What Makes a Sheep?

Today’s Scripture:  Matthew 25:31-46

Unfortunately, this is not a parable.

It would be a lot easier to hear if it was, right? If this was a metaphor, an allegory, a story we’re meant to glean some meaning out of, then it might stay at some comfortable theoretical distance.

But Jesus doesn’t start by saying, “The kingdom of God is like…” Neither does he say, “For it is as if…” Jesus starts with a definitive, “When the Son of Man comes in his glory…”

When.

And what happens when? Then we are divided into two groups, sheep on the right and goats on the left, like this:

Goats
“Go away into the eternal fire.” Sheep
“Take my inheritance, my kingdom.”

What’s the difference? What makes a goat a goat, and a sheep a sheep?

Whether they fed, invited, clothed, looked after, and/or visited Christ.

The goats are unpleasantly surprised by their classification. “What?” they protest. “Tell us when! How could we have possibly neglected you, Jesus? That doesn’t sound like us. We wouldn’t do that!”

Of course they wouldn’t. What self-respecting Christ-follower would walk right past a Jesus in need?

If you’re not a Christ-follower, put it in context by thinking of one of the most important people in your life. Your spouse, your children, your parents. Your best friend. He wouldn’t have to be naked for you to clothe him – you’d do a special load of laundry just to make sure his favorite shirt is clean. She wouldn’t have to be starving for you to feed her – you’d run to the grocery store just to get that pint of ice cream she’s craving. It wouldn’t need to be a death-bed situation for you to visit this person – a simple cold would be cause for an outpouring of TLC.

But these people we’re thinking of now are the “most.” What about the “least”?

That’s who Jesus is talking about. The people we rarely think about. The ones that don’t really matter. How have we treated them?

That’s what makes a goat a goat and a sheep a sheep.

Here’s something noteworthy: even though the sheep did the right thing, they are equally surprised by their classification. “When did we help you, Jesus?” they ask. The sheep aren’t brown-nosing do-gooders trying to earn points with Jesus. They are surprised. They didn’t know they were doing anything special.

Truth be told, far too much of what I do is in the hopes of recognition. I was challenged, once, by some mentor: “What’s the last nice thing you did without anyone noticing?” I couldn’t think of anything. Jesus is making me less that way than I used to be, but I’ve done my time as a people pleaser and a teacher’s pet. Which makes it hard for me to understand: How did these sheep do exactly the right thing without realizing they were doing it?

This winter I got to travel to Israel and Palestine with a group of young clergy. One of the places we visited was Nazareth, which used to be a sleepy little village and is now a busy tourist destination.

My group stopped at a relatively new attraction: a reenactment of what Nazareth would have been like in Jesus’ day. Many of us thought this would be kind of hokey, but as we watched the employees – dressed in authentic first-century garb – press olive oil using a huge wooden wheel and spin thread out of actual sheep’s wool, we got absorbed in it. It was pretty cool.

The best part was the shepherd and his sheep. This was an old guy, with leathery skin that looked like he really had been a shepherd his whole life. All the employees truly did their first-century jobs – not just acted like it from 9 to 5 – so he was actually living with the sheep, day in and day out. When our guide walked us by his little herd, he gave us a big, partially-toothed grin and talked happily in a language we couldn’t understand. He was proud of his sheep.

2014-02-03 10.12.34

He had already pretty much won us over; but then, he whistled, and all the cameras flew out.

When he whistled, the sheep obediently came running to him. I mean, running. He did this trick for us several times, always amused at our amused reaction. But can you blame us, a group of pastors seeing how a sheep comes to the shepherd?

Maybe this is why the folks on the right side are called “sheep” – Jesus whistled, and they obediently came running.

Except Jesus’ whistle sounds more like: “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:31).

Those who are goats hear the whistle… but it doesn’t mean much.

I asked one of our town veterinarians about goats. He confirmed for me the stereotype I had in my mind: Goats are not easily herded. They are controlled by fences, not shepherds. They are stubborn.

Those who are sheep hear the shepherd’s whistle. Their lives are an obedient run toward Jesus’ great commandments. They see neighbors all around them, both in the most important and also in the least important. And when their neighbor is in need, they feed and clothe and visit and look after.

Who are we?

That’s a tough question. Let’s ask it in an easier way for starters:

Who do we want to be?

Maybe you’ve been acting like a goat. Maybe you heard the whistle – “love your neighbor” – but you didn’t realize that really applied to everyone. You heard it, but you heard it like a goat, so you didn’t respond to it. You aren’t obediently running to our shepherd.

Good news: You hear it now.

So, do you want to be a sheep? If so, sometime soon – probably shortly after you finish this – you will pass by someone in need. It may even be one of the least, someone you might not have noticed before. Notice them today. Stop today. Hear the whistle, and go obediently running to our Shepherd.

This Sunday is Christ the King Sunday, when we recognize the reign of Christ. This is the odd way our king reigns: not by forcing us into labor, but with a whistle that we ought to know.

If this isn’t a parable – if this is what Jesus says the future will be – then let’s listen for that whistle.

Let’s love our neighbors. All of them.

Let’s go obediently running to our shepherd.

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