Sheep and Goats

As a young boy, probably 7 or 8 years old, I feared the moment.  It was the moment I’d have to face my parents.  It hadn’t even really occurred to me when my friend and I crouched down to use a stick to write our initials in the fresh, wet concrete of the sidewalk that it was a bad idea.  We didn’t do it out of malice.  It was wet, shiny and huge…a giant eternal chalk board. It seemed perfectly logical to me at the time.  And we were so intent on doing a good job with our handwriting that it totally took us by surprise when the owner of the home, who had walked up behind us, cleared his throat.  We were so busted.

The worst thing was when Mom said “we’d talk about it when Dad got home.”  So I sat in my room waiting in a kind of a “pre-grounding” mode.  I was guilty…no question.  I sat there like a criminal awaiting judgment.

I’ve always had anxiety about being judged.  Moments like that, awaiting the inevitable, or any of the other thousands of times I got caught doing something I wasn’t supposed to be doing.  And there are other forms of judging:  taking tests, an institutionalized form of judgment, was always stressful for me.  I remember playing piano in the state “contest”, or trying out for a “chair” assignment in band…reciting memorization when I was in confirmation…interviewing for jobs…defending a master’s thesis…pitching a new proposal…all moments of fear and anxiety.  Being judged makes me nervous.

I don’t think that I am unique in my nervousness around being judged.  I’m guessing it’s a pretty universal response, and that many in this room share my anxiety.

Actually, the more I think about it, maybe it’s not the moment of judgment that makes me nervous, but rather is the separation that comes at the end of it.  Separation into winners and losers…into the good and the bad…into the “first chairs” and the “also rans”…into the smart and the not so smart…into the guilty and the innocent…  None of us like to be separated.  We all want to be included.  It is one of our base hopes and needs.  Nobody likes to be excluded.

Tonight, Jesus is speaking about the “final judgment”, when God will separate us.  The analogy Jesus uses is “sheep” and “goats.”  And he makes it clear which one he wants us to be.  Jesus is telling us that we will be judged based on how and who we have served.  If we have done well, we are sheep, and we will be blessed.  If we do not, we will be goats, and Jesus will say to us (and I quote): “Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.”  Whoa.  No pressure there!

Why sheep and goats?  People who lived during Jesus’ time knew exactly what Jesus meant: It was good to be a sheep.  It was bad to be a goat.  Sheep were animals that people wanted.  They were easy to care for, they produced wool, and at the end of their usefulness, they were tasty.  Goats?  Not so much.  They were difficult to care for and required time and patience.  They didn’t listen or mind as well.  They were unpleasant. They didn’t have as much hair and were more susceptible to the cold.  That required extra work.  Every night the shepherds would have to separate the goats from the sheep and move the goats to shelter, out of the cold.  Because they were lower on the social “food chain”, they were used as a sacrifice to God to pay for people’s sins.  Goats would be placed on the altar and killed to pay for the sins of the people.  It was believed that God demanded a blood-sacrifice.  This is, by the way, where the phrase “scape-goat” came from.  Because of the goats, people would “escape” punishment.  Nobody wanted goats when you could have sheep…and certainly no one wanted to be compared to a goat.

I’ve got to be honest, I have never been comfortable with the image of God as judge.  I much prefer the image of God as Savior.  We know that we are saved by grace alone; that we do nothing to inherit eternal life; that none of us dare brag about our good works because we know down deep inside that we are sinners who are saved by grace.  We can never do enough to merit eternal life.  It is pure gift.   We know this.  It is deep within our Lutheran DNA.

But what Jesus is saying in this text is that what a person does for the poor and the suffering matters.  It reveals what, and in whom, they believe.  If a person believes, they obey.  If a person believes in Jesus Christ as God and Savior, they live as God would have them live.

I had a teacher once who used to say that the two best indicators of a person’s values are their calendar and their wallet.  He would say “show me where a person spends their time, and where a person spends their money, and I can tell you what they believe.”

In Jesus’ words, he is calling us out.  He is saying “yes, your salvation is dependent on grace through faith.  Show me your faith…show me what you believe…Do you really believe what you say?  Are you all talk?  Are you putting your money, or your calendar where your mouth is?”

When Jesus judges, he will ask “what have you done?”  The answer will reveal our faith.  When Jesus asks us the question, “What have you done for the least of these, my brothers and sisters”, this does not contradict the grace of God, that salvation is pure gift.  It is a question that asks for evidence of our faith in that belief.

Let me illustrate:  I love my children completely.  Is that true for anyone else here?  Do any of you love your children to the unconditionally?  To the extreme?  Immensely?  Graciously?  That is just the way it is.  I would do anything for them. If necessary, I would die for them.  But I still ask them “did you do your chores?”, “did you remember to clean your room?”  “Did you put away the dishes?”   “Were you good for Mom today?”  My love for the boys is great, but I still ask the question: “What did you do today?”

This is also true of God.  God’s love for you is great, but God still asks you and me the question:  Did you do your chores today?  Did you take care of the sick, the poor, the orphans, the starving, the thirsty, the refugees, the homeless, the hungry, the needy?  Have you done your chores today?”  That God asks you that question does not mean that God does not love you.  It is just the opposite.  Because God does love you unconditionally, God then asks you that question.

Whether we like it or not, Jesus tells us that he does judge.  Jesus will separate us:  the sheep and the goats.  We all want to be included with the sheep, the blessed.

But here’s the truth:  We all fall short.  If the question is “what did you do?”  The point of that question isn’t a list of our activities.  The point of the question is “do you really believe…enough to do what I ask?  In reality, none of us can measure up.  We are all goats.  We are all deserving of punishment.

Let’s face facts:  I do not serve like Jesus asks…you do not serve like Jesus asks.  I want desperately to be a sheep, and I try.  But I fail.  If all Christians who believe in God served as he asks, there would not be hunger…no one would be homeless…no one would be lonely…

Jesus knows this.  And Jesus knows that we are bound by sin and cannot free ourselves.  Jesus knows that we cannot make ourselves sheep.  So he judges, and he asks the question “What did you do?”   Like a guilty child, we know that nothing we can say can justify ourselves to God.  And so Jesus judges.  He says “Yep, you are a goat.”  But then he does something amazing.  Instead of casting us out…instead of punishing us…he allows himself to be nailed to a cross.

He experiences this, for us.  He becomes the scape-goat.  And we, escape our punishment.  And ultimately, through his resurrection, he defeats death.  Because of Jesus, we are all made sheep.  We are all made worthy.

To live a God soaked life, is to receive this gift, and to allow it to seep deeply into us; like a sponge absorbs water.  And then like water from a sponge, we pour grace and love out on those we meet.  And then we serve.  We care for people. We do this not because we fear being separated from God, but because God has already promised that nothing can separate us. We will be included with the sheep…the blessed…the inheritors of eternal life.

My fellow sheep, we serve, not because we fear judgment, but because we cannot help ourselves.  We have received…and so we give.  We are grateful to live this God…soaked…life.


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