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Often, when we read a parable in which two or more people, or groups of people, are contrasted with one another, we usually notice the differences. Indeed, noticing and analyzing the differences of different characters in a parable is one of the things Jesus intends us to do.
But as I read this final parable of Matthew’s Gospel, the first thing that occurs to me is how similar the sheep and the goats are. And to understand the key differences between them, you first have to understand the similarities.
The sheep and the goats are quite similar because:
- Neither group is inherently an “evil” bunch – indeed, the story begins with an image that would have been familiar to Jesus’ first audience of a shepherd with a flock of both sheep and goats comingled together. This was not because the “goats” had infiltrated the “sheep.” They normally lived together and grazed together. And both had value. Both were kosher to eat; but sheep were also valuable for their wool, while goats were valuable for their milk. Nobody who first heard Jesus would have had any particularly negative association with either sheep or goats, or wonder why the two would be together. Even their separation wasn’t unusual – this would happen when the sheep needed to be sheared, or in colder weather when sheep needed to be herded into pens to stay warm…
- Neither bunch is judged by a “religious” standard – Faith and God are not mentioned at all. There’s no “you didn’t believe when we told you about Jesus” stuff. Instead, the sheep and the goats are judged based on whether they gave food to those who were starving and clothing to those who were freezing and help to those who were sick and would have died if they had been left alone. These were standard codes of hospitality that were cultural norms throughout the ancient near east, and they transcended religious traditions. Of course, the Old Testament enshrines many of these ideas as things God expects of his people as well, but even people we think of as “pagans” would have recognized these necessities because they were people who lived in arid and remote places. Leaving somebody to die or freeze or starve was unacceptable, even if that person was of a different religion or even from a country that you didn’t like …. (this is part of the background of the parable of the Good Samaritan…)
- Both are clueless that they did anything to help Jesus – as the king tells them what they did, both protest that they don’t remember doing, or not doing, any such thing! Whatever they did or didn’t do, it wasn’t on purpose to make God happy or angry…
And it’s because of that last similarity that we see one of the real differences between these two groups. The “sheep” and the “goats” are not people who “always do good things” or “never do good things.” Instead, the sheep are the people who are in the HABIT of doing these things; while the goats are people who just aren’t in the habit of doing these things, or even noticing that there’s a need.
And so when the “sheep” are praised for helping out, they don’t particularly remember, because they were so in the habit of doing things like this that they didn’t notice that they had helped out “one of the least of these who are members of my family.” And likewise, when the goats are condemned, they also can’t even remember having missed the opportunity, probably because even noticing the needs wasn’t something they habitually did.
But in fact, in the culture in which Jesus first told this parable, everybody was supposed to be in the habit of doing the things the “sheep” did. It was part of the societal norm, even though many people didn’t do it. It didn’t matter if you were Jewish or Christian. And you didn’t have to be a Christian or a Jew to know this.
And that’s why this parable is most likely a parable about how those who DON’T belong to Jesus’ “family” – those who are NOT believers – will end up being judged at the end of time. After all, throughout Matthew’s Gospel, the key to being Jesus’ followers is having faith and trust and hope in the message Jesus brings. It’s not about how many good works you do.
In this parable faith, hope, trust and believing are not discussed at all! And notice that nobody is finally condemned for a theological error! Instead, people are judged by how they did or didn’t do what they all should have known to do to “one of the least of these who are members of my family.” So while we often read this parable as a story of condemnation, it’s actually a very hopeful story that Jesus is gonna include a lot of people in his kingdom who we might have dismissed as “pagans”!
But at the same time, if righteous “pagans” can be in the habit of doing good things that all of us should know to do, I think Jesus is also using this parable to remind us that if we want to be followers of Jesus who are at least as good as these “sheep”, we also need to be people who are in the habit of doing the things Jesus calls us to do.
After all, many of the things that are important in our lives are things we make habits of. And the habits we develop help us, or hinder us, in living in ways we know we should live. Exercise is easier to do regularly if it becomes a habit. You’re less likely to forget brushing your teeth if it’s a habit. And you won’t even notice you’re actually using your turn signal if it becomes a habit!
The “sheep” are people who have developed good habits. And even if they’re people who aren’t necessarily acting from a sense of faith, their place in this parable reminds us that Jesus calls us to be people who are in the habit of doing things like:
- Helping others, even in small ways, and not just when it’s the “holiday season” – it’s fun to do big projects like the adopted families on Thanksgiving, but some Sunday in the middle of July is just as important, and maybe moreso, to make food donations to Gaithersburg HELP; when you get in the habit of regularly helping out, it’s easier to do and you’re more likely to do it than not…
- Helping out because there’s a need, and not because you’re trying to win brownie points – if you stop and wonder whether you’re making God happy before you do something, you’re wasting time and maybe not helping someone who YOU don’t like, but God wants you to help. After all, some of the “sheep” probably didn’t like members of the Christian family, but helped anyway because they saw a need. It’s often especially important for Christians to do the same, when we help people regardless of their faith (or who don’t care about faith at all), because it shows we’re not in this to earn anything from God…
- Developing habits that Jesus wants us to develop, even when it doesn’t look like there’s a need right now – recently, I got out of the habit of doing some back and leg exercises. It didn’t seem like I needed them, and for a while things were fine until they weren’t! Habits – like exercise, giving and caring – often don’t seem like they’re that mission critical at the moment. But being in the habit can make you like the sheep who, although clueless that they were doing anything important at the moment, were actually making a difference…
As I mentioned, this is the last parable in Matthew’s Gospel. And perhaps Matthew placed it there to remind his Christian readers that being a follower of Jesus isn’t just a theological exercise or matter of listening to what Jesus taught.
We’re also called to be people who, like the sheep, make a habit of living in the ways Jesus taught us and showed us. And that transcends merely helping people who are need.
Instead, Jesus calls us to be people who not only hear the promise of forgiveness, but who are in the habit of sharing that forgiveness with others. Jesus calls us to be people who are not just in a relationship with God, but who are in the habit of deepening and strengthening that relationship each day. And Jesus calls us to be people who not only have heard a word of hope, but who are in the habit of sharing that hope – by our words and deeds and attitudes – with others in the world around us.