Sermon, November 26, 2017


St. Paul’s – Brookings

Fr. Larry Ort

Ezekiel 34.11-16, 20-24; Psalm 100; Ephesians 1.15-23; Matthew 25.31-46


Matthew 24-25 is often referred to as Jesus’ eschatological discourse – his discussion of end times. Jesus cautions the disciples to stay awake, to remain alert, for no one knows the day or the hour when the Lord, the King of kings, will come. Jesus reinforces this message with the parable of the ten bridesmaids and the parable of the talents. Today we consider Jesus’ parable of the sheep and the goats – the last parable before Matthew addresses the passion narrative. This parable also serves to instruct, to caution the disciples, and by extension, us.

The parable begins with the Son of Man, accompanied by all the angels, coming in his glory. The Son of Man takes his seat on the throne of his glory. All the nations are gathered before the king and he proceeds to separate people “as a shepherd separates sheep from the goats,” putting “the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left” (Matthew 25.32-33; NRSV). This imagery is grounded in rich symbolism and cultural practices, some of which have been transmitted to the present.

I suspect many of you have heard someone called an “old goat.” Hopefully none of you have been accorded that less than honorary title! What does it mean to call someone an “old goat”? A check reveals two meanings: “an elderly man who is disliked, especially for being mean to or disapproving of younger people” or “a lecherous man, especially one considerably older than those to whom he is attracted” (–goat). If you are looking for some contemporary examples, simply turn on the news! More are coming to light each day.

In middle-eastern culture, according to John Pilch, “goats were considered lascivious animals. Unlike rams (male sheep), goats allow other males access to their females . . . Goats symbolize shame and shameful behavior.” In contrast, “the ram was associated with honorable Greek gods like Zeus, Apollo, and Poseidon, while the goat was associated with Greek gods known for shameful and unrestrained behavior like Pan, Bacchus, and Aphrodite” (Pilch, John.

During the day, goats and sheep commonly graze together. At night, the shepherd separates them. Sheep, in that they have a fine fleece, prefer to sleep in the open, whereas, goats prefer shelter. Hence, the separation of the sheep and the goats was a well-known practice. So, in our parable, the sheep are at the Son of Man’s right hand and the goats are at his left hand. On the day of his return, the Son of Man, Jesus says, will address both, beginning with the sheep, to which he will say:

‘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 [homeless] 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’ (Matthew 25.34-36; NRSV).


Why these actions? These actions respond to our most basic bodily needs, but there is more to it. Jesus was emphasizing the prophetic call to righteousness found in Isaiah 58:3b-9 (NRSV):

3b Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day,
and oppress all your workers.
Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight
and to strike with a wicked fist.
Such fasting as you do today
will not make your voice heard on high.
Is such the fast that I choose,
a day to humble oneself?
Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush,
and to lie in sackcloth and ashes?
Will you call this a fast,
a day acceptable to the Lord?

Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up quickly;
your vindicatorshall go before you,
the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.
Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.

Here’s the crux of the issue – true worship consists in performing acts of mercy and love. These six actions later came to be known as the “corporal acts of mercy” to which one more was added from the book of Tobit – to bury the dead.1

How will the righteous respond? Jesus said they will be shocked! They will ask, “When was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink, etc.?” Jesus said, “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’” (Matthew 25.40; NRSV).

Having addressed the sheep (the righteous), the King will then turn to the goats (the unrighteous) and will say to them,

You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 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 (Matthew 25.41-43; NRSV).


The goats, like the sheep, also register surprise, “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” (Matthew 25.44; NRSV)? And the King will answer, “‘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.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life” (Matthew 25.45-46; NRSV).

What lessons can we glean from the parable of the sheep and the goats? I am sure there are several, but let me suggest three.

First, true worship consists of acts of mercy and love. In that all persons are created in the image of God, we need to recognize and respond to the Christ in each other. Love and mercy is not something to be guarded and selectively shared with those we deem worthy – they are to be shared with all persons, and especially with “the least of these.”

Second, there is no indication in this parable that we will be judged on the basis of what we believe; we will be judged on the basis of how we have responded to the needs of others. The criterion of assistance is not the worthiness of the individual according to our measure; it is the need of the individual. The rich and the powerful would rather not be confronted by the needs of others. They build towers and gated communities which permit them to live above or apart from those needs. Let’s keep those needs out of sight and out of mind! In many cities, they have passed legislation which makes it a crime to feed the homeless – after all, if you give them a free meal, they are only going to hang around. They are currently attempting to pass legislation which would absolve them from assisting in meeting the basic health care, child care, and education needs of others. How long, O Lord? “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5.24; NRSV).

Third, some may object that our salvation is not something we earn through good works, that it is a gift of God’s grace. Indeed, it is! However, if we have experienced the gift of salvation, if we have truly encountered the risen Christ, our orientation is forever changed. We are a new creation. In that we have experienced, and are the recipients of, God’s love and mercy, we are called to live out God’s love and mercy such that we extend it to all whom we meet.                As James 2.17 reminds us, “So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead” (NRSV). Let Christ be your King, and live in love and mercy.



1 The corporal acts of mercy are intended to relieve bodily suffering; correspondingly, the spiritual acts of mercy are intended to relieve spiritual suffering. The spiritual acts of mercy include the following:

  1. To instruct the ignorant.
  2. To counsel the doubtful.
  3. To admonish the sinners.
  4. To bear patiently those who wrong us.
  5. To forgive offenses.
  6. To comfort the afflicted.
  7. To pray for the living and the dead. (

One who lives out the corporal and spiritual acts of mercy is fully engaged in the practice of love.

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