Rev. Dr. Martha ter Kuile
Reign of Christ
November 22, 2020
For thus says the Lord God: I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. As shepherds seek out their flocks when they are among their scattered sheep, so I will seek out my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land; and I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the watercourses, and in all the inhabited parts of the land. I will feed them with good pasture, and the mountain heights of Israel shall be their pasture; there they shall lie down in good grazing land, and they shall feed on rich pasture on the mountains of Israel. I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord God. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice.
As for you, my flock, thus says the Lord God: I shall judge between sheep and sheep, between rams and goats: Is it not enough for you to feed on the good pasture, but you must tread down with your feet the rest of your pasture? When you drink of clear water, must you foul the rest with your feet? And must my sheep eat what you have trodden with your feet, and drink what you have fouled with your feet?
Therefore, thus says the Lord God to them: I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep. Because you pushed with flank and shoulder, and butted at all the weak animals with your horns until you scattered them far and wide, I will save my flock, and they shall no longer be ravaged; and I will judge between sheep and sheep.
I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd. And I, the Lord, will be their God, and my servant David shall be prince among them; I, the Lord, have spoken.
‘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. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” Then he will say to those at his left hand, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.” Then they also will answer, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?” Then he will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.’
May God bless to our understanding these words from Holy Scripture.
Today is Reign of Christ Sunday, the final Sunday of the church year – this is the culmination of the whole story, when Christ returns in glory and all the angels with him, as Matthew tells us. Next week we move from the Gospel Matthew to the Gospel of Mark, and start over at the beginning, to wait with longing for news of a promise of hope, and for a baby coming, as the annual cycle of our faith begins again with Advent.
This picture of sheep and goats on trial before Christ the King on the throne of heaven is the last story that Jesus tells in the Gospel of Matthew. It is his last parable, his last message to his followers before the final drama unfolds. Jesus tells this parable in Jerusalem, just two days before his arrest and trial. The imagery of angels and hellfire may be a little ripe for modern listeners, but perhaps that is because it is told in the heat of impending disaster. How interesting, as Bible scholar Amy-Jill Levine points out, that even as a final instruction, it is not a doctrinal summary, or a creed, or even a call to belief. Instead, Jesus’ last story is about the way we should be with each other. It’s a call to look not toward heaven, but around us. We are to welcome the stranger and feed the hungry and visit those who are sick or imprisoned. Jesus gives a promise and a reminder that we will see him whenever we reach out in kindness to those who need us. He says that when we fail to see him and respond to him in those around us, we are living in pain and darkness. That to neglect the anguish of the world is to live in hell.
The original listeners would have recognized this story as a riff on the passage from Ezekiel that Val read to us. There God rails against those who are so selfish that they ruin things for everyone. The way they gorge tramples the pasture for others, and as they drink their feet make the water undrinkable for those who come after. Don’t bully and push others out of the way, says the Lord. There is plenty for everyone in these rich pastures, but you have to make sure that everyone has a chance.
So, this is a very consistent teaching in both Old and New Testaments. Love your neighbour. Reach out to those who are vulnerable. It won’t have come as a surprise message to the disciples gathered around Jesus, and it doesn’t come as a surprise to us. And yet it seems to astonish both the sheep and the goats in Jesus’ parable. When did we see you? say the ones who have found themselves with the goats, not blessed. How could we have known? [Well, we all make excuses.]
But the others too. We never saw you, say the ones who helped, and clothed, and ladled soup, and visited. It seems that their motivation wasn’t religious. They didn’t even realize that when they were serving the least of these, as Jesus calls them, they were serving Jesus. They certainly didn’t reckon that this was their ticket to heaven.
And here is the secret beauty of genuine service – it’s better if you don’t do it out of a sense of duty. It means more if you can follow your instinct to some way of serving that seems fulfilling right here, right now. Not everyone is cut out for visiting a prison, and not everyone wants to feed the poor – and, if anything, it is more difficult right now, because of this ongoing headache of covid. Many of the ways you could have been helping others – perhaps have helped others – some of those paths are cut off right now. But there will be something. The range of needs in the world only grows. Just leafing through the newspaper this week you will have seen Ethiopia, transgender safety, systemic sexism and racism in police forces, differential racial and poverty impacts of covid, even democracy itself in our southern neighbour. It seems overwhelming.
Yet in the centre of all such intractable issues are people who need a welcome, or a glass of water, or a visit, and other people who are in a position to offer it. The challenge and the invitation of Jesus’s last story remains. May we look around our broken world and see him. And when we see him, may we respond. Amen.