Sheep & Goats

If the links don’t work for you, here is the video of the service, the Jump song and Who You Say I Am.

Todays reading is Matthew 25:31-46Open Link in New Window

Here is today’s reflection by Richard.

Our reading today is so very well known, the separation of the sheep from the goats, the good from the bad. It is about judgement, the final judgement and who is in and who is out. It is one of the passages that can make most of us uncomfortable to some degree. It always somehow makes me question my own actions and way of living. We are all saved by grace so this is not about works versus faith, but, it does challenge our motives and nudges us out of any complacency we may have had.

So what is this really all about, why sheep and goats? In Jesus day, sheep were herded with the goats and the variety of Palestinian sheep looked very similar to goats. If you Google images of Palestinian sheep you will see what I mean—their shape and colour are very much alike. At night the sheep would be separated from the goats as the goats needed to be herded together for warmth in the cool air. It was an image that would have been well understood in Jesus time. The right and left in Jewish culture represented on one hand favour and on the other disfavour, good and bad fortune. It is a very clear cut image, there is no middle ground.

In this allegory having separated the metaphorical sheep from the goats the Son of Man / The King says to those on the right they were favoured because they had:

  • Fed the hungry
  • Given water to the thirsty
  • Welcomed the stranger
  • Given clothes to those without any
  • Cared for the sick
  • And visited those in prison

Those on the left are declared accursed for not doing these things.

Who are the people who are being helped?

v40 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.” (other versions say brothers of mine)

v45 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.”

There are two schools of thought.

  1. The first is that Jesus was referring to his disciples and those who would follow them – the early Christians who were to go through all kinds of hardship for their faith. It makes sense that if people are kind or otherwise to Jesus’ followers, it is as though they are doing it to him.
  2. The second is more universal, Jesus is referring to anyone in need. If you help those in need it is though you are helping Jesus himself.

Today I am going to concentrate on the wider meaning of helping those in need, regardless of who they are.

The crux of this story lies in those being judged not being aware of their actions. Both the ‘sheep and goats’ appear surprised by the reason for selection either on the left or the right.

  • In the case of those who helped those in need they say ‘When did we do these things to you’
  • And those who found themselves on the wrong side ‘ When did we see you and not help you’?

There is a lovely story told by Tony Campolo the American sociologist and pastor about a minister friend of his. Some of you may have heard it but it is always worth listening again. It was Christmas time and Tony Campolo’s minister friend went to one of the expensive stores in New York just to look at dresses, something she did every year. As she was admiring what was on offer the lift went ding and out walked a homeless woman with a couple of carrier bags. She wondered what might happen and expected security to be called. Immediately the woman sales assistant walked over to her and said ‘hi, and ‘how are you today?’. The homeless woman said ‘ok’. The sales assistant then said ‘let me help you’ and proceeded to pick out a few highly expensive dresses and asked if she would like to try them on. They went into the changing area and the minister friend of Tony Campolo couldn’t resist going in as well to listen to the conversation. The sales assistant said comments along the line ‘that looks lovely on you’ as the homeless woman tried on the various dresses. When they finished the homeless woman said ‘I won’t be buying anything today’. The sales assistant said ‘that is absolutely fine but here is my card, whenever you come to this store be sure to ask for me’. After the homeless woman left the minister friend of Tony Campolo went over to the sales assistant and said ‘the way you treated that homeless woman was amazing—are you a Christian?’ The woman sales assistant said ‘yes why do you ask?’

The woman sales assistant was living out these verses, helping those around her was a natural extension of her faith so much so, she thought nothing of it—it was part of who she was. She didn’t feed the homeless woman, what she did was give something far greater—love, dignity and respect.

Over these last 3 weeks of our mini series we have looked at:

  • Meeting with Jesus and our hearts burning
  • Prayer, praise and thanksgiving for what Jesus has done for us
  • and this week our theme is loving service

One follows the other—we meet with Jesus, accept his love for us and in thankfulness, offer that love to others. This is not done in our own strength but by the power of the Holy Spirit. The Gospels tell us that when Jesus encountered those in need he had compassion—he healed the sick and fed the hungry. As followers of Jesus we are to do the same.

We live at a time where many things compete for our attention—even in these Covid 19 days. We are bombarded with a lot of need—through the media and in our daily encounters. It is easy to feel overwhelmed and the phrase ‘compassion fatigue’ is often used. There is no place for compassion fatigue in our Christian lives—that doesn’t mean we have to give to every appeal that comes through our door, but it does mean that we look at others with the heart of Jesus and do everything as if we are serving him.

As most of you know I have spent many years working with those facing poverty both here in Bristol and elsewhere.

Some years ago I was involved in a project to create a church community centre in Sofia in Bulgaria which focused on helping those most in need in the city and beyond. As part of one of the trips we visited an orphanage. As we arrived the children and young people came running out to greet us and we gave them gifts of chocolates and banana’s. We were shown around the orphanage and visited one of the rooms where the youngest children slept—2 bunk beds in a tiny room. As we entered they rolled out their filthy rug and they had nothing just a few dirty soft toys. I have to confess I broke down—the thought in my mind was ‘these could be my children’. On the way back to Sofia I cried my eyes out and had to wear dark glasses

That encounter changed me in some way and I can’t look at anyone in need without being stirred by a feeling of compassion. You will have your own encounters which have affected you deeply and made you look and the world differently.

But even having had this experience it is easy for me to slip into complacency and I can overlook those who God is calling me to serve.

When I get into this mode I remember the words of the pastor of the Bulgarian church ‘As a Christian I cannot look at the suffering around me and do nothing about it’


There will be a video version of the service and a podcast of the sermon.

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