A triptych is a panel with three pictures, usually around some related theme. That’s what we’ve had these past three weeks – a triptych of parables. The first was the parable of the bridesmaids, wise and foolish. The faithful were prepared, the foolish figured they had time and oil to spare. The second was the parable of the servants and their talents on loan. Two were wise, doing business with the talents on loan from their master; one was foolish, burying his talent out of fear and in the end loosing everything. Today is parable number three: the sheep and the goats and the Shepherd-King who sorts them.
First notice that the shepherd is also a king in the parable, like the shepherd-king David and his ante-type ancestor Jesus, the Good Shepherd and King of kings, who is also the Son of Man. Jesus is speaking directly of His reappearing in glory on the Last Day. Keep this in mind throughout the parable – the Son of Man who comes in glory with His angels to judge the nations is the same Son of Man who came in humility to lay down His life to save the nations. The Judge is also the Savior. Don’t lose track of that.
“Before Him will be gathered all the nations, and He will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.”
OK, first a little lesson in sheep and goats. Sheep and goats are quite different, according to a web site someone sent me on sheep and goats. Sheep go “baaa,” goats go “maaa.” Sheep tails go down; goat tails go up. Sheep are grazers, goats are browsers. Sheep gather in flocks; goats are more independent. But the point in the parable is during the day, sheep and goats hang together and are treated the same. In fact, in the sacrificial system of the OT, sheep and goats were pretty much interchangeable too. The distinction comes only at the end, and not a moment sooner. Just as in the parable of the weeds and wheat, there is no sorting prior to the end. It’s all one big field, one big flock, under one crucified and risen Shepherd.
Don’t expect any preferential treatment in this world for being a Christian. God causes His rain and sunshine to fall on the good and wicked, the believing and unbelieving alike, and the line between good and wicked runs through the middle of each of us. This puts to rest any notion that Christians are playing with a loaded set of cosmic dice or that God will bend the rules for them. No. He’s got the whole world in His hands. He’s the good Shepherd of both the sheep and the goats, every nation, tribe, people, language, whether they like it or not, believe it or not, want it or not. That’s what it means to say “Jesus is Lord.”
Only at the end of the day, at sundown, when the sheep and goats are brought in from the fields and put in their pens is a distinction made, and not one moment sooner. Think of two enclosures with a common entrance and the shepherd standing in the middle. The sheep go to the right, the goats to the left. Take note of the terms of separation. They are sorted on the basis of what they are not what they do. This is precisely what the apostle Paul means when he says that we are justified by God’s grace through faith in Christ apart from works of the law. Judgment is made not on the basis of what you did but on the basis of what you are.
Are you a sheep or a goat? A believer or an unbeliever? The Shepherd must tell you what you are. The sheep and goats don’t know that for themselves. Notice that. The shepherd places the sheep at his right and the goats at his left. They don’t simply go there on their own. Sheep and goats would likely go very which way, if you left it up to them, and most likely the wrong way.
The the King will say to those on his right, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” They are blessed with a kingdom that was theirs from the foundation of the world, which was before they could do anything, one way or the other. We call that the “doctrine of election” which causes all sorts of trouble when you take Jesus out of the middle of it. Just as Jesus is the Lamb who was slain from the foundations of the world, so there is a kingdom prepared for those who are in the King. A kingdom received not as wages earned for a job well done, but as an inheritance. You don’t earn an inheritance, it is given to you by someone who dies.
So now you’re onto it. There’s been a sorting and a bestowal of a kingdom and still not a breath about works. What about works? Here it is: “I was hungry and you gave me food. I was thirsty and you gave me drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me. I was naked and you clothed me. I was sick and you visited me. I was in prison and you came to me.” There you have it. They were busy, those sheep. Feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and imprisoned. Lots of good works going on for the least, the lowly, the lost.
But the sheep are puzzled. They don’t ask “when did we do these things.” They knew they did those things. They ask, “When did we see you hungry, thirsty, a stranger, naked, sick, imprisoned?” That’s the big question on their minds. They didn’t do these things for recognition or reward from the King. They did them because they saw people in need – hungry, thirsting, naked, sick, imprisoned, strangers who had no place to turn and no one to help and they did what the Samaritan did for the man who fell among the thieves and was laying nearly dead in the ditch. They helped them. They were neighbor to them.
Now they learn the secret, the hidden thing, what they did not know. “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to the of the least of these, my brothers, you did it to me.” Jesus is hidden in the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the sick, the imprisoned, the strangers in this world. He’s hidden not to save but for you to serve. “When did we see you hungry, thirsty, naked, sick, a stranger, imprisoned?” Think. When was Christ ever like this? On the cross where He became the least of all to save us all. There He was literally hungry, thirsty, naked, sick, imprisoned, a stranger to this world – all to save the world.
The cross is the lens through which we must view this world, especially the hungry, thirsting, naked, sick, imprisoned, strange parts of this world. The parts that make us uncomfortable and cause us to look away, or like to priest and Levite in the parable of the Good Samaritan, to walk far on the other side lest we get too close. But the cross reveals a profound mystery – Jesus is there, in the least and lost of this world. The cross will give us the proper focus in the challenging times ahead. There will be plenty of hungry to feed, thirsty to quench, naked to clothe, sick to visit, imprisoned to call on, strangers to welcome. The coming recession will add to their numbers. And we have this wonderful promise: “As you did it to one of the least, you did it to me.” Who would have known?
As for the goats on the left, there lot is less than happy. “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” Take careful note here. They are cursed, but not “cursed by my Father.” Simply cursed. Instead of an eternal kingdo, they receive an eternal fire, but that fire wasn’t prepared for them from the foundations of the world. It was prepared for the devil and his angels. That’s the hell of it. No human being belongs in hell, and God intends for no one to go there. God has arranged that no one should go there. In fact, if anyone winds up there among the cursed, it is against God’s will that all should be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth. If you wind up there, it’s your own fault.
And their works? “I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat; thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink; a stranger, and you didn’t welcome me; naked and you did not clothe me; sick and in prison, and you didn’t visit me.” The unbelievers have a question too. When? When did we see you and not minister to you? Of course we would have given you something to eat, if only we’d known it was you! Of course we would have welcomed you, if only we’d known it was you. Of course, we would have visited you, if only we’d known it was you. And there’s the rub. That’s how you live when you live by the Law. You do only when you know it counts – like the bridesmaids who didn’t bother to bring extra oil; like the servant who buried his talent in fear. Who would have known that the King and Lord of all would come as a naked and thirsty beggar?
So which then are you? Sheep or goat? You won’t find that answer in the mirror of the Law. The law will only reflect the face of a goat back to you, because that’s what you are by nature. You must look to the cross, to that naked, hungry, thirsting, imprisoned Stranger who is your Shepherd, King and Savior. Look into the water of your Baptism and the Word contained that speaks there. In the reflection from those still, deep waters, you will see who you are – a sheep of the Good Shepherd’s flock. There you will see the Name of God and the Lamb etched on your forehead and heart. Go to the table He prepares for you in the presence of your enemies – the table of His Body and His Bread, food and drink for those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.
You are sheep of the good Shepherd-King Jesus- baptized, forgiven, fed, and free. The Word declares it to be so; believe it. And when you scatter from here and go out into the world to your callings, your priesthood, the liturgy of your life, see it all through the cross of Jesus, and you will see something marvelous – Jesus in the least and the lowly with a promise: “As you did it to the least of these my brothers, you did to me.”
In the name of Jesus,