Did I Do That?

Sermons Proclaim
Homily: Christ the King
November 22, 2020
Reproduced with Permission
Sermons Proclaim

Summary: What is striking about this tale of sheep and goats is that neither of them know Jesus. Neither sheep nor goats recognize him when he comes to them.

This futuristic tale of sheep and goats is one of the most unsettling passages in scripture, perhaps the most frightening one, for a number of reasons. Here we have it! This is it! The Second Coming, which we all claim to be waiting for with anticipation, that moment at the end of history when we will just see who's "in" and who's "out"!

When did we see you ...?

This passage from the final days of Jesus' ministry on earth, shortly before his crucifixion and resurrection, offer us in searing detail a vision of what Jesus regards as the ultimate decider as to who is indeed "in" and who doesn't make that most final of final cuts. What, to Jesus, is the unforgivable sin? What is it that sends one to hell? What is it that does indeed separate one from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord? It is hardness of heart in the face of relievable human misery, according to this parable.

We need not take this as some kind of live video presentation of what happens to us, literally, after we die - of course, we can if we want to, and many do, but we don't have to. Jesus is telling a very pithy, hard-hitting, down-to-earth story, the point of which is that hardness of heart in the face of human misery is the unforgivable sin: Hardness of heart in the face of relievable human misery utterly and entirely separates us from God - we can leave it at that, and, hopefully, take a lesson from it.

Whichever the case for us, take a lesson from it we must. What is striking about this already striking passage is the insight it offers as to what it is that puts us outside of Jesus' ministry, what it is that utterly separates us from God, what it is that sends the "goats" to figurative - or, okay, literal, if you must - damnation. Is it that they failed to recite appropriate creeds? Was their theology unsound? Was their view of the inspiration of scripture not sufficiently "high"? Did they decline, with a list of excuses, when Jesus said "Come and follow me"?

And what about the "sheep"? What is it that "saves" them? An enthusiastic "Here I Am!" to Jesus' call? Sound theology? Intimate knowledge of, and rote memorization of, orthodox creeds? An uncompromising conviction, shared with any who will listen and even with any who won't, that the Bible is the inerrant and infallible Word of God?

According to this parable, the answer to all those questions is an uncompromising "No." The parable teaches that what "saves" is works of mercy toward Jesus, when he presents himself to us in the guise of one of the least of these, members of Jesus' family. What "damns" is a failure to respond to him when he comes in this way.

And what is absolutely staggering, when you think about it, is that neither the sheep nor the goats have any idea what they are doing when they do - or fail to do - their merciful works on Jesus' behalf, these works of mercy that impact their eternal destiny. "Lord, when was it that we saw you ...?" each of them asks. Their Lord stood right in front of them, and they did not know it - neither sheep nor goats recognized Jesus when he was, as it were, standing right in front of them. "Lord," is the rejoinder of both sheep and goats. "Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry ...?"

What must we do to be saved?

It would appear that what we must do, first and foremost, is learn to love. What saves is not an ego-driven pursuit of a "salvation" as if it were nothing more than a prize to be acquired. What saves is not clearly and rationally figuring out what the right thing to do is, and then doing it. There is an unselfconsciousness here, a spontaneous welling up of compassion that is unmotivated by anything except love.

We are often told, with regard to soup kitchens, community meals, homeless shelters and other ministries to the truly destitute, "that beggar coming through that door could be Jesus in disguise!" Well, that is certainly a valid observation - but that is not what we see happening, in this gospel saga of the sheep and the goats. To risk belaboring a point, it apparently did not even occur to either sheep or goats that the one they were serving or denying was Jesus. The sheep and the goats really have no idea what they are doing. There's something driving them over which they have only limited control. It's not like they "recognize Jesus in the poor," or anything like that. And so, in the great reckoning, they ask, sincerely, "Lord, when did we see you hungry ...?"

What saves, what puts us in the presence of Jesus - or, perhaps more accurately, enables us truly to recognize when we are in the presence of Jesus, when we are in the presence of God, when we are in the presence of that holiness which is the union of true humanity and true divinity - is compassion , a genuine compassion, and not a self-serving playing at it that is ultimately designed to get us something we want in return. This is what saves us: an unthinking, uncalculating compassion that is not consciously aware of what it's doing.

"Salvation" is not about sound doctrine, or correct opinions - and neither, strictly speaking, is it about good works. Salvation comes out of unselfconscious, spontaneous love - love even for those who seem unlovable. A spontaneous outpouring of compassion in the face of relievable human misery - when that happens, we are truly in the presence of God.

What, then, shall we do?

We can't make this happen. This is not a simple matter of forcing ourselves or disciplining ourselves to go out and serve the poor in hopes of an "eternal reward." That could help; such effort comes out of a realization that that is what matters, and that is important. And, of course, regardless of our motivation, our good works will usually truly help someone. But by itself, acting out of hope for an eternal reward is really too self-conscious. It is an ego trip that does not come out of what's being described here, in this tale of the sheep and the goats.

Ultimately, what we must do, all we can do, is pray - pray for this spontaneous, unselfconscious love that wells up within us before we are even aware it's there, a spontaneous compassion that comes from beyond us, that is not something we can manufacture out of our own flawed and fractured will. Ultimately, our salvation is spiritual, something that comes through prayer - prayer for that spirit of unselfconscious love that drives us to serve, so that it's second nature - something that we can't not do.

So when do we start to panic?

So just where does all this leave me, one might ask, I might ask, you might ask. Which one am I? When did I see Jesus hungry, thirsty, destitute …? Have I passed him by? Will I hear that final pronouncement of doom: "Depart from me …."

But to put it in that way, to ask those questions, is the self-conscious ego speaking. Don't worry about it (yeah, yeah, I know; fat chance!). Know that just about everyone is judged by these words ... and just about everyone is justified by them. This isn't about you, about what you did on a good day, what you failed to do on one of your bad days. Who among us, at one point in our life, did not offer food or drink to someone overlooked or ignored, to someone who needed it? And, who among us, at some point in our life, has not failed at that? It is the times when we've had no idea what we are doing, when we responded unthinkingly to need that presented itself - Oh, Lord, I'm so late for this thing I gotta do … What? A dollar for bus fare? Yeah, yeah, here you go. Here's two dollars, go get the bus or whatever - Oh man I am so late - What? Yeah, yeah - God bless you, too ….

Hard as it might be to hear it, it is at times like these - times when compassion is an afterthought - when, according to this parable's model, we meet Jesus and either respond, or don't.

So, let us pray. Let us study the life and the teaching and example of Jesus. Let us learn those creeds, and what they have to teach us. Let us self-consciously go forth and serve. Let us do whatever we need to do to prepare ourselves to respond unthinkingly when he truly comes to us out of nowhere.