When the Least are Served
Sunday, March 26, 2023
Deacon Stephanie Anderson
Grace and peace to you from the One who created us, redeemed us, and moves among us still. Amen
What an absolute joy it is to be with you this morning and to be gathered together around the Good News of the Gospel. I join you this morning after my very first week of serving as your Deacon and these first few days have been filled with warm welcome, thorough orientations and overwhelming kindness from each of you.
Just a few weeks ago, between my last call and this new beginning, I had the opportunity to travel to Ireland. My husband Josiah is a high school choir teacher, so this travel was as a chaperone on a high school combined choir and band tour with 90 kids. That meant that we were traversing the Irish countryside on giant coach buses, visiting various education centers and museums. The students even had the opportunity to do a number of exchanges with local Irish high schools.
In the middle of the week, as we drove through the bright green countryside between Galway and Dublin, we stopped at a sheep farm to meet a local shepherd about this staple of Irish life. Sheep farming, sheep sheering, and the production of wool has been a part of life in Ireland for generations.
Specifically, the students were most excited for the sheep dog demonstration. We watched as this shepherd coached the dog up and around the back side of a group of sheep in the distance, who quickly gathered together and moved as one white, fluffy blob over the hill in front of us. Every now and then, when a sheep got separated, the shepherd would pause what was happening to make sure she was reunited with the group, as the dog slowly migrated them from the back of the pasture, right up to the front.
In today’s reading from the book of Matthew, we encounter one of a handful of parables of judgment; a parable about sheep and goats. We read that Jesus – here called “the Son of Man”, sitting on a throne of glory – will come to separate the sheep from the goats. The sheep in this story are designated as those who fed the hungry, clothed the naked, welcomed the stranger, cared for the sick, among other acts of service. The goats, on the other hand, are those who did not do those things; who neglected to feed or house or clothe or serve their neighbor. Both groups, when clarifying exactly when they did (or didn’t) serve these most marginalized, learned that they were (or weren’t) serving Jesus himself. He says to them, “When you served the least of these, you served me.”
This is one of the most well-known parables in scripture and it may be familiar to some of you as a lesson or a rulebook for how it is we are to act. Of course, our call as Christians is to do this list of things without reserve. But lest we take it quite that clearly or get ahead of ourselves with what might seem like a simple rubric, let’s consider beyond the surface what this passage might have to teach us about who we are as people of faith and as God’s beloved.
It’s certainly not surprising to hear Jesus calling his followers to a life of service. All throughout his public ministry, especially in Matthew, Jesus was focused on healing; on repairing the physical, material, and spiritual damage caused by the systems and institutions of the world. He was living under Roman empire and the strategies and practices of that power meant that he had a lot of that work to do: healing the sick, feeding those without food, advocating for those whose rights were stripped away, exorcizing the demon-possessed, and caring for those who were most marginalized. This is a Jesus that we recognize.
In this parable, however, he takes this healing a step further and not only calls us to care for the societally vulnerable or marginalized, he identifies as such. When we wonder where Jesus might be found, it’s this text and countless others that remind us that Jesus is among suffering, the hurting, the places we’d rather not go, both in our own lives and in the lives of our neighbor.
Now, if we’re being honest, I think can safely assume that each of us, upon hearing this text, jumps pretty immediately to that deep, existential, dreaded question of what we might be: “Am I a sheep or a goat?” Where do I fall on this dividing line? It’s natural when hearing texts that feel like texts of judgement for us to place ourselves in front of that throne, worried about how we might be categorized, based on our actions or – in the case of this text – lack thereof. Or to stand there and think (with relief) that at least we’re not like those goats who come to mind so quickly.
To that concern, I might offer a closer look at verse 32: where we read that it’s actually “all the nations” gathered before Jesus; it’s all the nations that will be divided. This isn’t actually about us as individuals, but a communal question about how we collectively – as societies and nations and communities and congregations – turn our ear to the most marginalized, tending to the needs of the most misunderstood, the “least of these” in our world today.
“All the nations” being gathered at this throne also means that no part of creation is left out of Jesus’ fold. He has drawn it all to himself. The good, the bad, the indifferent, the Jew, the Gentile, the sheep, the goats. They’re all gathered.
So, what are we to make of this division of sheep and goats? Well, for that, we look to the Shepherd. Theologian Robert Farrar Capon writes, “Jesus is the Good Shepherd, and the Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. But he lays down his life for the goats as well, because on the cross he draws all to himself. It is not that the sheep are his, but the goats are not; the sheep are his sheep and the goats are his goats.”
So, this enduring question of whether you are a sheep or a goat? Beloveds, the power of the cross means that we don’t need to know and we don’t need to worry.
The things that keep you awake at night about whether you’ve done enough, or whether you’ve made the right choice, or extended yourself far enough, or whether you’ve lived with the faithfulness you strive to live? Those are good and faithful questions, but we’re reminded today that Jesus does not depict badness or mistakes as an obstacle to God’s kingdom, nor is goodness a requirement. Jesus is the Good Shepherd of all – all meaning all – the whole of creation, including the goats that are divided, yet still among his flock.
If we read that final verse again; the verse about “eternal punishment” or “eternal life” – I might posit that Jesus is not bestowing a consequence on the goats for their lack of action. Jesus is simply reflecting back to us what is true. He’s not saying because you did or didn’t do XYZ, you will be punished eternally. He’s reminding us that living that way – separation from one another, apathy to the needs of others, isolation from the pain of the world – that is eternal punishment. It’s not the life that Jesus hopes for us.
Jesus hopes that we will roam this earth as sheep. Sheep! Notoriously characterized as being sort of aimless or herdable or mindless. The absurdity of this passage is that Jesus bestows the kingdom of God on a bunch of sheep, who weren’t even aware that they were serving God in this way. They had no idea. We hear them ask, “When, Lord, did we do this?” No one – not the sheep or the goats were self-consciously serving the Son of Man. It’s never been about what we know or what we do or what we earn.
The thing about sheep that is actually different than goats is that they survive by sticking together; by remaining as a “fluffy blob”, if you will. When the wolves come, when the dogs circle, when the world seeks to pull us apart or tells us the lie of separation, the sheep live because they stay as one, They tend to one another, they look for the lost and bring her back, they move as a collective.
As a congregation, you know what it means to move as a “fluffy blob”; as a community. You have embarked on the commitment to feed almost 400 people each week through your community meal. In considering “The Power Within”, our confirmands and their mentors spent all Wednesday evening asking how they can “use what God has given them to impact others”. The back page of our stewardship materials have an incredible list of the organizations and ways that we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, care for the sick, and love God’s people. I am five days in and it could not be more clear to me that you are ridiculously generous. That you strive to live in the place where faith meets life, where the church meets the world, where Jesus calls you to serve our neighbor.
So we move forward, trusting the Good Shepherd, who once again, today – in this very moment – offers us the thing he has always come to offer: life abundant, life eternal. Jesus clearly calls us to care for our neighbor, though the good news here, friends, is that God loves us, even when we don’t or even when we don’t get it right. Sheep or goat or “least of these”, wherever we find ourselves, God’s abundant mercy and grace extend to you, no matter what.
Thanks be to God.