April 30, 2023

Matthew 25:31-46

“Little Ones”

Thanks to the SPY participants for helping me to bring that Parable of Jesus to life. It has been one of our theme passages this weekend, so it made sense to me that we share it with you in worship this morning. Most of you are probably quite familiar with this well-known parable, but it’s definitely one of the stranger stories that Jesus told.

It may be helpful to note that it’s not a story about something that happened, and it’s not even a story about something that WILL happen, as if Jesus is predicting the future. But it’s a parable – a symbolic story with a deeper meaning and an important message.

It’s a message that Jesus believed his followers should hear, a message that the author of Matthew thought his community of late-first century Jewish Christians should hear, and a message that I believe is super relevant for us today.

It’s a parable about the end of time or the final judgement day. And Jesus, referring to himself as the “Son of Man” or the “Son of Humanity” is also depicted as a king.

At the time that Jesus told this story, it was likely towards the end of his ministry when plots against his life were already underway and it was becoming quite clear that he was going to end up dead. But he tells his followers that his ultimate end will not be death, but he’ll be sitting on a throne, surrounded by angels, and enacting God’s final judgement at the end of time.

Jesus the Sovereign has all the people of the world gathered before him, and he begins to separate them into two groups. He divides them up like a shepherd separates sheep from goats. He puts the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. The sheep receive the gift of eternal life and the joy of heaven. But the goats are sent away to suffer in eternal punishment.

I have to say that I don’t like that part – when the goats are sent away. I mean, I know that they have messed up, and been selfish, and neglected others, but won’t God be gracious and merciful to them? Won’t God show them how to change and help them to do better?

I guess that’s why I don’t think this is a story about something that WILL happen in the future. I think it’s a story to help us to avoid this being the final outcome. This story is one of the ways that God’s grace and mercy are being shown to us – through the life and teaching of Jesus – so that this won’t be what happens at the end.

Of course, the message of the parable is a call to us to treat our neighbours with love, care, and dignity. Especially those who have particular needs or lacks, and those who are suffering should be our concern.

The story reminds us that our faith is not primarily about how much we love Jesus, or go to church, or pray to God, or do religious things. Our faith is about how we live with one another in the world, and how we enact love and care for those among us who are in need. Loving Jesus and doing church stuff is good too – not just for it’s own sake though- but because it inspires, equips, and helps us to practice the love God made us to do.

A passage about love comes to mind from 1 John 4:20-21 – “Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their siblings, are liars; for those who do not love a sibling whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from God is this: those who love God must love their siblings also.”

The best example that we have of this is in the life of Jesus himself. Yes, Jesus was a religious person who loved God, prayed to God, and participated in traditional faith practices like going to synagogue, celebrating the festivals, and following the commandments.

But what set Jesus apart was the way that he saw and loved all the left-out, rejected, misunderstood, under-estimated, persecuted, and poor people of his time. Women, children, lepers, prostitutes, tax collectors, foreigners, and pretty much anyone that others would identify as sinful or disreputable or unimportant. Jesus welcomed them, and listened to them. Jesus loved them, healed them, helped them, and became friends with them.

But what strikes me about Jesus’ ministry among marginal people is that he didn’t do it as a powerful, privileged king or a respected religious leader. He wasn’t a person of high estate who deigned to welcome and show charity towards the poor.

Jesus was a marginal person himself. He had little money, no home, no position of power, and his preaching got him more trouble than recognition. In the parable, at the end of time he’s recognized as the King, but in his life in the world he claimed no such power. Jesus was a “little one” (perhaps even the least?) who invited other “little ones” (fisher-people, tax collectors, women, & others) to join him in seeing, loving, welcoming, and caring for “little ones.”

As I tried to make sense of the parable this week, I found myself wondering about the imagery of sheep and goats. Certainly, there are lots of references in Scripture to God’s people as sheep.

You might think of Psalm 23 “The Lord is my shepherd,” or Psalm 100 that we heard this morning, “We are the sheep of God’s pasture,” John 10 in which Jesus describes himself as “the Good Shepherd,” or Luke 15 where Jesus tells a story about going to search for the one sheep that is lost.

But why is it that the sheep end up in heaven while the goats get sent away? What’s so terrible about goats?

Although sheep and goats are similar in many regards, they have some important differences. While goats are fiercely independent, curious in nature, and have a knack for finding trouble, sheep have a flocking instinct. When sheep are under threat or weathering a storm, they will naturally flock together into a group, and they can become distressed when they are separated from others.

And whereas sheep are grazers who eat short grasses and clover from near the ground, goats eat pretty much everything they come across, and often things they are not supposed to eat. They get up on their hind legs to eat all the leaves of vulnerable trees and end up killing them. They reach for whatever seems good to them with no regard for the damage they will do.

Perhaps I’m being a bit hard on goats. After all, they can be pretty cute. After our discussion about sheep and goats at Bible study earlier this week, Carole shared the most adorable video of a group of baby goats jumping and frolicking. And without goats, we wouldn’t have yummy goat cheese or even goat meat, which is a staple food for many people.

But the people who are “like” goats are what Jesus is getting at here. When we are only out for ourselves, when we do not care about our impact on our neighbours, or see the needs of our siblings. Jesus is saying that we need to be more “like” sheep – following the voice and direction of the shepherd, and flocking together in communities of care for all.

The sheep are “little ones” too. They’re known for being not super smart, or independent, or important. At least, only a Good Shepherd like Jesus recognizes that every single one of them is precious.

And that reminds me of another part of our service this morning at First Church. Heather and Mitchell brought their precious children to church today so that they could be baptized.

Baptism carries a lot of meaning. It washes away our sin and assures us that we are forgiven. It symbolizes our dying with Christ and being raised to new life with him. It promises the gift of the Holy Spirit to comfort, guide, and inspire us.

But today, I’m particularly taking note of the fact that Baptism declares that each one of us is a beloved child of God. “Little ones” that we may be, we are made by God, and loved by God, and precious to God just like Jesus welcomed and loved the “little ones” of his time.

And baptism is not just a ceremony that happens once, often when we are tiny, and then it’s done. Baptism is also a sending, a commissioning, and an empowering with God’s Spirit for us to join in Jesus’ mission of love in the world.

Lucas and Emily are little ones with a mission of love for other little ones they will see and meet in the world as they live as sheep of the Good Shepherd. And we, as baptized children of God, are little ones too, who share in that same mission each and every day.

Many years ago when I was a camper at a Presbyterian Church Camp, I remember doing a little sharing exercise with our activity group. We’d spent most of a week together, and I guess our counsellors thought it would be meaningful for us to share some feedback with each other. Everyone had a chance to write something they appreciated about each other camper in the group. And then, we got to write something that person could improve or work on – some constructive criticism.

I don’t know what those counsellors were thinking when they came up with that sharing activity, because nearly 40 years later, I don’t remember what nice things people wrote about me. I only remember that both my counsellors gave me the same constructive criticism, “Amanda could be more outgoing.”

I can laugh about it now, thinking about how they never would have guessed that the quiet, even shy little 10 year-old in their camper group would grow up to be a preacher. But that’s exactly the kind of person that Christ calls to share in the mission of love – the little ones, the sheep, who will flock together and create communities of care where all the little ones belong.

This parable need not cause us to wonder, “Am I a sheep or a goat? Will I spend eternity in glory with Jesus or have an eternity of suffering instead?”

The story is simply an invitation to embrace our true identity as sheep of the shepherd, to recognize that we are the little ones with a mission of love for other little ones, and to let the Spirit guide us to see and to love our neighbours in need.