On King and Shepherd, Sheep and Goats

St Andrew’s Anglican Church | Indooroopilly

22 November 2020 | Proper 29 | Christ the King

Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24

Ephesians 1:15-23

Matthew 25: 31-46

On King and Shepherd, Sheep and Goats

A sermon offered by The Reverend Ann Edwards

Have you noticed there has been a lot of judgement, fire, and gnashing of teeth over the past few weeks? We’re in a section of Matthew now that immediately precedes the description of the plot against Jesus and his arrest. We’re getting ready for the climax of the text, and so it is probably not surprising that this text has less of the ambiguity and is far more direct in its message. 

We’ve had the complex parables of the bridesmaids and their preparedness, the slaves and the talents, and now a prophesy about judgement. 

I don’t blame you if you’re sitting a little stiffly after that gospel reading, but take a breath. I’m going to suggest today that this text corrects our ideas about judgement and invites us to encounter Jesus more deeply. It’s still a challenging message from Jesus, but one full of hope rather than damnation. Compared with the previous parables, this is a beginner mystery, and Jesus is speaking at his most plain.

To begin – there is no question about the main character. We are told exactly who the shepherd is.

The shepherd is the Son of Man, the King, the son of the Father God. The shepherd is the one that will act as judge of all the people of all the nations.

This King, this child of God, is not just the Shepherd of the story, but has a second and equally vital role. This King is also identified as those that are poor, lonely, imprisoned, sick, naked, or hungry. 

With the benefit of hindsight and a complete set of Gospel texts, you and I recognise that Jesus is talking about himself.

So much attention on this text has been on the judgement to come, of turning left or right for eternity. There is a fascinating study that examined 12 sermons on this text, and the dominant theme was about an individual’s faith, and encounter with suffering as being a test of that faith. But that to me misses the most obvious and startling element of this story. The judgement described is profound – because of who the judge is. The king with the glorious crown, the strong and skilled shepherd, turns and declares that every action that helped or harmed the most vulnerable in society was done to him – each proverbial sheep faced the one they either loved or loathed. Judgement is made then not according to a tick box list of good and bad acts, but according to the cries for justice and mercy in our world. To be judged is to face the one that has suffered, and to seek their grace. In hearing this story, we can now recognise that this work starts right here, and now.

The vulnerable, oppressed, and suffering are identified as the Christ. If we want to know where God is right now, Jesus has told us as plainly as is possible. And when we are the one that is suffering, we can know that Jesus is right there too, crying out for what we need – love, shelter, food and clean water, comfort, justice. 

Care, shelter, food, protection – all of these things are provided by shepherds, and goatherds. 

The metaphor of the flock carries over from the Hebrew bible. In our Hebrew Bible reading today, Ezekiel compares God to the shepherd that recognizes their own sheep even when they are intermingled with the flocks of many others. We read:

I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord GOD. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice.

Jesus takes the idea of flock further. Jesus, God’s shepherd, says sorting those who follow him from those that don’t is easier than sorting team sheep from mean sheep. It’s more like sorting sheep from goats. Jesus remembers each one of his number well, because of how they treated him when he cried out for help.

It sounds like a daunting prospect, but we’re not on our own, we are being shepherded our whole lives. That response to Jesus is a work that can and should start here, right now. 

Like the proverbial forest and trees, we can miss Christ for the focus on who are sheep and goats. Too much has been read into the sheep and goats being substantively different. In reality, these animals comingled in flocks. 

In our inward gaze and determination to reach fulfilment, self-actualization, or individual success, we can miss the King who is right in front of us. In our terror of being judged, we miss the invitation to see Christ right here. And in our constant self vigilance and criticism, we prevent ourselves from giving freely to the work we don’t know is what Jesus needs. In our constant judgement of others, we can miss the cry of Christ, vulnerable and oppressed, demanding care and justice. 

We, the body of Christ, are therefore inextricably linked to Christ in the poor, the imprisoned, the oppressed, and the hungry. Jesus is speaking plainly and is telling us that judgement comes at the hand of those we love or reject. If we love Jesus, we will love justice and mercy and will walk humbly.

If it is Christ in need of love and care, then we can respond in love with respect, in humility rather than charity. Christ says – 

Feed me.

Visit me.

Clothe me.

Take care of me.

This work is not duty, it is relational. It is intimate, quiet, and humble. We have the opportunity to see God, and should approach the work with humility. 

Jesus upends long standing ideas of judgement, and reminds us who Jesus is. Because kindness and justice can’t be a test, really, they spring from character and spirit. We can all hit the right generous note sometimes, and we will all miss it with a clang at others. There’s not just sheep and goats, really. We can awaken and change, and sometimes give up. Sometimes we are the ones offering care, and sometimes we are the ones in need. It isn’t simply a warning of a one-off hopeless event.

The multiple roles of Jesus in this text speaks to his humanity and divinity, to the mystery of the incarnation. Jesus is not just the holy king and judge, but also our shepherd. Jesus is not just the one that leads and tends, but also all that suffer. In Jesus we can encounter the divine. We are promised guidance and care. When it is our turn to suffer, Jesus will cry out for comfort and justice with us. We are invited to recognise we are poor judges of ourselves and others, and can safely be guided and comforted by the shepherd. If we make this text about our own judgement, rather than Jesus’s invitation to encounter the Divine in Jesus’s cry on behalf of the poor and vulnerable, then we have missed the point.

Jesus is in our midst, in the lonely, the ill, the bereaved, the dying, the imprisoned, the oppressed, the hungry, and the homeless. Jesus is in our midst, in the hands that help and the hearts that care. We are the body of Christ.

Recognising Jesus comes with recognizing the humanity as well as the divine spark that we share with the people we meet.  When we see each other, really see one another’s humanity and spirit, that is when we will see Jesus our Shepherd and King. 

And so, this morning, I don’t appeal to you to do good works, to reconsider your giving, or to review your idea of charity, although these are good things to do. I implore you not to test yourself, or judge yourself or others harshly. Instead, let’s accept Christ’s invitation go deeper. Where are the sick, the vulnerable, the hungry, and the lonely? Where is the divine spark of Jesus in our midst? Whether we can recognise Jesus in those moments doesn’t really matter, because Jesus tells us that he will always remember us.

In the name of Christ, whose reign is one of mercy and justice. Amen.

1 thought on “On King and Shepherd, Sheep and Goats”

  1. Wow !! Thanks Ann for this gem of a sermon that reframes a difficult text in such a life-giving way. I feel sure that Jesus’ original audience would have not felt as “judged” as most have done by reading Matthew’s written version.

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