Today, the last Sunday of the church year, is traditionally called “Christ the King” Sunday. It’s the day when we remind ourselves that part of what we believe as Christians is that there will be a day when we experience the kingdom of God, the reign of God, fully realized. There will be no more strife, no more division, no more sorrow or violence, because Christ will be fully in charge. Christ will be king, in the best sense of the word—a good shepherd who takes care of God’s flock without concern for his own wealth or power. There has been a move in recent years to shift to calling this “The Reign of Christ” Sunday. Some will write it off as an attempt to be “PC” and eliminate male language. But I think it’s more than that—it pushes us to consider that it’s not about a physical, geographical kingdom that will exist at some point in the future, shutting down all other political powers. Instead, it’s about becoming more and more open to the guidance of Christ in our lives right now. Allowing Christ to rule our hearts today, not just after we die.
Today, November 26, 2017, is also the 50th anniversary of my baptism. As I reflected on this in light of these readings this week, I was reminded of that promise we make at baptism, “to seek and serve Christ in every person.” That promise is based in the parable we heard just now, the parable of the sheep and the goats.
It’s not an easy parable, especially for those of us who are absolutely convinced that there is nothing we can do to EARN God’s love and salvation. We belong to God simply because we belong to God; there’s nothing we can do about that. We struggle to reconcile this image of reward and punishment with what we know of God’s grace.
I will remind us of the context of the Gospel of Matthew—for one last time in this liturgical cycle. I can’t tell you how excited I am to be leaving it behind for a couple of years! Matthew was written in order to provide guidance to the early church, those who had come to understand and accept Jesus as the Messiah, and as a result had left behind the old religious structures that provided them some sense of identity and safety. The Gospel of Matthew is sometimes harsh because it’s trying to prod some of the wandering sheep back into the fold. It’s also trying to give some guidance about how the kingdom of Christ functions. Its values are not the same as the rest of the world. Followers of Christ are just different. They function differently, they work from different motivations.
Notice that it’s not just the goats who didn’t recognize Christ in their midst. The sheep were just as surprised. They weren’t being generous and kind and caring in hopes of earning some reward; they were generous and kind and caring because that’s just who they are. They don’t make distinctions between the people who can do something for them and “the least of these.” Everyone is treated with dignity and love, without any thought of what they will get in return. The goats, it is implied, will only act kindly to people when it’s in their own best interest to do so. It’s not part of their nature, it’s an act.
The story is not simply a morality tale, telling us to be kind and generous and caring. In fact, if we are only being kind and generous and caring with an eye to inheriting the kingdom, we actually are more like the goats than the sheep. It is instead advice about how to live while we wait.
I have heard many reflections on this passage over the years, about the differences between sheep and goats. Sheep are more compliant, they are more ‘herd-minded.’ They attach themselves to a shepherd. There are even some cynical few who say that the reason we Christians are compared to sheep is because sheep have a reputation for being stupid. Goats, we are told, are more stubborn, independent, unwilling to be led.
But there is one aspect of ancient sheep and goat herding that gets overlooked in most of what we read about this passage.
In that culture, sheep and goats would graze together during the day, separated in the evening because the goats couldn’t handle being out in the cold overnight. Sheep are more resilient and don’t need the extra care. They huddle up together and keep each other warm when it’s windy and cold. They are actually less dependent upon their shepherd. The goats are separated out in the evening so that the shepherd can take them to shelter, so that they can survive the long dark night. They just aren’t ready to be on their own yet.
This is a parable of judgment, yes. It is a parable which says that those who fully belong to the kingdom will live by kingdom values; those who are truly ruled by Christ will treat others the way Christ did. But perhaps it doesn’t follow that the goats are simply useless, selfish and deserving of scorn and contempt. Perhaps the goats are just not strong enough, yet. Perhaps, with time, they’ll learn something from the sheep, perhaps the sheep can figure out a way to surround the goats with their warmth and strength, so that even the goats can stay out in the wild and be safe. Perhaps even the goats have the potential to become part of the herd, if they learn to live the way sheep do.
I think that we have to be very careful about how we use this parable. I interpret it in much the same way I do the parable of the wheat and the weeds. We are none of us all sheep or all goat; we are a mix, some unseen-in-nature hybrid. The point is to foster the parts of ourselves that have been redeemed, have already started living kingdom values, and be patient with the parts of ourselves and others that are still pretty “goat-ish.” Allow Jesus to draw those parts of us closer to himself, where he will both protect and reshape them so they become “kingdom-fit.” We don’t always know when God is going to reach out to someone through us, we don’t always realize the ways in which we are already sharing the Good News. We can only trust that as we seek to stay close to the Shepherd King, we will grow more and more fully into citizens of the kingdom.
Finally, I think it’s important that we remember that we can’t necessarily trust our own perception of what is and is not part of God’s kingdom. The goats didn’t recognize Christ the king in their midst—but neither did the sheep. Christ doesn’t always look the way we expect Christ to look. If we are only looking for Christ in the images of triumphant kings, we’ll miss all the times when Christ is to be found in the poor, the hungry, the naked, the sick. And as you learn to see Christ not just in the faces of the powerful and holy, but in the faces of those in need, you might even begin to find Christ in the addict. Or the criminal. Or your enemy. We might see how there is a place for the goats, as well as the sheep, in the flock of Christ.