God sees. God knows. And according to this particular Gospel lesson, what God will ultimately do with that knowledge on the last day is to sort us into two different groups…sorry goats to the left, and happy sheep to the right. It is a picture that we seldom think about because we are never quite sure where we stand at any given moment. There are days that I must admit, I seem to behave more like a goat than a sheep...saying or doing things that I know God doesn’t want me to say or do. Which is probably why for the last three weeks, Matthew has been trying to drive home one very keen point. Namely, that a relationship with God is not a matter of “having faith”…but of “doing faith” which for Lutherans can turn Matthew into a real pain.
For starters, life is never as clear cut as he makes it out to be; and I cannot sort things out the way he does. Seldom do I experience life as so black and white that the answers immediately fall into place. Instead, again speaking from just my experience, life has been modulations of gray…leaving me to wonder which way to go. For example, a woman and her mother stopped by the church not that long ago and claimed that they were in desperate need of gas money. The younger woman, who also had a child strapped in a car seat in the back, said she was trying to get to a brand new job south of here…which was starting that evening…and she was running on fumes.
She stopped at the church…hoping that we would provide some funds. After giving it some thought, I grabbed my keys and told her to follow me down to the nearest station…and proceeded to use my credit card to fill up her tank. After thanking me, she said she would most definitely be coming back to worship the following Sunday and bringing the entire family. Needless to say, she has yet to show…and I found myself asking…was that the right thing to do?
So when I hear a story like this one…I begin to review my own personal list. If what Matthew is telling us is true then I need at least one hungry person, one thirsty person, one stranger, one naked person, one sick person, and one prisoner so that I can supply…food, drink, a warm welcome, some clothes, a hospital visit, and a prison visit. Then…according to Matthew…I will have satisfied all the requirements for ending up with the blessed sheep and not the sorry goats. I don’t think so. And I don’t believe that is what Matthew really had in mind in suggesting we are to be about “doing faith”.
Whenever we try to make law out of gospel…we run into a problem. Because if we take the time to read over the story carefully, we will find that both the sheep and the goats were totally baffled by the verdict they received.
“When was it that we saw you?” was the question they both asked of the king.
The sheep did not know what they had done right…anymore than the goats knew what they had done wrong, which leads me to suggest that God’s judgment will take us all by surprise, sheep and goats alike. For all the characters in the story, the biggest surprise of all seems to be that Jesus knew what they were up to when they did not think he was around.
Both thought that he was only capable of occupying one space at a time and that the way they behaved in his presence was all that really mattered. Which left a lot of free time to be spent with other people…including those whom we tend to never count much less “see”.
Think about those whom we tend to regard as ‘the least among us’…the ‘little ones’: the homeless people who show up every fifth Saturday for a meal at the Presbyterian church downtown before returning to the streets; the young woman and her children who feel safe and secure to be at ‘Hope House’ (a local shelter for abused women) even if it only keeps them off the streets for just a few days; the middle-aged couple who stopped by our church just yesterday claiming to be in need of gas money as they make their way to New York from Florida…in search of a job…using their car as a place to sleep in at night. The biggest surprise of all seems to be that these people are not unknown to the king in today’s story.
On the contrary, they are so close to his heart that he counts everything done for them as if it had been done for him…AND…everything NOT done for them, as having NOT been done for him. Meaning, that for sheep and goats alike, the surprise came in learning that Jesus is not confined to somewhere…but instead is everywhere…and especially with those whom we consider to be the least…whomever they may be.
God sees. God knows. And according to Matthew…God will judge according to how we behaved when we thought God was not around.
OK…let’s say that Jesus is present in every single person whose path crosses ours, and in particular those whom we never would have suspected. How do we live each day, knowing that every pair of eyes that pleads with us might be his…asking…for something to eat…drink…or wear, pleading with us for recognition, for time, for attention? That is the question that every single one of us must wrestle with…and for which the Bible does not have a clear, black and white answer.
All I know…is that we are asked by the King of kings to wrestle with that question, to let it both challenge our sense of security even to the point of unsettling us…and perhaps, even to comfort us. After all, what more do we need to know than the truth…that because Jesus is so present with us, we have unlimited opportunities to meet him and serve him 24 / 7. Whether we recognize him or not, doesn’t even matter.
As long as we seek to reach out and feed the hungry…bring drink to the thirsty…welcome the stranger…clothe the naked…visit the sick as well as those in prison…only then can we be assured that we are, in fact, serving our Lord. Who will one day return to judge both the living and the dead. And whose flock, I have no doubt, will include…both…goats and sheep…all redeemed by the one who lays down his life for us all, making him and him alone…Christ…the King. Amen