When my kids were little, one of the Sunday school songs they often sang was about being a sheep. It went:
I just want to be a sheep, baa, baa, baa, baa.I just want to be a sheep, baa, baa, baa, baa.
And I pray the Lord my soul to keep.
I just want to be a sheep, baa, baa, baa, baa.
And when the kids sang the “baa’s” they would make sheep ears by putting their hands on the sides of their heads and flapping them in time with the “baas”. I used to drive a school bus for our church’s school, and once all the kids on the bus – all 25 of them from kindergarten to grade 8 – started singing. I looked in the mirror and saw 25 pairs of hands going “baa, baa, baa, baa.”
I just want to be a sheep…
The scene of final judgment in Matthew 25 is often called the parable of the sheep and the goats. Now, it’s not really a parable. This is not an “it’s as if…” story or “the kingdom of heaven is like…” story. Jesus is giving the disciples a picture of what it will look like when he comes again in his glory.
In the picture Jesus paints, it’s much better to be considered a sheep than a goat.
In this picture, we all want to be sheep.
No one wants to be a goat.
31 "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. 32 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, 33 and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left.
Jesus talks a lot about his sheep. His sheep know his voice. He knows his sheep by name. He cares for his sheep. He seeks for the lost sheep. He lays down his life for his sheep. In the Old Testament, God is often pictured as a shepherd. In today’s reading, the shepherding God seeks out the lost sheep, feeds and waters the hungry and thirsty sheep, heals the injured sheep, comforts the weary troubled sheep.
Sheep know the shepherd’s voice and they follow. They do what the shepherd leads them to do. They are sheep – it’s their nature. It’s what they do.
Goats are more independent, more resourceful. But they also can be destructive and aggressive. They don’t respect boundaries and don’t let little things like fences get in the way of what they want. They are goats – they are restless and insatiable. They do things their own way.
So who are we in this story? Are we the sheep? Or do we squirm a bit when this passage is read – are we afraid we might just be goats?
34 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; 35 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, 36 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.'
The heart of God provides for the poor and the outcast, the sick and discouraged. Jesus’ ministry here on earth was to exactly the people in this passage – those in need. His ministry was based on the heart of God, the compassion God has for the disadvantaged and outcast. And when Jesus comes again, he will call his sheep to himself - those who have the heart of God – those who out of that heart care for the needy among them.
Notice that the sheep were separated from the goats even before they were called blessed and before they were judged. The king knew the sheep from the goats. There weren’t good sheep and bad sheep, there were sheep and goats. The sheep did what they did because they were sheep. The sheep’s actions revealed their identity as sheep. This is important. They are blessed and rewarded not because of anything extraordinary – they are rewarded because they are sheep. The Shepherd knows them and claims them as his own.
37 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? 38 And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39 And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?' 40 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.'
The sheep are surprised. They don’t remember doing anything out of the ordinary. They weren’t going around looking for the face of Jesus in others. It didn’t even occur to them that they should be looking. They were sheep, and as such, just did what sheep do: follow their shepherd.
The Good Shepherd King provides food and drink, clothing, healing, comfort – all the things his sheep need to survive and thrive. And his sheep naturally lead others to the Shepherd, by sharing what they have received from the hand of the Shepherd with those around them. They don’t do it because it earns them favor with the Shepherd, but because they are responding to the Shepherd’s love. Sheep follow the Good Shepherd’s lead. The sheep know the heart of the Good Shepherd – they have compassion on the least of these, whom Jesus calls brother and sister, child of God.
Things don’t go so well for the goats:
41 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; 42 for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 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.' 44 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?' 45 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.'
The goats are surprised too. They don’t’ expected to be found lacking. Maybe they just couldn’t hear the voice of the Shepherd. Maybe they were looking for the face of Jesus and just couldn't see the image of God in those around them. Maybe they were so busy being goats that they forgot to follow the Shepherd.
What ever happened, the goats thought that they were doing ok. But they were concerned with themselves, not the suffering around them. They did not know the heart of the Shepherd, nor did they see the Shepherd in those around them.
So who are we in the story – are we the sheep or are we the goats?
I have good news – despite that subtle nagging feeling that you might really deep down inside be a goat, in spite of those days you feel more than a little goat-like – you are a sheep.
You are a sheep – The Shepherd has washed you in the waters of baptism. The Shepherd feeds you from his own body in the bread and the wine. The Shepherd seeks you when you are lost, gathers you in this sheepfold to provide comfort and nurture and healing. You are a sheep.
You are a sheep – you follow the lead of your Shepherd. As you follow, you learn to love those the Shepherd loves. You learn take care of those the Shepherd cares for. You learn to give yourself to others because the Good Shepherd gave himself for you.
You are a sheep – you do these things not because you need to earn the Shepherd’s love but because you respond to God’s presence in your life and you see God’s grace around you.
You are a sheep. Go and follow the voice of your Shepherd.