This story is Jesus’ last parable in the book of Matthew. What is a parable? I know some of you are rolling your eyes right now because of the amount of times someone has tried to explain what a parable is to you. Well I’m going to challenge that traditional definition. That definition states that a parable is a story Jesus told to teach a lesson. Yes, that is what a parable is, but it is so much more than that, too. A parable is something that Jesus used to flip the audience’s viewpoint of the world on its head to make those listening really think about what He was saying. Let’s dive further into this parable about the sheep and goats to figure out what Jesus is trying to tell us here, today. First, we need to decipher the differences of goats and sheep. Then we will shift our focus onto the sheep and their behavior in relation to the triune God, commonly referred to as a shepherd. After that we will then use our knowledge to reanalyze this parable and it’s implications for us as a church. We are all goats and sheep because we are beautiful and flawed creatures of God, but we are also called to show true compassion through agape love to all of creation; no ifs, ands, or buts about it. What does it mean to be a sheep and a goat, though?
Who here can name five differences between sheep and goats right now? Show of hands. Ok, some of you I don’t think are telling the entire truth out there. But for those of you who did raise your hands, congratulations. But for those of you who didn’t, you are not alone. I, myself, had to do some research on the internet to truly learn the differences. This is what I found.
- Sheep are grazers, and goats are browsers, meaning that sheep eat low to the ground and are not picky eaters versus goats who eat things higher off of the ground. As a result, sheep are more immune to infections, because they are exposed to more bacteria on the ground than that of goats.
- Goats are more independent, or one might say, selfish, domineering and higher maintenance, whereas sheep are all about living within a community.
Which one of these do you think you are? For myself, I think I am both a sheep and a goat at times. Especially, on my bad days, I can be a real goat. I can be as stubborn as they come if I want to be, which happens way more than it should because I hate being wrong about anything. It is my biggest flaw, and that’s because the desire to be right comes from striving to be independent in an unhealthy way.
However, I think it is important and can be healthy to strive for independence in some form or fashion in your life, if done right. Think about it, if people in our collective pasts did not stand up for civil, gay, or women’s rights, where would we be? I’ll tell you. We would be in a very oppressed society with little to no freedom for anything. Independence also has a negative side to it, as well. Therefore, one rule that I try to live by as best as I can is everything in moderation. It can apply to everything, particularly, in this case. I think we are called to be independent at times but I also feel like we are called to live in community with one another, in addition. The key to this is finding a balance. That can translate differently for everyone though, and I don’t have the authority nor do I wish to have said authority on deciding which is the right or wrong way to do this. I do, however, know that Jesus is our shepherd, and He would leave the ninety-nine just to find the one who is lost, and we are all lost at some point in our life. Which is comforting to know when we are taking a risk such as independence, especially, independence within a flock of our siblings in Christ.
In Ezekiel we find today’s Old Testament passage that is also talking about a flock. Here God is our shepherd and we are their flock. I love the verbs attributed to God that are used in this passage:
- Secure, and
- strengthen, just to name a few.
These are verbs of God’s compassion and love that they have for their flock. This verse, however, ends much like our parable does with the damning of those within the flock who are self-righteous and selfish. These two passages end like this because of God’s justice.
Justice here in Matthew’s gospel comes from the greek word that we have translated into English as righteousness, and this righteousness is a combination of justice and mercy. So, what is justice and what is mercy? What do these words really mean? We throw those words around all the time but have you ever stopped and truly pondered what they truly mean? Well, I went back to the ever-reliable internet to look up their definitions, because, well, I am a millennial. Justice is defined as just behavior or treatment. Well, what does the word just mean here? Just is based on or behaving according to what is morally right and fair. Mercy is defined as: compassion or forgiveness shown toward someone whom it is within one’s power to punish or harm. Ok, is it just me or do those two definitions contradict each other? Justice in our modern civil context is mostly used negatively because of one’s actions leading to their own punishment; whereas, mercy, as defined above, is compassion or forgiveness of said act and therefore no punishment. So, what does all of that mean, for us? Well let’s go back to our parable for today. Jesus’ main focus in this is what we would classify today as missions.
In Matthew, Jesus is very specific about what kind of mission work we should be doing. It’s a type of mission work that is better conveyed through merciful justice. This kind of justice is seen in today’s parable when Jesus states that we need to feed, give drink, welcome, clothe, take care, and visit everyone: the veteran, the criminal, the lonely, the unstable, the sick. Because Jesus lives in each of us, even people that are unwelcome in some spaces. We do this through compassion and love. An example of this type of mission work is something a friend of mine likes to call flocking. Flocking something the youth at First Presbyterian do to show their love for the other church members. They do this by putting plastic flamingos in the members’ yards with joyful anniversary or birthday wishes on a sign, and they do all of this as a surprise. A mission of love, because that is true compassion that has not been corrupted by selfishness.
True compassion is determined by one’s motivation. Motivation that comes from a place where you are doing an act of kindness for the right reasons, and not because you believe that you are going to get something out of it for yourself. I believe you do this through love in its various forms. In greek there are four words for love: agape, philia, eros, and storge, and they all play a part for these sheep who are true in their compassion. For our purposes we are going to focus on agape love here. Agape, love is that unconditional Godly love, or according to Thomas Aquinas, in the thirteenth century, agape is “to will the good of another”. To be someone that possesses true compassion is to be someone who has tapped into this agape love by way of the Holy Spirit. Therefore, if you are truly acting from this place of agape love when showing compassion to “the least of these” then you are doing it right. However, it is very easy to fall victim to corrupt compassion. A compassion motivated by selfish means.
Corrupt compassion is where “good works” come into play. I’m sure all of you have heard that “good works” don’t get you into heaven. Well this is true, and here is why. If you are doing good works solely to be able to check a box that says you have done it then you have missed the point of this parable. What Jesus is saying here is that if you do something just because you think you will be rewarded for it in the end then you are not doing it for the right reasons; therefore, that “righteous” act is null and void. For example: doing the dishes. Whomever in your household is the one that typically washes the dishes does not want to have to ask someone else to do them. They want you to do them because you love them and want to help, or at least this is what my mom always told me growing up. It’s the same kind of thing here, the triune God doesn’t want to have to tell you to be nice to people. They want you to do it because you want to do it out of love for neighbor and for God.
In this parable the sheep are the ones who acted out of true compassion and the goats acted out of corrupt compassion. Living in our modern society is a lot more complicated than that though. We all possess many qualities of both the sheep and the goats. We are both. Which is why we must never stop working towards brighter and better future where mercy is just and justice is merciful for all of us in the flock. Because we are called to be the flock, for and with the people. We are called to seek mercy through justice. We are called to act out of true compassion and love. We are called to be the flock of Christ. So, let’s get to grazing. Amen.