Last Sunday after Pentecost, Year A, RCL, Track 1
Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24, Psalm 100, Matthew 25:31-46
“He will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left.” Or from Ezekiel, “I will judge between sheep and sheep, the fat and the lean.” Both passages tell us that on Christ’s return, there will be a reckoning and both passages give us clues as to how the judgment will be made. From Ezekiel, on the right side, God we will assemble the scattered and lost; the injured and weak. Jesus says on the right are those who fed the hungry and the thirsty, welcomed the stranger, clothed the naked, took care of the sick and imprisoned. On the left, we have those who were inhospitable, uncaring, and overlook people on the margins of society. Ezekiel is speaking about people who used their power and influence to get ahead of the weak and marginalized. These are the people who lived a self-p
urposed life; a life that revolved around their kin and their select crowd. These political statements are being made in both the Old Testament and the Gospel. We do not have to work hard to tease them apart, to see what they mean for us in our context today.
I encourage you to take home the bulletin insert, read these passages, and form your own opinion as to what they say. So today I want to move past what these words mean for our society and into what they mean for us as individuals. Each of us in one way or another has some degree of influence over others. I would also imagine that many of us have been hurt by someone who has had influence over us.
First of all, in the Bible, there is nothing wrong with either sheep or goats. Both are kosher animals. The Hebrew people could use them for milk, food, and clothing. Jesus uses these animals as an example of how people will be separate. “The son of Man will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.”
In this example, the difference between sheep and goats; or one person to another person is not something we can just look at and see. The passage is not talking about race or nationality as being the difference between sheep and goats. Nor is it saying that the wealthy are all on the left side of the sorting. Since we cannot visibly see the differences between sheep and sheep it can be difficult for us to know which type of sheep we are. This lack of clarity can lead us to having feelings of guilt or confusion.
When dealing with others we may find that it is not always apparent when our power and influence helps them. Sometimes we hurt them or others in the process. Finding out where we lie on this spectrum of right or left sheep is not easy. It is much easier for us to look at someone else and make our own determination. When we do this we are often wrong because we do not truly know the other person motivation. We may guess as to why one person punched another in the face or shot another individual in the back, but we do not truly know why they did it. Only they can speak for themselves. Again there is a lack of clarity, we see that one person did something wrong, something that hurt another individual and for all we know, the first person was not trying to hurt the second. Indeed, he may believe that he was trying to help.
There is a BBC TV show that my family watches called Fr. Brown. Fr. Brown is a Roman priest in a rural, post-war, early 1950’s, English town. Much like Jessica Fletcher, from Murder She Wrote, we usually find Fr. Brown in the midst of a murder. Through his deductive skill, not jumping to conclusions, and much to the Chief Inspectors chagrin, Brown is able to find the true culprit. What sets Fr. Brown apart from other mystery sleuths, that I have seen, is that he always has deep compassion not only for the victims but for the perpetrator of the crime. Occasionally he even lets the perpetrator go because Brown is trying to see God’s justice fulfilled above the justice of the law.
Some of the perpetrators murder out of greed while others murder out of their own psychological pain. They have been hurt by someone in the past and are distraught. The perpetrator then seeks justice by their own hand. In either case Fr. Brown often speaks to the person usually in the rite of confession. He offers them the Good News that the Gospels offer all of us. The Gospels tell us it doesn’t matter what sins we may have committed in the past or even what sins we find ourselves committing presently. It doesn’t matter whether we believe we are a sheep or a goat. The good news he spreads is that with true repentance and amendment of life, through Jesus Christ, we are offered remission of our sins. This repentance and forgiveness isn’t a panacea. It doesn’t make everything better. It doesn’t right the wrong. What it does is even more important. True repentance and amendment of life saves our souls.
Healing, within ourselves and for the people we have hurt, best begins when we acknowledge what we have done. Only then can we ask forgiveness from God and make amends to the person we hurt. Often this starts by asking forgiveness and being open to hearing how our actions hurt them. Through our true repentance, even if the victim cannot forgive us, we are forgiven by God. We are transformed from goats into sheep.
Fr. Brown has the ability to see all people as redeemable. This is striking and true. There is nothing that we have done or are doing that we cannot make right in the sight of God. Each of us can be the sheep of His pasture. All we have to do is ask.
“For the Lord is good;
his mercy is everlasting; *
and his faithfulness endures from age to age.”