They Didn't Know

Proclaim Sermons
Homily: Christ The King
November 26, 2023
Reproduced with Permission
Proclaim Sermons

Summary: This Parable of the Sheep and the Goats is seen by many - in church and out - as a veritable "clobber passage," demanding a commitment to one understanding or another of social justice. But this passage has as much - or more - to do with mercy as it does with justice.

The number seven, lists of seven, things happening in sequences of seven - this was considered portentous in ancient times, and Christian tradition didn't miss out on that at all. Our tradition has several lists of seven. There are the Seven Deadly Sins: pride, greed, luxury, gluttony, envy, anger and despair. And then we have the Seven Cardinal Virtues: wisdom, courage, self-control, justice, faith, hope and love. You know these! You practice them, all the time - well, not the Seven Deadlies, necessarily (not intentionally, anyway), but certainly the Cardinal Virtues. Sure you do. You are so used to doing them that you don't need to keep a list of them and check them off every day: wisdom - check; courage - check; self-control - check; justice - check; faith, hope, and love - check, check and don't need to do that.

You just do them. That's what we see happening, in this famous tale told by Jesus, of Sheep and Goats passing each other, one group going "up," the other going "down."

But we'll get to that in a little bit. We've still got another list of seven. Actually, you know this one, too. You heard six of the seven, as a matter of fact, in the passage we just read. It's the Seven Works of Mercy: feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, care for the sick, visit the prisoners. Look closely at these closing verses of Matthew 25 and you'll find all of them in there. And it didn't take the Church long to add number seven: Bury the Dead.

The cardinal clobber passage

Justice is one of these Seven Cardinal Virtues. It can be argued that it's the Virtues list that most concerns us - us the church, and us the world - today.

And this brings us up hard against our passage for today. Matthew 25:31 and following is seen as the "justice" passage, par excellence. This is a veritable clobber passage, at least on the liberal/progressive side of things. "Matthew 25," for us, is often just synonymous with this Parable of the Sheep and the Goats. It's also a passage secular progressives love to steal from us, and kind of rub it in our faces - Okay, you're always quoting the Bible at us! Well, here you have it: Feed the hungry! House the homeless! Free the prisoners! Ha! There it is! No theology, no religion! Social justice! Just do it!


Matthew 25:31-46 may come across as a clobber passage, but it's not really meant to be about "clobbering" anybody; it's a passage about love, real, authentic Christian love. What does this passage say, really? What is its purpose? What do we see when we really do look closely at it? Is this nothing more than a checklist for a ticket to heaven: Fed a hungry person - check! Gave someone a cold drink - check! Visited a prison - check, and so on!

No ... this goes deeper than that.

This passage isn't meant to scare us into doing good. It's a passage that shows us what life looks like when we really take on following Jesus. It's a passage that shows what life - this life, and eternal life - looks like if we choose, instead of life with Jesus, a life of meanness, a life of hardness of heart in the face of relievable human misery.1 Hardness of heart in the face of relievable human misery situates us in "hell," and "hell" in the Bible is a literary symbol for utter separation from God. Turn your back on someone who's suffering, when you are perfectly capable of offering some kind of help, any kind of help - and you turn your back on God. Sorry, Jesus is saying, but it really is that simple! That's what life in God's world, life with (or without) God in eternity looks like.

This passage isn't meant to scare us into doing right. It shows us that we will do right, without even thinking about it, without even knowing that we're doing it, when we choose to follow Jesus. The key words in this passage are Lord, when ...? When did we see you hungry, thirsty, naked, in prison ...? The "sheep" didn't know they were "serving Jesus"; they just did it! That's the key: they didn't "know." They were just doing what comes naturally when you are living a life truly at one with God in Jesus Christ. They didn't know they were serving Jesus. They didn't see themselves as doing anything spectacular, cosmic, eternal. They came face to face with suffering, and they just did what one does when one is living in a right relationship with God - that's the point. They weren't working a checklist of good things you gotta do to earn a place in the Jesus club. They were already there.

And that, my friends, is our goal. To get next to Jesus, to know him, to walk with him, to work our life in this world into his life in the world, so we just do what he would do, without thinking about it. The "sheep" didn't earn a place in the Jesus club by doing those things. Doing those things showed that they were already there.

Justice and mercy

So how do we get to be "already there?" Well ... by doing what we're already doing, for one thing. Showing up on Sunday mornings. Reading our Bible, saying our prayers, and going where all that praying and reading leads us, one day at a time. Do that, and you will know what you have to do. First and foremost, center your life around knowing Jesus and walking with Jesus, and you will know what you have to do.

Is this passage really about "justice"? What is it about? Pie in the sky? Turn or burn? Literal or figurative sheep or goats?

Justice can mean anything anybody wants it to mean. This is especially noticeable today. We live in a time where many people make up their own reality as they go along. Do vaccines work? Are they useless? Are they worse than useless - do they do actual harm? People believe what they want to believe! So too with justice. Many of the people who stormed the Capitol on January 6, 2021, were as convinced as anybody that they were "doing justice"!

Christian life and faith are not, strictly speaking, about justice. Our actions arise out of seeking oneness with God, out of doing the work of God. When we do justice and love kindness - not to mention walk humbly with God2 - we are doing what God created the whole human race to do.

So we pray, for one thing. And when we pray, do we say, "O Lord, have justice on me"? No - we cry out "Lord have mercy"3 because without mercy there really is no justice. Christian life and faith, strictly speaking, are not about justice, but about mercy. Our hope lies solely in the mercy of God. Mercy is our way in - our only way in! - to today's passage! When has any of us ever not failed, at one point or another, to feed, house, to perform any of these Works of Mercy? But God is merciful, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love, ever pushing us toward mercy - not just for us, but for everyone, every living soul on this earth.

Matthew 25:31ff is about compassion in the face of relievable human misery. The lack of it, hardness of heart in the face of relievable human misery, according to this passage, is the transgression that separates one utterly from God. And we all fail at that. Those of us of a certain age have seen, and have sometimes been involved in, justice activism of some sort for much of our adult lives. And the world still cries out for justice!

We need justice, yes, but not as much as we need a Savior. When we truly acknowledge that, and submit to our Savior, we know mercy. It is mercy - our experience of the mercy of God - that pushes us ever onward toward the justice that the world needs. When we truly know and own God's mercy, justice will take care of itself.

Jesus all around us

That saying we've all heard, the saying we've all used, about "that poor one coming through the door might just be Jesus!" - yes, this story about "sheep" and "goats" says exactly that - but it also takes us one step further. Jesus isn't just in the poor one walking through the door of the soup kitchen, Jesus is everywhere. Jesus is all around you. Jesus is all around us. When we commit to a life of oneness with him, we will begin to see him everywhere. Jesus might've been the one sitting next to you, just a few minutes ago! Jesus isn't just in the poor man; Jesus is everywhere! Jesus is life - and as many have said, "life is what happens while we're busy doing something else." Jesus is there while you're busy doing something else. Jesus is right beside you, right here, right now. Jesus is here! When did you see him hungry, thirsty, homeless, naked? When did you see him? You didn't know. You just did.