Scripture: Matthew 25:31-46
In team sports very few things are as unfortunate as an own goal. A lot of times these are accidental slip-ups. For instance, in basketball a lot of own goals happen when a botched rebound attempt accidently tips the ball in. Even some of the biggest names in the game like Lebron James have done this. In hockey and soccer an own goal happen when a player attempts to pass the ball or puck back to the goalie for clearance, but a bad pass instead finds the back of the net. In football own goals are extremely rare, but every now and then when a loose ball is recovered or interception is made a player will get confused about their position on the field and start running the wrong way. Most often own goals are just accidents from bad plays. Every now and then though the level of confusion gets a little more intense and an own goal is scored intentionally. For instance, in 2018 Towson University freshman Solomon Uyaelumo took an inbound pass, completely forgot which goal he was supposed to go for and made a commanding break to score on his own goal. A more heartbreaking own goal came in a Peruvian soccer match. A lot of professional soccer leagues use a relegation system, where the teams at the bottom of the standings leave the highest level league. They are relegated to a lesser league, while the winning teams from those leagues move up. The team Union Comercio was playing in a relegation match and the score was tied up. Union Comercio was on the defense when midfielder Renzo Reanos intercepted the cross pass. He had gotten the ball right in front of his own goal. A forward from the other team tried to get the ball from him, and he dribbled past him, closer to the goal. Then to the horror of his own goalie he shot and scored an own goal. Renzo Reanos had gotten so caught up in the moment that he lost track of where he was on the field so he acted on instinct and took the shot. His team stared in disbelief and shock slowly came across Reanos’s face as he realized what he had done. Unfortunately, the team was unable to recover. They lost 1-0 and faced relegation.
This morning’s scripture really makes me think of the story of Renzo Reanos. I imagine the feeling of shock and disbelief that one feels from scoring an own goal is very comparable to the feeling that the “goats” felt in the parable. For some this can be a familiar parable, and that familiarity means we can miss the simple point that in the parable the sheep and the goats thought they were on the same team. However, the goats were completely shocked to discover they had been assisting the wrong team the entire time. By really examining this story, we can get a better a sense of what strategy Jesus is asking us to employ in living out our faith. We can discover the difference between the sheep and the goats and better ensure we are on the side that hears our savior say, “Come you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world.”
In the gospel of Matthew this is the very last parable that Jesus tells. From a literary standpoint the gospel has building to this parable. Much like the finale of a firework show has the biggest lights and bangs, Jesus saved the most pointed and convicting story he tells in the gospels for the very end. In this final parable, Jesus drops all pretense and fully claims his messianic role. There is no mistake to us or to his original audience, that when Jesus talks about the Son of Man coming in all of his glory he is talking about himself. At first glance this scripture seems fairly straight forward. It can be easy for us to immediately think that sheep are those who follow Jesus and the goats are those who do not. After all this fits, because Jesus refers him to self as the good shepherd and shepherd imagery is used in a positive light all throughout the bible. However, a closer examination of this scripture reveals it is much more challenging than that.
Verse 32 states “All the nations will be gathered before him and he will separate the people from one another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.” It was a common practice in the fields of ancient Judea to have the sheep and the goats together when they were grazing. When the herds were out on the range, they were one big flock of sheep and goats mixed together. It was only when they needed to corral them together that the sheep and the goats would be separated into their own pens. This means that sheep and the goats in this scripture are part of the same flock. This point is driven home in verse 44. The ones who have been separated as the goats are a bit surprised that they are told to depart, and they also refer to Jesus as Lord. This scripture is not about those who claim to follow Jesus and those who do not. The subjects of this scripture, the sheep and the goats, all claimed to follow Jesus. The story of the sheep and the goats are troubling because in the story both groups follow Jesus, but Jesus claimed he only knew one. The sheep cared for the least of these and the goats did not. That is the difference. Jesus does not mince words in this scripture to be his true disciples we have to love the least of these.
Who are the least of these that we are to help? A lot of arguments have been made for various interpretations. One interpretation that refuses to go away (and one with a lot of validity), is the least of these are those who have the least. Jesus calls the least of these his brothers and sisters, because Jesus and God by extension identifies with the poor. We see this throughout the bible. We see it loud in clear in the prophets and we see it clearly evident in the ministry of Jesus. God is on the side of the oppressed, the overlooked, the disadvantaged, and the needy. The least of these are those who are so hungry they are starving, they are so thirsty they are dying, they are so poor the barely own the cloths on their backs, and they are the ones imprisoned and without hope. In this scripture Jesus claims these people as his people.
The difference between the sheep and the goats is not they heard of Christ. The difference is how they took the way Christ has impacted their lives and lived out. The sheep love Jesus by loving others. They love the least of these, the people that Jesus identifies with. In his famed and influential commentary, Matthew Henry, writes about these verses and this is what he has in his commentary: “Christ espouses his people’s cause, and interests himself in their interests and reckons himself received, and loved, and owned in him. If Christ himself were among us in poverty, how readily would we relieve him? In prison, how frequently would we visit him?”
A sculpture by Christian Timothy Schmalz has shed some light on how some people might answer this question, and it show the real difference between the sheep and the goats in action. Schmalz created the sculpture entitled “Homeless Jesus”. This life size sculpture depicts a man covered up in a blanket sleeping on a park bench. The man’s feet are exposed and they are clearly pierced indicating the sculpture is meant to be a depiction of Jesus. This sculpture has been installed around the country, and it seems where ever it goes the police get called. The reason why the police are called though reflects the difference between the sheep and the goats. Just over a month ago the statute was displayed in Bay Village, Ohio an affluent suburb of Cleveland. It took just twenty minutes for someone to call the police because they wanted the homeless man sleeping on a public bench driven off. A similar event happened in 2014 in a North Carolina suburban community. There was an organized effort to enlist local law enforcement to forcibly remove the statute because community members deemed it demeaning and insulting to have such a crass display in their community. On the other flip side the statue has generated 911 calls for different reasons. The statue was once displayed In Minneapolis during winter and people called 911 after seeing the statue asking if help could be dispatched to get the man to a shelter or hospital because of being out in the bitter cold. In 2018, while the statue was displayed in Indianapolis, a woman driving by saw the statue and noticed the wounds on the feet. She called 911 to report a wounded man in need of medical assistance. The difference between these types of calls illustrates the difference between the sheep and the goats. The first type of calls come from a goat perspective. They saw the homeless Jesus at worst as an inconvenience to be removed and at best a problem to be dealt with. The second type of calls came from a sheep perspective. They saw the homeless Jesus as a person who they had compassion for and sought to help. They came from people who took time to notice someone who could have been one of the least of these.
The difference between the sheep and the goats in this scripture, is action they take. The goats claim to follow Jesus but their actions do not back up their claim. The sheep put their faith into action. It is action done in love. The sheep served the least of these, because they recognized that by serving them they were serving Christ. When it comes to serving the least of these there are a couple of things to note from this scripture. First, Jesus did not just specify the poor, the hungry, or the imprisoned. He specified the least of these. He specified the people who are the most in need, the most oppressed, the most unloved, and the most forgotten. Loving these people can be messy, because some of them have lived messy lives. Some of them have are buried under the weight of the consequences of one to many bad decisions, and some of them have calloused hearts because too many people have hurt them and too few people have loved them. The least of these are the least of these, and these are the people the good shepherd tells us to love.
The other thing to notice from this scripture when it comes to serving the least of these is that Jesus does not qualify it. He does not say to only help those who help themselves. He does not say to only feed the hungry if they already have a job. He does not say give the thirsty something to drink as long as they are not struggling with addiction. He does not say to only clothe the naked who are not refugees. No what Jesus said was “whatever you did for the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” Our job is not to judge who is worthy. Our job is not to qualify who is deserving and who is not. Our job is to serve the least of these and radically display the very love of Christ that has saved us.
This final parable that Jesus tells in Matthew is pointed and convicting because it gives us zero wiggle room. The gospels are abundantly clear. Jesus is a friend of sinners, Jesus is a friend of the poor, and Jesus is a friend to the least of these. Following Jesus means when we offer our heart to Christ, we allow Christ to change our heart so that we can make room for his friends. All his friends-the poor, the hungry, the thirsty, the oppressed, the marginalized, the hopeless, and the unloved. Brothers and sisters in Christ, when the son of man comes in all his glory and sits on his glorious throne, may we be numbered among the sheep. There is a lot of need, and a lot of least of these in this world, we do not have to look very far to find them. May we love God by loving others. May we serve those who most need someone to give them a hand up and show them that love is more than a word. May you find the way that you can feed the hungry, give drinks to the thirsty, provide for the poor, or advocate for the oppressed. May you find your way to do that, and then may you do it. May you be the difference, so that when that day of the Lord finally comes you may here the king reply, “truly I tell you whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine you did for me.”