Weekly Sermon Illustration: The Sheep from the Goats
In our blog post every Monday we select a reading from the Revised Common Lectionary for the upcoming Sunday, and pair it with a Frederick”¯Buechner”¯reading on the same topic.
Next Sunday, we will celebrate the Reign of Christ. Here is this week's reading from the gospel of Matthew:
"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."
The following excerpt is from Buechner's book, The Faces of Jesus:
In one of the most powerful passages in the Gospels, Jesus while still on earth foretells this scene of the Last Judgment. All the nations of the earth are drawn up before the Son of Man, he says, and the Son of Man will separate them from one another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. It is the principle by which he separates them that split history in two. Placing the souls of the righteous on his right hand, he says to them, "I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me," and when the righteous turn to him and ask when they can ever have had the opportunity to do such things for him, he answers them by saying, "As you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me." And then the unrighteous, of course. "I was hungry and you gave me no food," he says—thirsty, a stranger, naked and sick and in prison—and to their shuddering question Lord, when? he has a shuddering answer: "As you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me."
Thus for Jesus the only distinction between men that ultimately matters seems to be not whether they are churchgoers or non-churchgoers, communists or capitalists, Catholics or Protestants or Jews, but do they or do they not love - love not in the sense of an emotion so much as in the sense of an act of the will, the loving act of willing another's good even, if need arise, at the expense of their own. "Hell is the suffering of being unable to love," said old Father Zossima or, as John puts it in his first epistle, "He who does not love remains in death." It is no wonder that enthroned in the ivory diptych with his mother on her knees at his side, Jesus throws up his hands in dismay.
As you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me. Just as Jesus appeared at his birth as a helpless child that the world was free to care for or destroy, so now he appears in his resurrection as the pauper, the prisoner, the stranger: appears in every form of human need that the world is free to serve or to ignore.