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Tell Us a Story: The Sheep and the Goats

October 8, 2006

Matthew 25:31-46

Today is one of those Sundays when we have a convergence. Not only do we want to express appreciation for our Preschool Partnership program and our preschoolers in this church, but we also want to acknowledge World Hunger Sunday. When you came into the Sanctuary this morning, you received information about the overwhelming problem of world hunger. Sometimes we wonder if we can help. We have also handed to you coin rolls. We suggest that adults take several of the quarter rolls, youth take the dime rolls, and children take the nickel rolls. Fill these rolls with coins and bring them back the last Sunday of the month as your world hunger offering. If you would rather make a gift of folding money or a check, you may use the envelope provided in your regular packet. We want to help this problem. Our message today is about the little ones, our children; but more importantly, it is about the “least of these.”

Talking about people by ascribing to them characteristics of animals is dangerous. If you tell a person he or she is “as big as an elephant,” “as hungry as a horse,” “as dumb as an ox,” or “as sly as a fox,” the individual does not consider your comparison a compliment. People do not appreciate such comparisons as “lazy as a pig,” “mean as a snake,” or “grumpy as a bear” to describe their personalities.

In today’s wonderful parable found in Matthew 25, Jesus compared his listeners to animals. When he said, “Listen, all of you are like sheep or goats, one or the other,” he immediately got their attention. People certainly understood his reference. Sheep and goats were a part of their daily lives. The Bible often refers to the people of God as sheep. We find in Psalm 100:3, “We are his people, the sheep of his pasture.” Jesus even talked about himself as a “good shepherd” and about all of us as a part of his flock (John 10:11). Sheep are dumb animals. In fact, shepherds often keep sheep and goats together because goats seem to have more sense. I have seen on the hills of Judea a shepherd, leading a mixed flock of sheep and goats. The goats were always in the lead. Following the early service, a member told me that at one point in his life, he worked in a slaughterhouse. Workers there led the sheep to slaughter by placing a goat at the front of the group.

The two flocks mingled during the daytime, but the shepherd divided them at night. Even as darkness approached, separating them was not a particularly difficult task. The sheep were usually white, and the goats black. When we talk about these animals in terms of black and white, you must understand there is no racial implication, either in the Scripture or on my part. The sheep were considered more valuable than the goats because their wool was quite a commodity. The primary uses of goats were to lead sheep and perhaps to provide milk. This separation or division of the sheep from the goats in the parable is not difficult to understand at all. There seems to be no debate about which animal goes where.

When comparing people to animals, however, drawing the line is not quite as easy. As Mason said to Dixon, “We have to draw a line somewhere.” Drawing this line that so distinctly separates those who are righteous from those who are unrighteous causes some discomfort for me, maybe for you, too. It is true that we can find some good even in the worst of us. We can find some bad even in the best of us.

Drawing the line of separation so clearly also seems to create a problem for Matthew, a tax collector. This parable of Jesus fit right in with other parables Matthew used, parables that drew a clear line of separation – wheat from tares, bad seed from good seed, foolish maidens from wise maidens. Someone has commented that Matthew’s gospel is a gospel of black and white. You either do it right, or you do it wrong. Either you are in, or you are out. Jesus’ parable draws these lines of distinction so clearly that it makes us all a little uncomfortable. When the end comes, I want to be counted among the sheep. Matthew, the most Jewish of all the gospel writers, is contending with the Jewish idea that if you have obeyed the Commandments and kept the letter of the law, you would get in heaven. Having Jewish blood gave you an edge.

In this parable, Jesus was saying, “It is not your heritage, your pedigree, or your bloodline that gets you into heaven. It is not how observant you have been in compulsively keeping the letter of the law. It is not only what you believe, but also the way you behave. It is not just the faith you express with your words; it is also the faith you act out by the way you live.” Jesus, teacher that he was, was saying, “You will have a final exam. I will not grade on the curve, so you must get it right.” His statements make us all a little uneasy.

We might ask, “Where is the grace here? Where is the mercy that we so identify with our Lord?”

I have done my share of teaching at the college level. You can be sure almost every fraternity house on campus has every exam ever given. Files contain all of the teacher’s tests and exams. Members of that fraternity look at those tests when preparing for an exam. For that reason, I change my final exam every year. I also know that good teachers do not want anyone to be surprised on the final exam. Teachers may ask students to be creative, but teachers should not surprise students with new material.

Jesus is talking about a final exam in this parable. Did you notice that everyone is surprised? Those who got it right ask, “Lord, what are you talking about? When did we do these things?” Those who got it wrong asked the same question, “When did we see you in these predicaments?”

Yesterday, following a wedding here at the church, I made hospital visits at Regional. As I was leaving the hospital about seven o’clock last night and walking across the parking lot, a man behind me called, “Do you have some money for a hungry man?”

When I turned around and looked at him, his appearance startled me. He had finely cut features with deep, dark mahogany skin and snow-white hair. When he spoke, I could see that he had very bad teeth. I could smell alcohol on his breath. It was as if the Lord were saying, “Kirk, I want to give you the exam. Before you stand in the pulpit tomorrow and talk about this parable, let’s just see how you do with this test.”

I must tell you that I did not have one dime in my pocket. I did not have one dollar bill. I did not even have my car keys at that point. I had been searching for them when he approached me. I had absolutely no money to give this man. “Can you help a homeless man who is hungry?” I looked at him and answered, “Yes, I can help.” Searching those dark eyes, I added, “Come with me.” We walked together down to the Rehabilitation Center where two security officers were. I had just left the center, so I knew they were standing at the desk. I introduced this man to the officers, and then asked them, “Would you please call City Police and see if someone can take this man to Miracle Hill Missions?” This place, a homeless shelter, receives single men and provides them with food and lodging. I then left this man with those security officers.

I do not know whether my response was right. If I had had five dollars, I might have handed it to him; but I am not even sure giving him money would have been the right response. To be honest with you, I have many mixed feelings when someone asks me for money. My first impulse is to say, “Fellow, you need to work at a lumberyard,” or “I will not give you money, but I will try to find a place where you can do a little odd job to make some money.” I have had the reaction “Don’t bother me,” but I have also had other reactions. In a way, I have a sense of admiration for a person like this because of their survival skills, because of their wily way of asking for money. I also have a heart filled with compassion. I really do want to help.

The clearly drawn lines in the parable make me uncomfortable. I want to be counted with the sheep, not the goats, when this final exam comes. The Jewish people listening to this parable would have had another dimension here. Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, required both a sheep and a goat in Jewish tradition. The sheep, the acceptable sacrifice for atonement, must be without spot or blemish. The goat took on the sins of the whole nation and was cast out into the wilderness. The expression “scapegoat” comes from this practice. Those of us who want to be acceptable as sheep and do not want the plight of goats listen and ask, “Where is the grace? Where is the mercy in this parable?”

It is a final exam to be sure. Our tendency would be to get a little checklist and say, “Let me be sure I get this right. Let me be sure I feed one hungry person. I will check that off my list. Let me check off helping a person who is thirsty or homeless. I can mark off giving someone some clothes that do not fit me anymore. Taking care of a sick person or a prisoner might be the hardest task of all, but I want to be sure that I have crossed off all the items on my checklist. When the exam comes, I will be counted among the sheep, not among the goats.”

Jesus tells the parable, not because we are at the point of taking the final exam, but because the final exam is yet to come. None of us knows exactly when that will be, but he is giving us fair warning, telling us what is going to be on the final exam. He is saying, “When you finally come to the point that you are going to be judged, evaluated, this will be on the final exam.” Jesus does not want us to be surprised. It is not a matter of having your ticket punched; it is a matter of having the right attitude about those in need. Jesus wants us to know that our attitude toward other people who need to be cared for matters to him in the final judgment.

Today’s convergence places an emphasis on our preschoolers and on world hunger. As Christian people, we have an enormous responsibility to take care of everybody. That task seems overwhelming, and we wish somebody else would take care of the problem. What matters is that we not ignore people. Nobody deserves to be ignored – not a child, not a homeless man in the parking lot at Spartanburg Regional, not a person who has multiple handicaps. The church of Christ should ignore no one. The parable tells us to concentrate on the people around us. If we pay attention, we will not lightly brush off others. When you take the time to look into their eyes, as I did yesterday, you see something amazing. You see that they are created in the image of God, no less than we are. They are our brothers and sisters. They are children of God.

I have so much appreciation for anyone who does anything for my children – a coach, a teacher, an R.A. leader, a G.A. leader, extended session workers. Nothing pleases a parent’s heart any more than that. Can you imagine how the great God of the universe feels when you do something for one of His children, when you take care of one of the children so precious to Him? He does not want anyone to be ignored.

If you take the time to look into their eyes, you can see that they are not just our brothers and sisters. When you look into their eyes, just as I looked into those dark eyes beneath snow-white hair yesterday, you can see Christ in that person. You can see that they are created in God’s image. Jesus said, “Inasmuch as you have done it unto one of the least of these, you have done it to me. The way you treat them is the way you treat me” (Matthew 25:40). Those who got it wrong, those labeled as goats, said, “Lord, if we had known it was you, we could have done it differently. We did not think that was you.” Jesus was saying, “You have to pay attention. You have to pay attention to every person. If you look carefully, you will see me. When you do this for them, it is as if you are doing it for me.”

I dreamed all night about the man who approached me yesterday. I hope he received some food. I do not know how you feel when you have this type of encounter, but experiences like this stick with me for a while. I wonder if I had the correct response. I wonder if I have done enough. That encounter was a reminder to me that God expects His people to take care of His children. He wants us to love every person in this world because He loved this world so much that He gave Jesus.

Martin of Tours was a Roman soldier. One cold night, he was entering the city and saw a man by the gate, a beggar who was so cold his lips were blue. Because he had no money, Martin removed his Roman cloak, cut it in two with his sword, and handed half of the garment to the beggar. That night, Martin dreamed that an angel was asking Christ, “Lord, where did you get that tattered Roman cloak?” Jesus answered, “My servant Martin gave it to me.” Martin is now called St. Martin in the Fields. A church named for him, right in the center of London at Trafalgar Square, has the largest ministry to the homeless population in the city.

Several years ago, our son Kris and I were at that church on a Wednesday at noon. We had communion with many of the homeless people of London. When you look into their eyes, you can see that they are brothers and sisters in Christ. If you look closely, you will see in them the living Christ. “Inasmuch as you have done it unto one of the least of these, you have done it unto me.”

Do you know this Christ? Have you accepted him as your Savior? If not, we invite you to make that decision. It is a life-changing experience. Some of you have other decisions to make. You have been coming to Morningside and know that God intends you to be a part of this church. Why delay your decision any longer? Would you come and join with us by transfer of your letter, by statement, or by profession of faith? We invite you to make your decision as we stand together and sing our hymn of invitation, “Turn Your Eyes upon Jesus.

© 2006 Kirk H. Neely


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