Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24 – I will save my flock, and they shall no longer be ravaged; and I will judge between sheep and sheep. I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd.
Psalm 100 – Know that the LORD is God. It is he that made us, and we are his; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.
Psalm 95:1-7a – O come, let us worship and bow down, let us kneel before the LORD, our Maker! For he is our God, and we are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand.
Ephesians 1:15-23 – God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, … And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.
Matthew 25:31-46 – The parable of the Sheep and the Goats
Prayer of the Day
O God of power and might, your Son shows us the way of service, and in him we inherit the riches of your grace. Give us the wisdom to know what is right and the strength to serve the world you have made, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
Alleluia. Blessed is the one who comes in the name | of the Lord.
Blessed is the coming kingdom of our an- | cestor David. Alleluia. (Mark 11:9)
Color: White or Green
Christ the King
Christ the King is the last holy Sunday in the Western liturgical calendar. It is the newest of Christian festivals. It was instituted by Pope Pius XI in 1925, to counter the rise of secularism and the rise of secular dictatorships in Europe. Pius hoped:
- That nations would see that the Church has the right to freedom and immunity from the state
- That leaders and nations would give respect to Christ
- That the faithful would gain strength and courage from the celebration of the feast
It is also the last Sunday we will spend in the Matthean lectionary this year. The Parable of the Sheep and the Goats is the last of three parables in Matthew 25. Matthew 25 is part of the last of five great discourses or sermons in Matthew’s gospel, sometimes called the Olivet Discourse (Matthew 23-25), because Jesus delivered it from the Mount of Olives (Matthew 24:3). In my post on the November 12 text, I went into this in detail. Jesus’ first sermon (The Sermon on the Mount) is delivered from a mountain. Likewise, his last sermon in Matthew.
This Sunday’s gospel, the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats, is the last of three parables in Matthew 25:
- The Parable of the Virgins
- The Parable of the Talents
- The Parable of the Sheep and the Goats
As I mentioned last week, the three parables of Matthew 25 might roll like this…
Virgins: Be ready for Christ’s coming. Keep your lamps trimmed and burning. You don’t know when the bridegroom is coming. Be ready for the great reckoning at the end of time. What constitutes readiness?
Talents: Perhaps the joyful, risky, equitable use of one’s gifts – using what God has given us for the things that God really cares about. What does God care about?
Sheep and Goats: When I was hungry you gave me food… Whatever you do to the least of these you do to me… God cares about those who are hungry, thirsty, naked, strangers, sick and imprisoned.
A sermon on this parable can be found on my blog. This sermon explores the idea that if Christ truly rules in our lives, then what other things or people are not? Because Christ reigns, death is destroyed, and we are free from our bondage to other gods, so that we might be a servant church.
This parable begins with images of the end times. The Son of Man returns to judge the nations, as in Daniel 7:
I was watching in the night visions, “And with the clouds of the sky one like a son of man was approaching. He went up to the Ancient of Days and was escorted before him. To him was given ruling authority, honor, and sovereignty. All peoples, nations, and language groups were serving him. His authority is eternal and will not pass away. His kingdom will not be destroyed. (Daniel 7:13-14)
Every nation is judged as in Zechariah 14 (note also, the Mount of Olives is mentioned):
Then the Lord will go to battle and fight against those nations, just as he fought battles in ancient days. On that day his feet will stand on the Mount of Olives which lies to the east of Jerusalem, and the Mount of Olives will be split in half from east to west, leaving a great valley. Half the mountain will move northward and the other half southward… The Lord will then be king over all the earth. In that day the Lord will be seen as one with a single name. (Zechariah 14:3-4, 9)
You can’t miss the reference to the Mount of Olives here. Matthew knows his Hebrew prophets.
This Son of Man comes as a cosmic judge in this little apocalypse. I would quickly point out that it is nations that are being judged, not individuals. We may be too soaked in revivalist theology to hear this text in the way Matthew intends it. His is not a me-and-Jesus gospel of private salvation. One cannot escape the reality that the Son of Man is judging countries here.
Justin Eler points out in Spanish, in a Working Preacher article that The Sheep and the Goats is peculiar to Matthew, and appears to be a continuation of the previous Parable of the Talents. They share the theme of what we ought to do while waiting for the return of Christ. He also points out that this is not just the culmination of Jesus’ ministry, but of his life.
La parábola del juicio de las naciones es propia del evangelio de Mateo y aparece a continuación de la parábola de los talentos que un rico dejó a sus siervos o empleados para usar, invertir, desarrollar y cuidar a otras personas durante su ausencia.
El tema de esperar el regreso del Señor, o sea el fin de los tiempos, culmina aquí con esta parábola que resuelve las parábolas que la preceden y es la conclusión del ministerio de Jesús. Esta parábola no es solamente la culminación del ministerio docente de Jesús, sino también de su vida.
The parable of the judgment of the nations is proper to the Gospel of Matthew and follows the parable of the talents, which a rich man left his servants or employees to use, invest, develop and care for others during their absence.
The theme of waiting for the return of the Lord, or the end of time, ends here with this parable that resolves the parables that precede it and is the conclusion of the ministry of Jesus. This parable is not only the culmination of the teaching ministry of Jesus, but also his life.
How shall we spend the time waiting for Christ’s return? Keep your light shining, your lamps trimmed and burning. Use your talents, what God has given you to invest in God’s reign. Feed the hungry. Clothe the naked. Welcome the stranger. Visit those sick and in prison. As I said in a recent Reformation sermon, “Now that you know you don’t have to do anything, what are you going to do? How will you spend the days of grace God has given you under this beautiful blue sky?”
Carla Works points out in another Working Preacher article that this parable summarizes what Jesus’ ministry has been about all along:
…Christ has announced the arrival of God’s kingdom while he cures the sick (e.g., 8:28-9:8, 9:18-38; 12:9-14; 14:34-36; 15:29-31), welcomes the despised (9:9-13), and provides food for the hungry (14:13-21; 15:32-39). He orders his disciples to carry on his ministry by doing likewise (10:5-15, 40-42).
There is a clear note of judgment here. Therefore, there is also a great temptation to preach works-righteousness. It will be easy, I’m afraid, for our people to hear the examples of sheep feeding Jesus when he is hungry, welcoming Christ as a stranger, and so on, as an individual’s entrance requirements for heaven, except for one thing: those who feed, clothe, welcome and visit Jesus, don’t know they have done so. “When did we see you hungry?” They are dumbfounded. They didn’t do it to get into heaven. In fact they didn’t know.
Antiquity is filled with stories of divine visitors who come in disguise. The king comes in pauper’s rags. The king judges based on how he is treated, even as a pauper.
Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, because through it some have entertained angels without knowing it. (Hebrews 13:2)
When you help someone in need, you never know who you are helping. You might be helping an angel. In this story, Jesus suggests any time, every time we help those in need, we are helping Christ.
And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, whenever you did it for one of the least of these, you did it for me.’ (Matthew 25:40)
Any time we help those who are needy and suffering, those on the lower rungs of the socio-economic ladder, we are helping Christ. This is a mystical and yet incredibly tangible teaching. It is the culmination of Jesus’ parables of the kingdom. It is a mystical union. Christ comes to us in this holy way.
True to form, Jesus then retells the story for the benefit of the goats. I love to divide the congregation down the center aisle into sheep and goats as I retell this story. It drives home the force of the drama in Jesus’ words.
Notice those on the right don’t “go to heaven.” They “inherit the kingdom.” You may recall earlier in Matthew that the meek inherit the earth (Matthew 5:5). Whoever has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields for Jesus’ sake will “inherit eternal life” (Matthew 19:29). Jesus teaches the disciples to pray, “Thy kingdom come,” not that they might be sent there. God’s kingdom comes to us.
Those on the left are banished into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and all his angels. Note a couple of things.
First, the devil has angels in Matthew. The Son of Man has angels who will separate the good from the righteous at the end of time (Matthew 13:41, 13:49, 16:27, 24:31, 25:31). Apparently the devil has angels too. Demons are mentioned nearly a dozen times in Matthew. Why not here? This has always perplexed me. Perhaps I am making too much of it, but I can think of no other place in the New Testament where Satan has angels. We may have to dig in apocryphal literature to shed light on this. At the very least, this rings of something foreign to the synoptic tradition. This story, only in Matthew, may have been solidified in poetic form with its own language, perhaps borrowed by Matthew for his narrative.
Second, there is a fairly vivid depiction of hell in this sentence. Hell isn’t mentioned here, but it’s implied. Matthew doesn’t use the word “hell” per se, but he speaks of a fiery Gehenna, which often gets translated “hell.” The idea of hell is still under development in the first century, as Greek mythology collides freely with Hebrew mythology in the expanding Roman Empire, but we all too often superimpose Dante’s popular medieval mindset on Matthew’s Jesus. This would be a mistake. In Matthew the devil has a fiery Gehenna garbage dump that burns constantly, where evil will be tossed out and burned. In Matthew, God intends to bring the wheat into God’s granary and burn the tares up for good. The final sentence of the text is intentionally ominous: “And these will depart into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
This text reads like an apocalypse. Revelation is an apocalypse, as is Daniel. Dicken’s classic, “A Christmas Carol,” is an apocalypse. Ebeneezer Scrooge asks the Ghost of Christmas Future if these are visions of things that will be, or may be. The Ghost is, of course, silent.
The truth is, the future is unwritten. John the Revelator knew this. Matthew did too.
So, how do we preach this text with grace and faith? We preach it not in isolation, but with the texts that came before it in mind. We recall that good works are fueled by the oil of faith. We recall that it is God who gives the oil, the wedding garment, the talents and, thus, the will and capacity to do the good works mentioned in this parable. We recall that it is communion with Christ that we seek in serving those in need.
We recall that any separation of faith and works is artificial. We remember Luther’s words:
Thus it is impossible to separate works from faith, quite as impossible as to separate heat and light from fire. (LW 35:371)
We remember that both sheep and goats are surprised when their actions are pointed out. Good works are not a put on. They flow freely and unconsciously from a life of faith, from a heart in communion with God. Or not.