Jesus’ parable (is it even a parable?) of the sheep and the goats is one of the most profound and beloved stories in all of Scripture. And yet, it is so familiar that it runs the risk of becoming cliché. What could a preacher or teacher possibly say that could add insight, wisdom or relevance to the story of the sheep and the goats?
Clearly, it’s a story about ethics. Social Justice 101. On Judgment Day, Christ does not care about our belief systems, our personal devotional practices or our myriad of good intentions. At the last, what concerns our Lord and Savior is how we treat one another, particularly the most vulnerable among us.
It’s also a story about Christology, who Jesus is and where he is present in the world. Jesus identifies himself with “the least of these my siblings” (v. 40). Word to the wise: We are more likely to encounter our risen Lord among paupers than princes.
Both of those are good interpretations with plenty of fodder for a sermon or lesson. But here’s what caught my eye this readthrough: Matthew presents this text as a story about salvation.
At the end of the story, the sheep enter eternal life and the goats eternal punishment. Somehow, this story about where Christ is present and how we are to live has lasting implications for how everything ends.
Does our salvation – our well-being, our wholeness – depend on connection rather than boundaries?
In recent years, I have become a bit of a devotee of professor, author and podcaster Kate Bowler. In “Understanding Today’s Teenagers,” an episode of her “Everything Happens” podcast released in September, Bowler interviews psychologist Lisa Damour about parenting teenagers in a time when mental health and emotional well-being are increasingly difficult for teenagers and parents alike to sustain and navigate.
About halfway through the interview, their conversation touches on the popular truism that self-care is the first line of defense against mental distress. Damour’s response to this idea is at once both self-evident and groundbreaking:
Damour: “Self-care … is very focused on the self. If we want to feel better, often that’s actually about thinking about what other people need and caring for others … making oneself of use. Not to some torturous extreme, not martyrdom. But there is a real limit on how much self-care can help us…”
Bowler: “…So often we [focus] on boundaries around ourselves … But you say actually it’s being attuned with other people?”
Could that be true? Does our salvation – our well-being, our wholeness – depend on connection rather than boundaries? On allowing ourselves to be more permeable? Could it be that our existential angst and state-of-the-world distress have answers as simple as: Feed hungry people. Clothe naked people. Visit people who are sick and in prison. Welcome strangers and people who feel “unwelcome-able.”
“Seek ye first the kingdom of God” (Matthew 6:33). Everything else will fall into place.
What’s more, we hear this text on Reign of Christ Sunday. This is not a day when we stop at personal salvation; this is the day that we proclaim the deliverance and restoration of the whole world! Is it really possible that cosmic redemption depends on simple acts of connection and vulnerability?
Is it really possible that cosmic redemption depends on simple acts of connection and vulnerability?
That does seem to be what Jesus is saying. At the end of time, when everything has changed from glory into glory, when all eternity has been reduced to darkness and light, the only thing that will matter is whether or not we fed the hungry.
Maybe this is why twelve-step meetings are always peppered with talk of service. The only way to achieve recovery from our addiction, compulsion and co-dependence is to take the recovery we have found and give it away.
Maybe this is why many people opt to spend holidays like Thanksgiving or Christmas serving at the soup kitchen or homeless shelter instead of navigating extended family dinners characterized by strained politeness and/or fraught with political and emotional landmines. We recognize the truth that salvation lies outside ourselves, and often even outside our closest kin.
Surely we are amiss if we only serve and tend to people in need because it makes us feel better. Jesus calls us to feed hungry people simply because people are hungry. Yet we are dishonest with ourselves if we dismiss the fact that showing up for our neighbors nourishes our own souls as well.
Perhaps that has been the point all along. It would be just like our God – the Sovereign Lord of all Creation who shows up among us as a vulnerable human baby – to link the salvation of our souls and the redemption of the entire cosmos to our simple, daily efforts to care for one another.
In the difficult seasons of the world and our lives, we are called to feed hungry people. For in doing so, we will all taste grace.
Questions for reflection:
- How familiar are you with the parable of the sheep and the goats? Do you remember the first time you heard this story? Does anything new stand out to you when you read it today?
- When was the last time you put your own needs on hold to tend to the needs of a stranger? What happened? How did you feel? Where did you see Christ in that encounter?
- How might your community disrupt its usual Advent and Christmas routine this year and show up in a new way for your most vulnerable neighbors?
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