to provide relief and care for them in their need. However, neither can we overlook the spiritually or emotionally hungry, thirsty, lonely, naked, ill or imprisoned people with whom we go through life every day. It’s easy to donate money to a professional charity, but it’s a whole lot harder to invest our time, our energy, our love, or, as we heard last week, the grace and goodness of God which Christ gives to us, in the lives of the people who are closest to us.
That’s where we find the real surprise in this parable. All three parables from Matthew 25 are about the time between Jesus’ ascension to heaven and his promised return at the end of time. They assume an absent Jesus who has left us and will come back one day. In this parable, however, Jesus comes back ‘in his glory, and all the angels with him, (and) he will sit upon his glorious throne’ (v31 NLT) as the King to judge the entire world. Then he drops the biggest surprise for us all: he was with us all the time! The King was still present with us, but not as a glorious and powerful monarch. Instead, he was with us in those around us who are hungry or thirsty, in the stranger that crosses our path, in the naked, ill and imprisoned. The King walks among us, hiding among those who are in need physically, emotionally, and spiritually. To use the words of the King himself, he is among us in ‘the least of these’ (vv40,45 NLT).
This shifts the focus of the parable from the good works we are supposed to be doing to asking, ‘Where are we looking for the presence of God?’ There is a strong emphasis among some elements of popular Christianity to look for God in his heavenly glory and to want to be raised up to meet our King there in our worship. If we listen carefully to Jesus’ parable, however, it points us to the presence of Jesus in the time between his ascension and return in the least of those around us. The King is present with us in the people that often fly under the radar because we’re too busy looking up for God in his heavenly glory. Jesus is telling us to look around us, to see the people beside us who are in need of any kind, and to recognise the presence of God in them. When we find Jesus in those in need, in the least of these, that’s when we also find the God who reveals himself to us in a vulnerable baby in a manger, and a beaten, bleeding, naked man nailed to a cross. This is how God reveals himself to us, and who is still with us in ‘the least of these.’
So continue to give to charitable organisations who strive to make the lives of people who are hungry, thirsty, homeless, naked, ill or imprisoned. They are doing God’s work in the world. However, don’t forget that ‘the least of these’ also include the people right next to us who are emotionally or spiritually hungry, thirsty, alone, exposed, ill or trapped. Because the message I get from this story is that when Jesus returns, he won’t be asking how much money we gave to charitable organisations. He’ll be looking for how we treated him in ‘the least of these’ people around us.
More to think about:
- When you read Jesus’ parable in Matthew 25:31-46, who do you usually think of when you hear him talk about the hungry, thirsty, stranger, naked, sick or imprisoned?
- How might your understanding of this parable be different if we also include people who are spiritually hungry, thirsty, strangers, naked, ill or imprisoned?
- Do you tend to look for God in his heavenly glory, or in the person of Jesus who identifies with the hungry, thirsty, strangers, naked, ill and imprisoned? How can seeing Jesus in ‘the least of these’ change our understanding of God?
- This parable can grow a sense of guilt in us because we can easily feel like we don’t do enough for enough people. That is when we can recognise our own spiritual hunger, thirst, loneliness, shame, illness or imprisonment. How can it be good news for us that Jesus identifies with us when we are in need? How does he feed us, give us something to drink, welcome us, clothe us, heal us and set us free through his promise of grace?
- In the faith that Jesus identifies with us in our need, who is there in your life, one of the ‘least of these,’ who might be in need this week? How might you treat them differently if you saw Jesus in them?