Sermon Lesson: Matthew 25:31-46 (NRSV)
Alternate New Testament Lesson: Ephesians 1:15-23 (NRSV)
Old Testament Lesson: Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24 (NRSV)
Psalm: Psalm 100 (NRSV) (or, in the King James Version)
Referenced Bible Passages: Genesis 1:26 (NRSV)
What is the Christ the King Sunday?
I always have difficulty with “Christ the King” or “Reign of Christ” Sunday.
First off, it doesn’t happen every year (at least in America), so it’s never really been fixed in my brain as something to look forward to (or at least take notice of). It’s a Sunday that is slipped just before the first Sunday of Advent, and usually after Thanksgiving. If a Sunday does not appear between these two days (as, strangely enough, it doesn’t this year) then many Protestants don’t recognize Christ the King Sunday as they are celebrating our National Holiday of Thanksgiving (which is the fourth Thursday of every November).
Secondly, it’s a rather new idea. Pope Pius XI placed it on the liturgical calendar in 1925, which wasn’t even a hundred years ago. We, as Congregationalists, have been separated from the Pope for far longer than that, so when a pope adds a date to our Christian calendar, it oftentimes doesn’t make it onto my radar.
Third—and this might seem obvious—don’t we, as Christians, celebrate the fact that Christ is our King every single Sunday in the year? Jesus reigning in heaven is one of our main conversation topics in the church. It’s a given. It’s true 7 days a week, 365 days a year, so why make a special day as if Jesus weren’t king the rest of the liturgical year?
Still, Christ the King falls this week, just a few days before Thanksgiving, which is unusual, and all of our readings (including our parable in the Gospel of Matthew) are devoted to the idea.
And so, we move to a parable on heaven and judgment, when Jesus was undoubtedly speaking about himself and who he would reward and punish in the afterlife.
I Hate Sheep. This is a Known Fact.
This parable focuses not only on eternal judgment but also on what kind of people will go to heaven. Jesus, kindly, gives us a checklist, but when we start out we have s symbols and metaphors, the most recognizable one being Jesus as shepherd and his believers as his flock.
For those of you who watched my youtube sermon “The Stupidity of Sheep” back in the beginning of May, you will know just how much I dislike sheep and wish Jesus would come up with a different metaphor. If anyone outside of Jesus compared me to a little lost lamb, I’d find my way out of the conversation, mull over childhood memories of stupid farm animals, and come to the conclusion that almost any animal has a more positive association in my brain than a sheep. I know many who have worked with or lived around sheep feel the same way. It’s not all beautiful pastoral settings and haunting lullabies. The animal could rightly be called a menace in certain situations
But sheep possessed a weighted symbolism in the time of Jesus. They are simple animals, often sweet and childlike, and they rely completely on the shepherd for their well-being. A sheep in the wild will never last long. If we forget about predators (and sheep are prey to many animals in the wilds, not just wolves and wild dogs), they’re likely to wander off and be unable to find grass to eat or water to drink. They are easily injured. They have a tendency to get stuck in mud pits, barbed wire, holes, divots, ravines—really, anywhere. A sheep without a shepherd is a sheep that will die, it’s just a matter of how and when.
The shepherd knows this. He accepts the task of caring for the sheep, of protecting and providing for it. If a sheep wanders off, the sheep will never come back without assistance, unlike a loving dog or a cat who has the intelligence and know-how to find a scent and trace his way back home. No, the sheep will be permanently lost.
But sheep are not the only animal to appear in this parable. We also have the goat.
Goats, unlike sheep, have a bad reputation in Jewish and Christian mythology. Think of terms like “scape goat”—not very complimentary. Then there’s “Judas goat,” an early Christian term that equates a goat with the man who betrayed Jesus. Goats are clever, cunning, but unfortunately considered lustful due to their mating behavior. If you’ve heard the term “breeds like rabbits” you may have come across the idea of “rutting like a goat.” Neither term is complimentary (to rabbits or goats, respectively).
Early Christian dislike of the goat (beginning just after the time of Jesus’s death) was so negative, that Satanism became connected to goats. Satan’s horns in paintings and descriptions often look like goat horns. Goats were also said to whisper lewd words in the ears of the saints so as to distract them from their heavenly purpose.
This negativity is what I would like you to grasp when we dismantle this parable.
The “Son of Man”
If we turn to the parable to begin its deconstruction, we find a metaphor of heaven and not of earth. We don’t have slaves, or lords, or bridesmaids, or vineyards. Instead we have the Son of Man holding court in the afterlife.
Two thousand years after the life of Christ, Christians often use the titles Jesus carries interchangeably. The “Son of God” (or God the Father’s child) is the same as “God the Son” (or our God who is also the Son). They are equal to the “Son of Man” or “Prince of Peace” or “Son of David.”
But all names have different meanings and different nuances to them. They all reference a different aspect of Jesus’s character and being.
“Son of Man” is quite a specific title. It was interchangeable in the Hebrew Bible with “Son of Adam”—or specifically, a descendant of Adam, the first man. To be a Son of Man is to be called human, usually as opposed to an animal. Man is made in the image of God (as is Woman), but an animal is part of creation without that divine spark. This difference is exactly what this parable is referencing.
For the Son of Man to be sitting in heaven is a very distinct statement. Jesus is emphasizing the fact that he is very much a mortal man (after all, he was born as a human, lived as a human, and died as a human). However, he is very much above those who judge in the cycle of creation, whom he refers to as “sheep” and “goats.”
Remember, in Genesis 1, God gives dominion of creation (including animals) to Man and Woman (or Adam and Eve). So, too, does the Son of Man have dominion over the “sheep” and “goats” when sitting upon his throne.
What is Jesus Saying in this Parable?
Jesus is creating two categories of people in the afterlife. When the nations gather before him, he compares a portion of them to sheep and the other portion to goats. He, as shepherd, is the one to separate them, to have dominion over them, and to pass judgment upon them.
Jesus is in a position of power. He is making the decisions. He makes the pronouncements.
When Jesus compares the conduct of the sheep and the goats we, as his listeners, are supposed to have positive associations with the idea of sheep and negative ones with goats. We know roughly what is going to happen. Sheep—although simpleminded—are good so they are rewarded. Goats are bad so they are punished. We know this before the Son of Man says anything; it would be obvious to Jesus’s listeners in first century Palestine.
The listeners know whatever happens next, the sheep will be in the right and will be loved and coddled by the shepherd. The goats will receive the exact opposite. And that’s exactly what happens.
The Son of Man (in the parable) tells the sheep why they are being reward and then tells goats that they are not.
It comes down to behavior—how the sheep treated the Son of Man and how the goats did.
Now the sheep and goats did the exact opposite when they found the Son of Man in the exact same situation. Thus, their behavior is very easy to compare. We have the positive behavior of the sheep followed by the exact opposite (and therefore negative) behavior of the goats.
When the Son of Man was hungry, the sheep gave him food. The goats did not.
When the Son of Man was thirsty, the sheep gave him water. The goats gave him nothing.
When the Son of Man was a stranger, the sheep welcomed him into the fold. The goats left him in the cold, alone and friendless.
When the Son of Man was naked, the sheep clothed him. The goats allowed him to remain in his nakedness.
When the Son of Man was sick and in prison, the sheep visited him. Their presence and friendship gave him comfort. The goats, on the other hand, left him there to rot.
It’s extremely black and white. We’re all onboard. We all (even two thousand years later) understand. We should love Jesus and he should be our friend, our Lord, and our Savior. You’ll find very few Christians who will disagree on this simple fact.
Jesus, however, is not talking only about himself and the world’s treatment of him, even though that seems to be the topic of conversation until Matthew 25:44.
The goats in the parable point out that they did not know the Son of Man, so how could they have done all of this? How could they have wronged him? How could they have offended?
The Son of Man points out that he is ‘everyman’ and what you do to your fellow human, you do to him. This strengthens Jesus’s title in the parable—although we know that Jesus is speaking about himself in heaven, Jesus is telling us that he is a man. More specifically, he is a man like any other. To deny your fellow human being their basic dignity and your Christian love is to deny Christ himself. And vice versa.
With Jesus, it always circles to the idea of love—love of God and love of your fellow human being—whether friend or enemy. As followers of Christ, we should always act like the sheep. We should give the hungry food, the thirsty water. We should welcome strangers, we should clothe those against the cold, and we should never leave anyone cut off and alone. No one is beyond love for any reason: not the hungry, not the thirsty, not the prisoner, not the homeless.
If the goats cannot love our fellow human being, how can they love God? Surely, then, they are deserving of the Lord’s judgement.
Parable as Cautionary Tale
Jesus did not mean for this parable to apply only to his time and location, he meant it for all who follow him throughout time. Christ is the Son of Man—and to deny the dignity of humanity is to deny Him.
Jesus wishes for us to love unconditionally, and to do that you must respect one another despite personal misgivings or prejudices you may hold or indifference.
If we are all made in God’s Image (as the Son of Man certainly was) then we all have a spark of the divine in us. Find that spark in others, however difficult that might be or however unexpected a form it might take, and love each person for it.
As much as I hate sheep – be a sheep: steadfast, true, and simple in their childlike innocence and devotion of God.