Episcopal Diocese of Virginia
The Episcopal Church »  |  The Diocese of Virginia

Feast of Christ the King, November 23, 2014

When we were children, we received all kinds of warnings. When we were goofing off, our parents would say, “You will not get good grades and make it into college if you do not study”. Or, “If you do not go out and play, I will turn off the television and you will not get to watch for three days”. Or “If you do not eat your vegetables, you will not grow strong and healthy”. Or the old favorite, “If you keep making that funny expression, your face will get stuck like that”.

As we grew, there were other kinds of warnings: “Don’t drink and drive or you may end up dead in an accident”; “Do what they tell you at work or you will get fired”; or “if you don’t save your money, you will end up not having anything to live on and you’re not living here”; or even the birds and the bees talk, ending with the risks of getting pregnant or making someone pregnant.

All these warnings and many others were efforts to get us to behave well, so that we could have the best possible futures in our parents’ eyes. Obviously, bad things happened to good people, but we should certainly try to control the things we could control. They were threats of bad things as well as promises of good things to come if we followed their directions.

Jesus is issuing another warning in today’s gospel about who gets in and who is left out of the kingdom of heaven. He is getting ready to begin his passion and it is urgent for him that the people he will leave behind know how to behave between the death and resurrection event and his coming again in glory. In the first three parables, the protagonist is away for a long time and then returns to judge the people. This parable portrays him as already here. He is at once the Son of Man, who suffered and was crucified, the King of kings and Lord of Lords who has come in his glory with all his angels, the shepherd who takes care of his flock and the judge, who decides who inherits the kingdom and who does not.

There is uncertainty about who Jesus is judging in this parable. He is talking to his disciples, so is he only judging future Christians? Matthew’s word in Greek actually means the nations, so is he judging the Gentile nations on how they are treating the “least of these”, which is Jesus’ way of referring to his disciples? In other words, are the Gentiles, who are being exhorted to join a new faith community responding not necessarily by conversion but by their willingness to be hospitable to these missionaries, whom we have seen as going out taking very little and expecting the hospitality of strangers. This meaning would leave the Jews and Christians out of this judgment. The gospels say the Lord will not return until the gospel is preached to all nations, so is it assumed that all the nations have been converted? Or is he in fact judging all the nations and saying that those of all faiths who act out of love will inherit the kingdom of heaven. There are problems with each of these readings, but the interpretations are worth thinking about in terms of our theology about judgment. They key, though, is not who Jesus is talking about, but what he is talking about and that is love.

Jesus is not talking about loving our families and friends – that is assumed (though not always the reality). He is talking about loving those who are outcast and on the fringes of society – the poor who are hungry and thirsty and lack clothing; the stranger, the sick and the prisoner. All of these people who were victims of social or natural ills whom the Pharisees did not hang out with and Jesus did. He set the example that he wanted us to emulate. He gave us the commandment to love God and our neighbor and told the story of the Good Samaritan to point out who our neighbors were.

Jesus portrays himself as a shepherd dividing the herd. In Jesus’ day, shepherds often kept mixed flocks of sheep and goats. At night they were separated, because the goats needed to be inside and the sheep could stay outside. Sheep were considered more valuable because not only could you have meat from them, they could also be sheared and their fleeces used for making cloth. Thus it is that the sheep end up on the right hand, which was considered more favorable, and the goats end up on the left hand.

The big surprise of this story is that neither the sheep nor the goats knew they are sheep or goats. The sheep had no idea when they were feeding and clothing and welcoming and visiting that they were doing it to Christ. The goats had no idea that when they were not doing these things they were ignoring Christ. They were thinking about Christ as someone in heaven, present in the Holy Spirit, but not accessible here on earth and discovered that Christ is present in those who suffer in body, mind and spirit.

This parable brings up the question of salvation by works, instead of by grace through faith as the Bible tells us. It is clear that Jesus is separating based not on faith, but on what people do. Yet, Jesus’ saving grace does require grateful response in following the commandments. Proper response is not an assent in the head followed by right religious observance; it is a passion of the heart. The sheep are people who love freely and generously. Day by day as they remain open to God’s action in their lives, they experience God’s salvation in this life, the transformation of their perceptions and actions into ones that more and more mirror the actions of Christ. They are good trees who can’t help but bear good fruit (Greg Carey). The goats may not have been actively mean and nasty to the least and the last, but they have not helped them either. The sheep helped without knowing it was Christ, and the goats would have helped, they say, if they had known it was Christ whom they were serving. The goats are people who know they have been saved, but have forgotten they are to respond in love to their neighbors – all their neighbors. They are self-centered. If they knew they had encountered Christ, they would be serving him to get brownie points to enter the kingdom of heaven, not out of pure love that flows from transformation (Joseph M Freeman). For some reason, the goats were not as available to Christ’s transforming power.

The good news of this story is that it is a warning and not yet a reality. There is still time for goats to become sheep. And there is also good news in that the tasks are not hard; anyone can do them. But we must make no mistake – what we do in this life matters and it matters eternally. We have all been saved by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, even those, some would say, who do not yet follow him. But there is more to salvation than the ritual of baptism and the gathering for worship. There is action on behalf of Christ and for Christ.

In our day and age, when the state and others in addition to the church are involved in social welfare, we have another response than individual acts of charity, which are still important. We have a responsibility to speak the truth to power, to lobby for the eradication of poverty and homelessness and unfair jail sentences as social evils in the world that marginalize people from generation to generation (Daniel J. Ott). We have a responsibility to be welcoming to those who are different than we are that are in our midst as our population becomes more multicultural.  

Christ the King will come and Christ the King will choose those who will enter the kingdom of heaven. What opens the gates to the kingdom is not waiting for his appearing, but seeing his appearing now in the least of these. May our hearts be so open to the transforming power of Christ’s love that our compassion may grow ever deeper and we may serve the least in grateful thanksgiving for our salvation.

AMEN.

     - Rev Ann Barker 

Works Cited:
Greg Carey, Working Preacher, Commentary on Matthew 25:31-46, blog post
Joseph M. Freeman, Where Gratitude Abounds: Gospel Sermons for Sundays after Pentecost (Last Third), Sermon Suite blog post
Daniel J. Ott, Feasting on the Gospels, Theological Perspective, Matthew vol. 2, Chapters 14-28 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013), p. 270