Sermon preached by Robert Berra, Seminarian
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Last Sunday after Pentecost: Christ the King – November 20, 2011
The Parable of the Sheep and the Goats (Mt 25:31-46) is my favorite passage in all of scripture. There are 3 reasons this is my favorite passage. The first reason is that the parable points to my social ethic in a nutshell; a vision of what the church should be to the world. The second reason is that it speaks to the side of me that strives for perfection–which I know is an unattainable ideal–but it is an ideal I respond to nonetheless. The third reason this is my favorite parable—and it took me a while to realize this—is that what seems so clear in Matthew because of his matter-of-fact presentation (Goat/sheep, left/right, righteous/unrighteous, etc.) is actually not clear at all. There is something new to see every time we come to the sacred texts of our tradition, particularly in the hard sayings. I have come back to this text repeatedly over the years and I have seen something new every time.
So, this is my favorite passage in all of scripture, even though it has this incredibly scary side to it—this specter of everlasting fire and judgment.
It is easy to read this passage and miss the Gospel. There is Good News, but Matthew means to jolt us which may mean spiritual whiplash as he confronts us with judgment. But he does not leave us there. Matthew does not condemn us.
If you were to search for a phrase that defines the essence of the Gospel of Matthew, the phrase “righteous perfection” would do the trick. In Matthew 5:48, Jesus says “Be perfect, as your Father in Heaven is perfect.” God is not only perfect, God is considered righteous. And we see in our Gospel passage that “righteous” and “unrighteous” are words used to distinguish the sheep from the goats.
Righteousness, now there is a heavy term. It brings up some pretty ugly rhetoric in the world today. Now, I came from a religious background in which going to Heaven or Hell depended on the way one thought. To stray from what the group thought and taught meant one’s salvation, one’s righteousness, could be called into question. Righteousness was best defined as the avoidance of sin. Well, okay, but that isn’t all. I left that world because I couldn’t keep thinking in the ways I grew up thinking. In fact, I left Christianity. But eventually I came back, and when I did, I started looking for what salvation and righteousness meant to me.
It was this passage which spoke to me. It looked like it was a clear teaching that seemed to be the needed expansion to the theology in which I was raised, and it confirmed my growing sense of what it meant to be faithful. I came to think that what we believe means nothing if it means we do nothing for those less fortunate than ourselves. It turns out that in this passage (and in the prophets), that is what righteousness means. Righteousness means to live the imperative of the 2nd commandment, to love our neighbors as we love ourselves,
Matthew means to jolt us into this righteousness— into actions that confirm the best of our faith.
At that point I thought I had it figured out. I thought I could tell the sheep from the goats. I thought I knew I was a sheep…
But then I thought maybe I was a goat. Do I do enough? Am I righteous enough? Why doesn’t Matthew provide a better checklist, a number of people I’m supposed to feed, clothe, or care for? That way I can do my part and know when I’m done?
Matthew means to jolt us into righteousness…But not give us a false certainty about ourselves.
I returned to this passage again and I realized that in the passage, neither the sheep, nor the goats, knew how they ended up where they did. A sense of dread came over me. I thought I had traded an impossible faith—believing things that I could not in good conscience believe—for an ethical ideal too far to reach. There was no certainty that I would ever do enough. The upside to this revelation was that I realized that if I could never do enough, how could I judge others? The freedom from judging others became a relief. I am not God. I’m responsible for myself. I can only search my own heart.
Matthew means to jolt us into righteousness… and take away the ability to claim we know others’ hearts so well.
I returned to the text yet again and noticed that the righteous were not feeding, clothing, and visiting out of fear of Hell. They did it because of who they were. They did it because it was right. It’s as though Matthew and Jesus knew modern theories of moral development. This is also spiritual development. It is a mark of moral and spiritual maturity to do what is right because it is right, not because we are afraid of punishment or looking for a reward. And it’s an ongoing process that we participate in. There’s freedom and relief in knowing that.
Jesus calls us to follow God, to be lured to God…with love…not with flinching fear.
Matthew means to jolt us into righteousness… and show us that true righteousness is not the fear of Hell, or the fear of God, or thought of reward, but to do what is right for right’s own sake, which is to love our neighbor as we love God.
The thing that always caught my eye about this passage—even as I was slow to notice these other things– was the phrase “that which you did for the least of these, you did to me.” Today is “Christ the King” Sunday, and we have an opportunity to reflect on where we find God in Christ in our own life. In the Gospel passage, we recognize the King, who tells us that He has actually been with us the whole time. Christ the king is present in those on the margins, among His people. The righteous and the unrighteous do not see Christ in the story. Yet Matthew records that Jesus is telling us where to find him.
Matthew means to jolt us into righteousness by telling us who it is we also see in the faces of the marginalized.
Christ is present in the least of these who we see before us. How radical is that? That behind the eyes of all who stand before us, we can catch glimpses of the Divine. Matthew, when he wrote about the birth of Jesus, points out that the name Immanuel—which applies to Jesus— means ‘God is with us.’
God is with us…and we see that image of God…the image that God created…the image shared by Christ when he walked the earth as God incarnate…the image which the Holy Spirit enlivens daily… that spark of the divine…that image of God… present in those who stand or sit before us hungry, thirsty, ill-clothed, sick, imprisoned.
Matthew means to jolt us into righteousness by telling us that Christ is still here.
Perhaps something more can be said about the righteous and the unrighteous… Something more than the righteous do merciful things and the unrighteous do not. My guess is that the righteous find blessing in this life on earth from their experience with others. They experience a sense of holiness that comes from conversation with others, from sharing a meal with others, and from trading stories with others. In doing so the righteous follow the example of Christ who came to serve…not to be served, and who identified with the type of people polite company did not want to keep around.
In the gospel passage, the righteous built relationships. They invited people in spoke to them in visits broke bread and drank wine together. The unrighteous, who may have done these things if they knew Jesus would show up, did not bother with relationships. They did not bother with people in need. Sure, the unrighteous may not have meant anything bad or malicious by the marginalized. They just did not bother at all. Matthew is telling us that apathy is not righteous, and in ignoring those on the margins, the unrighteous missed seeing God.
Matthew means to jolt us into righteousness by entering into relationships that matter…relationships that express both love of neighbor and love of God by bringing us together.
It is easy to miss the Gospel in this passage because Matthew means to jolt us into righteousness. But he does not leave us in fear. We are not condemned. Matthew points out to us that our faith is best expressed in works of mercy that matter in this life…that it is a matter of turning one’s heart—which no one else can see and judge—to the point where doing what is right becomes second nature. The trick is to learn to see God, by loving God and our neighbor. The refusal of this love is our choice, and is a refusal of relationships that matter.
We are not in this alone. God does not leave us to our own devices only to pull the rug from under us. God is present in us and with us (as in the Holy Eucharist) to help us see the sparks of the divine we may otherwise miss. We are all God’s own. And God loves us. Let us love God back, and let us love our neighbor too.