Sermon, November 23, 2014

Fr. Larry Ort
St. Paul’s – Brookings

As noted earlier, Matthew 25 sets forth three eschatological parables. Two weeks ago we looked at the parable of the wise and foolish bridesmaids; we noted how we are to live the spiritual life in readiness for Christ’s return. Last Sunday we considered the parable of the talents; we noted that this parable does not really apply to the use of our talents, but rather points to the fact that while we await Christ’s coming we are to boldly proclaim the Gospel and promote the kingdom of God. In today’s parable Jesus tells us that when the Son of Man comes in his glory with all the angels, he will separate the peoples as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.

Today is Christ the King Sunday. But this king, as the lectionary readings note, is unlike other kings. The imagery of the king as a shepherd is not so different, for Near Eastern rulers often thought and spoke of themselves as shepherds. But as Ezekiel notes, this shepherd of Israel is unlike the other shepherds of Israel. Ezekiel says, “The word of the Lord came to me: Mortal, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel…Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep?” (Eze.34.1-2; NRSV)

Now, take notice of the things these shepherds have done: “You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep” (Eze. 34.3; NRSV). And take notice of the things they have left undone: “You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost” (Eze. 34.4; NRSV). There was no prayer of confession, “Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you…by what we have done and by what we have left undone” (BCP, p. 352). According to Ezekiel, the people were ruled “with force and harshness;” “they were scattered, because there was no shepherd” (Eze. 34.1-5a; NRSV).

Ezekiel is prophesying in Babylon; he is one of the scattered carried off into exile. And what does God promise through Ezekiel? “I myself will search for my sheep…I will seek out my sheep…I will rescue them from all the places they have been scattered…I will bring them into their own land; and I will feed them on the mountains of Israel…feed them with good pasture…I will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down. I will seek out the lost…bring back the strayed…bind up the injured…strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice” (Eze. 34.11-16; NRSV).

These are not the actions of your typical king who sits on his throne, is attended by servants, and multiplies his kingdom. No, this king doesn’t wait for his subjects to bow before his throne; this king seeks them out, finds them, and leads them to rest in lush, green pastures and drink cool waters from living streams. This is the picture of the 23rd Psalm and Psalm 100 – the Jubilate Deo! “Be joyful in the Lord…serve the Lord with gladness and come before his presence with a song. Know this: the Lord himself is God…we are his people and the sheep of his pasture” (Vs. 1-2; NRSV).

Each week brings its own special set of trials. It may be an adverse diagnosis, the need for surgery, the death of a loved one, misunderstandings, the loss of a friendship, a debilitating illness, marital strife, a cutback in hours, or loss of a job. Like the sheep, we become scattered – either physically or mentally. But let us never forget – there is cause for rejoicing! Jubilate Deo! Our God, Christ the King, the Good Shepherd, seeks us out and rescues us. He makes us lie down in green pastures and we are restored, healed, bound up, and strengthened. This may not happen overnight, but we are ultimately rescued. As the Psalmist says: “Sing praises to the Lord, O you his faithful ones, and give thanks to his holy name. For his anger is but for a moment; his favor is for a lifetime. Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning” (Psalm 30.4-5; NRSV).

In the passage from Ezekiel, God further promises to set his servant David as a shepherd over the people. From the earliest days of the Church, this passage has been interpreted as referring to Jesus. In the letter to the Ephesians, St. Paul tells us of the fulfillment of this prophecy. Paul prays that the members of the church of Ephesus would receive God’s “spirit of wisdom and revelation” such that their hearts would be enlightened. This enlightenment pertains to three things: 1) the hope to which they have been called; 2) the riches of God’s glorious inheritance among the saints; and 3) the immeasurable greatness of God’s power. This power is seen in the resurrection of Christ and in Christ’s enthronement at the right hand of God. As such, Christ the King, says St. Paul, is “far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. And he has put all things under his feet and has made him head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all” (Eph. 1.20-22; NRSV).

In the last of Jesus’ eschatological parables of Matthew 25, Christ the King comes in his glory with his angels and sits on his throne. All the nations are gathered before Christ the King and are separated as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.

This parable reflects a common practice — sheep and goats were commonly pastured together, but on cold nights, the goats needed more shelter than those fleecy white, warm bundles of wool, so the goats were separated from the sheep and herded to shelter.

When separated, the sheep are at the king’s right hand; the goats at the left. The king then says to the sheep, “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” (Mat. 25.34-37; NRSV). The righteous then ask when they have done these things, and the king replies, “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” (Mat. 25.40; NRSV). Conversely, the unrighteous, the goats are told to depart to the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels, for they failed to give him food and drink, to welcome him, to clothe him, to take care of him or to visit him in prison. They asked when they failed to do these things, and the king answers, “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” (Mat. 25.45; NRSV).

John Pilch, a biblical scholar, observes that sheep and goats were among the earliest domesticated animals, they are plentiful in the Middle East, and the Hebrew language contains many words which make distinctions among sheep on the basis of sex and age. Sheep also suffer in silence, a trait which is deemed the mark of a man. Consequently, “sheep came to symbolize honor, virility, and strength.” In contrast, goats are known for their lasciviousness; they will not protect their females as will a ram. As Pilch observes, “a man whose wife was ravished by another man was (and in the Middle East still is) considered like a goat. Goats symbolize shame and shameful behavior.” In ancient Greece, rams were associated with Zeus, Apollo, and Poseidon while goats were associated with Pan, Bacchus, and Aphrodite. Goats were also associated with women as women herd and milk the goats. The goat also symbolizes the devil. (John Pilch: Hence, sheep represent the righteous; goats the unrighteous.

In the parable, what really distinguishes the sheep from the goats? Hospitality! Pilch further comments that in the Middle East, hospitality is almost always extended by men to strangers. The kindness we extend to our family, our friends, our loved ones is not hospitality; it is steadfast love, which is seen as one of the attributes of God. The Old Testament frequently speaks of God’s steadfast love (hesed) for us.

When we extend hospitality to the stranger, when we feed or quench the thirst of the stranger, we encounter Christ. When we welcome and clothe the stranger, we encounter Christ. When we care for the sick and visit those in prison, we encounter Christ. When we support the Harvest Table, or fund projects such as Rebuilding South Sudan through Education, we encounter Christ. When we perform charitable deeds through the discretionary fund, we encounter Christ. When we help strangers bear their burdens, we encounter Christ. Some interpret this parable to mean that we should practice these things. Perhaps that is implied, but that is not the point of Jesus’ parable. If we have life in Christ, we are sheep, and since we are sheep, we do these things.

As your sheep, O Lord, forgive us our sins for the things that we have done, and for those things we have left undone.

May we honor Christ the King! May we hear those beautiful words, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”    Amen








Comments are closed.