For thus says the Holy One, our God: I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. As shepherds seek out their flocks when they are among their scattered sheep, so I will seek out my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land; and I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the watercourses, and in all the inhabited parts of the land. I will feed them with good pasture, and the mountain heights of Israel shall be their pasture; there they shall lie down in good grazing land, and they shall feed on rich pasture on the mountains of Israel. I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says God. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice.
As for you, my flock, thus says the Holy One: I shall judge between sheep and sheep, between rams and goats: Is it not enough for you to feed on the good pasture, but you must tread down with your feet the rest of your pasture? When you drink of clear water, must you foul the rest with your feet? And must my sheep eat what you have trodden with your feet, and drink what you have fouled with your feet? Therefore, thus says God to them: I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep. Because you pushed with flank and shoulder, and butted at all the weak animals with your horns until you scattered them far and wide, I will save my flock, and they shall no longer be ravaged; and I will judge between sheep and sheep. I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd. And I, the Holy One, will be their God, and my servant David shall be ruler among them; I, the Holy One, have spoken.
“When the Human One comes in 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 Ruler will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by Abba-God, inherit the realm 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, ‘Teacher, 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 Ruler 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, ‘Sir, 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.”
Please pray with me. Holy One, open our hearts to your grace. Give me your words to speak so that our spirits and minds are moved by your truth and love. In the name of your child, our saviour and friend, Jesus the Christ, amen.
When I was about five years old, my family lived in an L-shaped house—a long ranch style house with the living room and bedrooms that was the upright part of the L, and a garage, joined to the rest of the house by a breezeway, or closed porch, that was the short part of the L. Inside that L was a patio, partially paved, where we had a sandbox and a swing set and my mother had a garden. One very hot summer afternoon we set up a wading pool and filled it with water. Two of my older sisters, me, and my younger sister took turns jumping into the water. Over and over we jumped into the pool, splashing water everywhere. I got the bright idea of running and jumping into the pool, and stood by the back door to the breezeway, giving myself plenty of room for a run. “Geronimo!” I shouted, and flung my arms back, ready to run. Crash! My arm broke through the glass on the door, and gashed my arm deeply. Blood was everywhere. My younger sister—all of three at the time—stood and stared. One of my older sisters ran, screaming. The other one, cooler under fire, grabbed a towel and wrapped it around my arm, calling for my mother. My mother, after one glance at the carnage, called a neighbour, Mrs. Barber, to ask for a ride to the doctor, since my oldest sister had the family car. Now, Mrs. Barber’s daughter had recently been in a terrible car crash, and Lori needed someone with her on a regular basis. But when my mother called her, Mrs. Barber came, without hesitation. She drove us to the doctor and waited to find out if the doctor would stitch me up or send me to the hospital, so she could take us to the hospital if that were the doctor’s verdict. She didn’t refuse at the sight of the blood; she didn’t plead her daughter’s need of her; she didn’t even ask us to put a towel on the seat. She simply drove us to the doctor’s office.
When Jesus says, “When you did it to the least of these, my brothers and sisters, you did it to me,” that is what he means. That free giving to the person who needs whatever it is you have to give. We had a desperate need of the doctor and no way to get to him; she had a car. She drove us to the doctor’s office and waited to see if we needed to go anywhere else. We needed a car, Mrs. Barber had a car, and she gave it to us. Not literally—she didn’t just hand over the keys. She knew that Mom was in no condition to drive, and besides, Mom had to calm me down. She couldn’t do that and drive, too. Mrs. Barber gave us what we needed, not because she owed us anything, or because we offered to pay her—although I think my parents took her and Mr. Barber out to dinner a few weeks later—or because she was counting up her brownie points towards heaven. Mrs. Barber helped us because we needed help and she could give it.
This passage from Matthew is difficult for many people, because it portrays Jesus as a judge who decides who will have everlasting life, and who will not. It’s hard to think of Jesus, who loves all God’s children, as a stern judge. But who better? Jesus is the child of God; he is human and divine. Jesus knows what it is to be human; at the same time, he is God. And so we know that Jesus is not arbitrary or without understanding of human failings. But—there’s always that, isn’t there? The fundamental requirement is still there. Earlier in Matthew, Jesus says we are to love one another as we love ourselves. Well, this is how we show it—this is how we demonstrate our love. We can’t just talk the talk—we can’t just say we love others—we have to walk the walk; we have to show that we love others by our actions towards them.
You know, I could say I love my neighbours, I love everyone—but if I don’t help people, if I don’t show that love, then how can anyone know that I really do love my neighbours? It’s easy enough to say that I do, but to show it, to live it—that’s a bit harder. Jesus as ruler is judging us on our behaviour not because God doesn’t know what’s in our hearts and has to go by what we do. God knows us intimately, and God knows what is in our hearts. But that’s not enough, to simply have that intention or that thought, or belief. We have to act it out, make it real and tangible, in this world, not hidden away in our hearts. What’s the Rogers and Hammerstein song say—“love’s not love until you give it away?” Our love has to be visible in order for others to see it, know it, benefit from it. If I’m hungry, don’t tell me how much you love me—give me a meal. If you want to set an example, you don’t just lecture—you do. It doesn’t do any good to tell people to “do as I say, not as I do.”
Another thing about making our love visible: we have to do things simply out of love, not because we expect anything back, not even the satisfaction of having helped someone. Anyone who has worked with the public, or in social services work can tell you that even when you have helped others, it is not always appreciated or even recognized. We do things out of love for love, not for anything at all in return, even our love returned. Once we expect something in return, the relationship becomes an economic one—“I give you a drink of water and you give me gratitude.” “I give you a place to stay and you give me $100;” well, that’s a hotel. Or “I give you a meal and you give me a morning’s work in the yard.” Those are trades. Love simply gives: “You’re hungry; here’s a meal.” “You’re ill; let me bring you some soup.” When I was going through chemotherapy, one of my friends called me on Friday afternoons to find out what I wanted for dinner—and then brought it by. She didn’t want me to pay her, she didn’t even expect me to sit and visit with her for a while—she simply dropped the food off, without coming in, simply giving me what I needed, without any expectation of return or an exchange.
Notice something else here—we’re not expected to solve the person’s problem for them. We give them water to drink; we don’t dig a new well for them. We comfort people who are sick; we aren’t expected to heal them. My friend couldn’t ease the side effects of chemo, but she could help me deal with them.
I find this very comforting, because it means I don’t have to take on the world. If I thought I had to take care of each person’s problems, help him or her solve all the issues in their lives—well, I wouldn’t get very far, would I? Elsewhere Jesus says that we will always have poor people with us. He didn’t mean we should give up on the issues of poverty! He meant that poverty is not our problem to solve; it is beyond our capabilities to eradicate it completely. What we can do, what we are called to do is to make the sting less, ease the burden on those who are poor. Now, that we can do.
Think about this. Jesus himself did these things. He reached out, he comforted and fed and encouraged. He loved others, and acted out that love in tangible ways, most powerfully and ultimately on the cross. He did not expect anything back from anyone. He knew what he had been called to do through love, and he did it.
And there is this too, my friends. We all are called to something—each of us has gifts and talents to use in God’s service. And those gifts may not be the obvious ones—the ones you use to make a living or that you share every day in your family. While it is good to see the retired high school teacher lead the youth group, it is, to me, even more fulfilling to see him head up the altar guild or coordinate the care of the memorial garden. But whatever it is, God has called you to—something. And when we are called, we have no option, in the end, but to answer that call—because that is only way we feel fulfilled. And so we respond to that call, and act, and do.
Now, before anyone starts thinking “Works righteousness” at me, let me say that the works alone are not the answer, either. “Works righteousness” is the idea that all the good deeds we do are marked down to our benefit in a sort of heavenly ledger or bank account. We cannot earn our way into God’s realm by doing good deeds. We do these things because we love God, because we love another. There’s a real question as to the understanding of what Jesus says—are the sheep blessed because of what they do, or do they do those things because they are blessed? Which came first? Or do they feed each other?
We are saved by grace through faith, as shown in our works, in what we do for others. It is because we have faith that we do works—we do not do these works to gain faith (although works strengthens faith), nor to earn grace. You cannot earn grace—it is freely given, before we are even aware of our need for it. When we care for others, when we love our neighbours as ourselves, it is because we first loved God, and then we could love our neighbours and ourselves. We are blessed by what we do for the least of these our sisters and brothers, and because we are blessed we do these things for our sisters and brothers.
It goes without saying, I think, that those who “butt with head and shoulder,” who push away the hungry sheep in order to eat all the grass themselves—they are not doing the works of God, and that is why Ezekiel reports God as saying that “I will save my flock and they shall not be ravaged;” God will not allow God’s children to be destroyed.
Mrs. Barber loved my mother and me. She drove us to the doctor because it was what we needed—not what was convenient for her, but what we needed. She couldn’t stitch up my arm, but she could take us to the doctor. Mrs. Barber reached out in love and did what she could, what she saw that we needed.
Remember what Jesus did. Remember what he says to Peter elsewhere: “Feed my sheep.” Remember that he told us to love our neighbours as ourselves. Remember that when we feed or clothe or visit the least of our brothers and sisters, we do it for Jesus. Jesus, the child of God, who fed the hungry and strengthened the weak and loved every other child of God.
Go thou, and do likewise, in all God’s names. Amen.