‘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.’
Many years back when training for ministry, I crafted a sermon on this passage and delivered it with some fluency and insight, or so I thought, in the church near Cambridge, where I was a member. I no longer recall the details, but I’m sure it was pretty strong on how the way of Jesus is about starting on the edges of life and serving those who are hungry and thirsty, and naked, etc as a priority, and not as an afterthought. It probably didn’t pay much attention to the eternal punishment angle nor the severity of the judgement of the Son o fMan on “those who did not do it to me”. It did polarise the story into sheep, good – goats, bad, rather like a Middle Eastern ‘Animal Farm’.
That congregation was blessed by the regular presence of at least two retired moderators and other URC luminaries. It was a rigorous training ground and so it proved on that Sunday particularly. The next day, I received a handwritten note from one of those people. It pointed out that on the hillsides of Palestine, especially when seen from a distance, it was practically impossible to tell which animal was a sheep, and which animal was a goat as they look so very similar. They often roam together on the hillside during the day and that would explain why the Shepherd needed to separate them on occasions. I had been working on the narrow British-based pictures of fluffy sheep and wiry goats and that was not the reality of the context. It was a helpful correction, although I didn’t fully appreciate the note at the time!
But it also carries with it a powerful message about judgement. Not about the judgement of the fiery pit as a result of our actions in life, but the judgement that we so easily exercise when looking at what other people are doing around us. Life would be so much more simple if we could tell at a glance who were the good people, and who were not but the reality is they look very similar. We look very similar. What is significant is not what we look like or what we profess, but the outcome of our actions. Sheep and goats may look similar, but their behaviour and their feeding habits are very different. Jesus does not hide in plain sight to be mischievous, or to be misleading, but simply to teach us to love without judgement and without prejudice all of the least, who are by definition “members of my family”.
Holy One, Let me never despise those who seem to be your little ones; rather, free me from judgements and let me be humbled, recognising those who live with generosity and courage, love and faithfulness as my teachers and guides. Amen.
The Rev’d Carole Elphick is a retired minister worshipping at Muswell Hill URC