Sermon: "The Choice of Nations: Shall we Be Sheep or Goats"
St. Paul’s Episcopal – Brookings
Fr. Larry Ort
Ezekiel 34.11-16, 20-24; Psalm 100; Ephesians 1.15-23; Matthew 25.31-46
Today presents us with a bit of a challenge: How do we conclude our study of Matthew 25 while celebrating Christ the King Sunday (the last Sunday of the Church Year) and Thanksgiving in one sermon? Let’s begin with Ezekiel.
Regrettably, our reading from Ezekiel 34 omits a great deal. The reading begins: “For thus says the Lord God: I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out … I will rescue them … I will feed them with good pasture” (Vs. 11, 12, 14; NRSV). Why does the Lord say this? Because, as stated previously, the shepherds of Israel have been more concerned with feeding themselves; they “have not strengthened the weak, … have not healed the sick, … have not bound up the injured, … have not brought back the strayed, … have not sought the lost” (Ezekiel 34.4; NRSV).
In the ancient middle east, it was customary to speak of kings as shepherds of the flock. The kings referenced here were evil: they fed themselves such that the prophet said, “you do not feed the sheep” (Vs. 2); they ruled “with force and harshness” (Vs. 4). The words “you do not feed the sheep” bring to mind Jesus’ words to Peter when he asked Peter three times if he loved him: “Feed my lambs, … tend my sheep, … feed my sheep” (John 21.15-19; NRSV). Jesus was drawing from an extended tradition; he may well have been recalling these words from the prophet Ezekiel. A king was understood to be the shepherd of his people, and who is the Good Shepherd! Jesus! Christ the King!
Ezekiel prophesies that God will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep: “Because you pushed with flank and shoulder, and butted all the weak animals with your horns until you scattered them far and wide, I will save my flock … and I will judge between sheep and sheep. I will set over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them” (Ezekiel 34.20-23; NRSV). Here we have judgement between sheep and sheep.
Now, let’s step back a minute and revisit Matthew 25. Two weeks ago, we considered the parable of the ten bridesmaids – five wise who brought extra oil and the five foolish. We noted the parable stresses the necessity of being prepared for Christ’s return – “Keep awake, therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour” (Vs. 13; NRSV). We remain prepared by living in light and love, but as much as we might like, we cannot give our oil to another, i.e., we cannot assign our acts of love to another’s account.
Last week, we considered the parable of the talents. I encouraged you to think of the talents as measures of love. Upon the master’s return, the master will ask for an account of how we have used the love we have been given. Have we imitated the master? Have we doubled the master’s love? The worthless slave who hid his measure of love was condemned to darkness and the gnashing of teeth. What love he had was given to another. Apart from love, we experience darkness and the gnashing of teeth.
Today we consider the parable of the judgment of the nations. Given the prior emphasis on the necessity of being prepared for Christ’s coming and the emphasis on the return of the master following the master’s extended absence, it is quite reasonable to interpret the parable of the judgment of the nations as referring to the Second coming of Christ. It is also reasonable, in that the first two parables clearly apply to individuals, to interpret the third parable in the same manner – as applying to individuals. No doubt it does apply to individuals, but what if Jesus had something more in mind?
Let’s consider how the parable begins: “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left” (Matthew 25. 31-33; NRSV). A more precise translation is “All the nations will be gathered before him and he will separate them;” i. e., the nations.
Matthew frequently uses “Son of Man” to designate Jesus. In most instances the use is forward-looking. But in Matthew 26, that is not the case. Jesus has been arrested and taken before Caiaphas, the High Priest. Listen closely!
At last two [witnesses] came forward and said, “This fellow said, ‘I am able to destroy the temple of God and to build it in three days.’” The high priest stood up and said, “Have you no answer? What is it that they testify against you?” But Jesus was silent. Then the high priest said to him, “I put you under oath before the living God, tell us if you are the Messiah, the Son of God.” Jesus said to him, “You have said so. But I tell you,
From now on you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven.”
Then the high priest tore his clothes and said, “He has blasphemed! Why do we still need witnesses? You have now heard his blasphemy. What is your verdict?” They answered, “He deserves death.” (Matthew 26.60-66; NRSV).
Did you catch that? “From now on you will see the Son of Man.” This is not a reference to some future time; it refers to now, from this time on, immediately, as of now.
Brian Zahnd notes the significance of this passage for understanding the implications of this final parable:
The phrase from now on should make it quite clear that Jesus was not primarily talking about his Second Coming. Jesus was not referencing something that would take place way off in the future but something that was coming to pass in the present moment, something contemporary with Caiaphas. Recognizing this is a big deal — a game changer! Unfortunately, we have been so conditioned to hear all of Jesus’s “when the Son of Man comes” language as a reference to a far distant “second coming” that we fail to realize that most of the time Jesus was talking about the reign of God he was establishing there and then. (p. 158) (http://girardianlectionary.net/reflections/year-a/xrstkinga/).
Jesus death on the cross ushered in a new age in that Jesus revealed an alternative to life grounded in sacrificial violence. In doing so, Jesus suffered the sacrificial violence of our world that we might have life and have it more abundantly.
What are the criteria by which the nations will be judged? Again, we see the emphasis on love! They shall be judged by how they choose to love four kinds of people:
The Poor. “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink . . . I was naked and you gave me clothing.”
The Sick. “I was sick and you took care of me.”
The Immigrant. “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.”
The Prisoner. “I was in prison and you visited me.” (Matt. 25:35-36) (p. 165) (Ibid.)
Paul Nuechterlein concludes: “Matthew 25.31-46 thus reveals the key to human flourishing… communities that tend to the least of these will flourish, while communities (“nations”) that neglect the least will be playing with the fire of their own systemic violence. This has been true since the foundation of the world” (Ibid).
Permit me to offer two examples from history: Nazi Germany and Communist Russia. Both annihilated millions of their own citizens and both reaped the harvest of systemic violence.
The past few years in our own country have embraced a calloused approach to treating the poor, the sick, the immigrant, and the prisoner. We have witnessed tax breaks for the benefit of the rich, the erosion of medical insurance, tearing apart immigrant families and locking children in cages, and increased militarization of our police force. We have witnessed the encouragement of hatred and the actions of hate groups. While the recent election signals a change of direction, the question remains as to whether we will commit to human flourishing, to building the kingdom of God, or further embrace systems of violence.
So how does all of this relate to Thanksgiving? I recently finished reading Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sack’s Morality. Near the close of his book, Sacks shares Abraham Lincoln’s experience of living in divided times which were far worse than the times in which we are living. Sacks writes:
On October 3, 1863, with the Civil War still at its height, Lincoln issued a Thanksgiving Proclamation. There had been Thanksgiving celebrations since the earliest settlers in the 1620s, but this was the first time a specific day had been set aside for the entire nation. Lincoln urged people to thank God because although the nation was at war with itself, there were still blessings for which both sides could express gratitude: a fruitful harvest, no foreign invasion, and so on. He also asked them to express “humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience,” and commend to God’s tender care “all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquillity [sic], and Union” (Sacks, Morality: Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times, p. 318).
In living out the gospel, living in light and love, may Christ be our King! May we choose to be sheep; may we establish national policies and programs which care for the poor, the sick, the immigrant, and the prisoner. May the Statue of Liberty once again shine brightly, reflect the best of America’s values and character, and serve as a symbol of hope: “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.”
Thanks, be to God! Amen!