"Don't Feed the Goats" – Matthew 25:31-46
“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left.
Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’
Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
This text is one I don’t like, mostly because it appears so black and white, so judgmental, so dangerous if used incorrectly and carelessly.
When I read this scripture I end up feeling pulled in one of two ways:
1) If I’ve recently done something charitable and kind, this story makes me feel like a sheep; I'll think quite highly of myself and, consequently, take a high moral position over against people who don’t appear to have recently done anything charitable or kind. Sheep, after all, are at the right hand of God, blessed, inherit the kingdom, and will go away into eternal life.
2) If I feel like I have not been charitable and kind, this story makes me feel like a goat; to continue sulking in my failures and limitations, feel the oppressive weight of guilt and shame, and I begin to doubt how God could ever love someone like me. Goats, after all, are at the left hand of God, cursed, inherit the eternal fire, and will go away into eternal punishment.
There is a common temptation is to let scripture like today’s from Matthew lead us into believing that being a Christian is all about keeping score; a temptation to want to follow the model of coffee shops and gas stations with rewards programs – get a hole punched in a card or earn reward points every time we did something Jesus expects of us. That way we would know how close we are to earning our individual prize – the kingdom & eternal life. That way we would know just how bad we are, or how much better we are than others.
But we can’t give in to this temptation. Anyone who engages with these difficult stories from scripture cannot walk away until the drops of good news from the dry pages; cannot walk away until we have something better to proclaim than religious superiority or debilitating shame.
Yes, the text is clear that we are to participate in God’s mission in the world by rushing to the aid of those in need. However, rather than being guided by less-than-helpful thoughts about how many is enough to help or which ones are worthy of our help or feeling like we couldn’t possibly help; I would like to tell a story that I feel illustrates the good news of the Biblical command to help those in need. The following story, which I will read it its entirety, is taken from a collection titled, The Impossible Will Take a Little While: Perseverance and Hope in Troubled Times. It is written by Naomi Nye.
Wandering around the Albuquerque Airport Terminal, after learning my flight had been delayed four hours, I heard an announcement: “If anyone in the vicinity of Gate A-4 understands any Arabic, please come to the gate immediately.” Well— one pauses these days. Gate A-4 was my own gate. I went there.
An older woman in full traditional Palestinian embroidered dress, just like my grandma wore, was crumpled to the floor, wailing. “Help,” said the flight agent. “Talk to her. What is her problem? We told her the flight was going to be late and she did this.”
I stooped to put my arm around the woman and spoke [in halting Arabic]. The minute she heard any words she knew, however poorly used, she stopped crying. She thought the flight had been cancelled entirely. She needed to be in El Paso for major medical treatment the next day. I said, “No, we’re fine, you’ll get there, just late, who is picking you up? Let’s call him.”
We called her son, I spoke with him in English. I told him I would stay with his mother till we got on the plane. She talked to him. Then we called her other sons just for the fun of it. Then we called my dad and he and she spoke for a while in Arabic and found out of course they had ten shared friends. Then I thought just for the heck of it why not call some Palestinian poets I know and let them chat with her? This all took up two hours.
She was laughing a lot by then. Telling about her life, patting my knee, answering questions. She had pulled a sack of homemade mamool cookies— little powdered sugar crumbly mounds stuffed with dates and nuts— from her bag and was offering them to all the women at the gate. To my amazement, not a single traveler declined one. It was like a sacrament. The traveler from Argentina, the mom from California, the lovely woman from Laredo— we were all covered with the same powdered sugar. And smiling. There is no better cookie.
Then the airline broke out free apple juice and two little girls from our flight ran around serving it and they were covered with powdered sugar too. And I noticed my new best friend— by now we were holding hands— had a potted plant poking out of her bag, some medicinal thing, with green furry leaves. Such an old country traveling tradition. Always carry a plant. Always stay rooted to somewhere.
And I looked around that gate of late and weary ones and thought, This is the world I want to live in. The shared world. Not a single person in that gate— once the crying of confusion stopped— seemed apprehensive about any other person. They took the cookies. I wanted to hug all those other women too.”
Our mission to be sheep should never, must never, be about a desire to earn salvation for ourselves. Rather, our mission to be sheep must always be firmly rooted in an understanding that by nourishing the hungry and thirsty, by clothing the naked, by caring for the stranger, the sick and the imprisoned, we are being most authentically and truly human.
The world doesn’t need more sheep or goats. What it needs is more human beings, created in the image of God, honoring the image of God in those who seem to be most different, and journeying together into the rich and uncertain world of equality, justice, and eternal life.
On this day we celebrate the festival of Christ the King, proclaiming our faith in a ruler who stands neither on the right or left side of our feeble political farce, but rather stands with the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, and the imprisoned; offering peace in the midst of persecution, love as we deal with loss, and joy as we work justice.
This isn’t about keeping score; this is about giving up what we thought was important and instead choosing to live in a way creates opportunities for love and faith as we bear the image of God to those who doubt there is any grace left to be experienced.
I conclude with the wise words of Margaret Mead:
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”