If you have ever visited Spencer Farm in Marion Junction, then you have noticed they have some sheep and some goats along with plenty of other farm animals. The last time I visited I noticed that the sheep and the goats were contained within the same fence. I remember this because the sheep were on the right and the goats were on the left.
Immediately, my preacher brain thought, “Jesus doesn’t have to separate the sheep from the goats. They’ve already separated themselves!” I still haven’t quite figured out the theological implications of this but the scene at Spencer Farm has caused me to ask a question about today's lesson that I might not have asked before.
Is Jesus giving the disciples an image they already understand? He has, after all, already told the parable of how the Son of Man will separate the weeds from the wheat at harvest time. There was also that parable about separating the good fish from the bad fish. So, what is Jesus telling the disciples in this parable that they don’t already know?
Like a good realtor, we need to consider: location, location, location. Translated into a literary device this means: context, context, context. Today’s lesson is the last of Jesus’ parables on judgment and comes on the heels of a parable that warns against a fear-based response to the gospel.
As Henry pointed out so well last Sunday, there are those who hear the gospel message from a posture of hope and there are those who hear the gospel from a posture of fear. If we receive the gospel from a place of fear, then we become paralyzed.
While the posture of fear might keep us out of “trouble”, fear will do nothing when we find ourselves in trouble except lead us into more trouble. It is as Bonhoeffer said, doing God’s will is less about cautiously avoiding sin and more about courageously doing God’s will. In other words, if we focus too much on trying not to be a goat, then we will never learn what it means to be a sheep.
Responding to the gospel message isn’t about a fear-based response where our lives marked by trying to avoid hell and eternal punishment. Rather, responding to the gospel message is about finding the joy of salvation in all the wrong places – at the food pantry, at the medical clinic, by welcoming the foreign refugee into your home, at the local prison.
We certainly live in fearful times where decisions are made from a place of fear instead of a place of hope. We live in a world where people walk into a church and gun down the congregation. Instead of talking about how we can reach out in love and concern to those in our society who are driven to commit such acts, we talk about having armed guards at the entrance of our church.
We live in a world where the sanctity of life and marriage are threatened at every level of society. Instead of talking about ways to rebuild our families and our communities with compassion and grace, we cast the blame on the poor, the gay, the other – the most vulnerable.
We live in a world where those who occupy positions of public trust cannot be trusted. Instead of talking about how to move beyond partisan politics and slanderous rhetoric, we root ourselves even more firmly in our partisan positions even when there is no solid ground to root ourselves in.
There is no doubt that fear is the easier and more convenient response to the sins of the world. A fear-based response solves the problem in the here and now. A response based in fear makes us feel better in the short-term. Ultimately, a fear based response leaves the next generation to clean up the mess.
And there is no doubt that a hope-based response plays the long game. A response rooted in hope is risky because hope changes a narrative of death into a narrative of life and any kind of change, no matter how positive, is scary.
A response based in hope is likely to cause pain and suffering – see Jesus on the cross. A hope-based response, however, endures in the long-run because ours is a God whose hope for us lives beyond the grave in Jesus Christ.
Today’s gospel lesson is a spiritual diagnostic tool given to the disciples before the big event – the Passion of Jesus Christ. Jesus is preparing them for this final push. The parable invites the disciples to consider whether they are a sheep or a goat.
Building on the two parables that came before, the disciples are challenged to ask, “Am I prepared should the Son of Man return today?” “Am I living a life from a place of fear or from a place of hope?”
If I answer these questions honestly, I must admit that sometimes I am a goat and sometimes I am a sheep. Sometimes I let fear get the best of me, and I bury my talents. Sometimes I grow complacent and forget to be ready for the Lord to intervene in my life at a moment’s notice.
But I am thankful that Jesus is always there to tap me on the shoulder and remind me that I don’t have to remain a goat. There is always hope. In the Jesus’ kingdom, there is always another chance to be a sheep. The hungry, the thirsty, the sick, the stranger, the incarcerated are all around me and where they are, Jesus is there too.
These parables of judgment are meant to provide us with a hope that is rooted in a relationship with Christ the King. As I grow in relationship with Christ the King, I notice that these parables of judgment are not meant to strike fear in my heart. Rather, these parables of judgment come as both a warning and an invitation. These parables always communicate – there is still hope for you yet.
We have a God who loves us enough to warn of us of what will happen when our life is lived in service to earthly kings and idols. Our God loves us enough to invite us to return to himself by seeking him in the last, lost, and lonely. And by seeking the last, lost, and lonely, we, too, discover the last, lost, and lonely parts of our ourselves that need to be sought out and made whole by a God who will stop at nothing to save us.
In this final parable on judgment, Jesus is clarifying the picture to the disciples. Our vocation to follow Jesus isn’t about faith in our own good works to save us. Our vocation to follow Jesus isn’t about playing it safe because we are paralyzed by fear.
Rather, our vocation to follow Jesus is about risking our lives for the One who stooped low to find us and save us from the mess of our sin and death. Our vocation as Christians about giving up all that we are and all that we have to Christ the King – the One who will not stop until the last of the least of these is found. Amen.