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Sheep Nation, Goat Nation: based on Matt. 25:31-46, by Joe Ellis, Nov. 22, 2020

This is an important passage for me as its worked right into my job description. The job description says that I am to encourage the congregation to care for the hungry, the thirsty, the strangers, the naked, the sick, and those in prison. No mystery where that list came from. I’ve wondered at the part on leading the congregation in caring for the naked. I’ve imagined myself standing in front of the congregation saying, “As you all know, we have a lot of naked people in Telkwa. let’s clothe those exhibitionists.” Of course that’s not what the job description is getting at — it takes cue right from the passage we just heard. This passage has always been at the heart of the mandate of Christ followers to minister to the less fortunate in our communities. Jesus begins this passage saying, “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne.” Back in chapter 24 Jesus explains what he means by this, and that it will happen very soon. In Matthew 24, Jesus says that the sign of His coming in glory will be the destruction of the Jerusalem temple. Jesus is saying that the destruction of the temple will be proof that He has come in glory to the throne room of God. In describing himself as the Son of Man coming in glory, Jesus is drawing from a prophecy found in Daniel 7. In that chapter, Daniel is describing a dream he had. He describes different beasts coming up out the sea. Each beast represents a different King or nation. The last beast was especially bad — 1

crushing its victims underfoot, one of the beast’s horns symbolized a king who made war against the people of God, and blasphemed the Most High God. Daniel was told this fourth beast was a kingdom that would appear on the earth, and the king of that Kingdom would speak blasphemy against God and oppress God’s people. In Daniel’s vision, it’s after the fourth beast, or nation, comes onto the scene that the one like a Son of Man enters the picture. Just like the beasts represent different nations, the Son of Man represents Israel. In the vision, the Son of Man is enthroned by God’s and is given authority and sovereign power over all nations and peoples. In this passage, Jesus refers to Himself as the Son of Man — He is the embodiment of Israel. Jesus also refers to himself as King. As Son of Man and King, he will have authority to judge the nations — nations he describes as different animals — in this case sheep and the goats. Do you see the parallels? In Daniel, the Son of Man has authority over the nations, symbolized as different animals. In this passage, Jesus is painting a picture of what He will do with His authority over the nations, symbolized as sheep and goats. Let me briefly describe another passage from the First book of Enoch, an apocalyptic Hebrew writing. The passage is also a vision about animals and judgment. These animals also represent different nations, and the Lord judges these nations based on how they treat Israel — Israel appears as sheep within that vision. So, in “The Book of Enoch,” the animal nations are judged based on how they treat the sheep, Israel. In our passage Jesus is offering a different take. The animals/nations are judged not in how they treat Israel, they are 2

judged on how they treat the least of these — the hungry, thirsty, the lonely, sick and imprisoned. In Daniel and Enoch, the animals represent different nations. In our passage, Jesus says, “All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.” Most versions translate the passage as, “he will separate the people one from another...,” but Jesus doesn’t say people, he just says them. Maybe its not a big deal, but for me when you replace the word ‘them’ with ‘people,’ it makes the passage sound more individualistic, about judgment of individuals. I think that if making the passage sound individualistic shifts the focus of this passage. Jesus says, “All the nations will be gathered before him, and He will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.” He’s talking about separating the nations, not people. In Daniel and Enoch, the animals represent nations, not individuals. Of course, nations are comprised of people, but let’s be careful in too quickly saying that the goats and sheep are individual people. Let’s think about this passage in the terms Jesus uses — with the sheep and the goats representing nations. Jesus says that there are basically two types of nations — goats, and sheep. And there are some big differences between Goats and Sheep. Goats are sent off to eternal punishment. Sheep, on the other hand, inherit the Kingdom. I wonder if that gives us a clue as to the identity of the sheep. The sheep are shown to be citizens of the Kingdom of God. The sheep are shown to be subjects of the King, who is Jesus. Jesus is using the symbol of sheep, the 3

sheep who are always a symbol for Israel, yet Jesus takes this symbol and reshapes it. Here the sheep are subjects of the King, and that King is Jesus. The sheep are those who have been serving Jesus. The sheep represents the nation which has allegiance is to King Jesus. To me, this suggest that sheep are followers of Jesus, the Shepherd. That’s us. Our citizenship is not of this world, but belongs to the Kingdom of God. The goats are those who do not serve Jesus. In separating the nations, he separates those who are His subjects from those that are not. The other attribute that distinguishes the sheep from the goats is the way that they care for the least of these, the ones Jesus identifies as His brothers and sisters. In satisfying hunger and thirst, in welcoming the stranger, in clothing the naked, in caring for the sick and imprisoned, the sheep are revealed as sheep. In their neglect of those same people, the goats are revealed as goats. Here is where I think it is helpful to say that the sheep and goats are nations — it seems that the emphasis here is on the behaviour of the flock as a whole. Jesus is describing the types of things that the flock does — satisfying the hungry and thirsty, welcoming the stranger, caring for the sick, visiting the imprisoned. These are the activities that characterize the flock. For me, that recognition does a few things — first it helps me to recognize that caring for the least of these is not primarily an individual responsibility. This is the calling of the church, and we do this together. When you look at the activity of the church at large, it is easy to see how beautifully the flock is behaving as Jesus anticipated. The flock of Christ welcomes refugees, fights against sex trafficking, 4

helps the poor and marginalized find meaningful employment, offers welcome to lonely people, visits those in prison ministries, cares for the sick. I could go on and on but you don’t need me to. There is such an abundance of beautiful stories of how the flock is behaving exactly as Jesus anticipated we would. We just heard one example from Stephanie — I didn’t tell her we were looking at this passage, but her team is a case in point. Their story is just one example of those in the flock serving the least of these. For me, this recognition that we are part of the flock relieves me of the pressure of needing to check every box on the list. We are working together, and together the flock can accomplish far more than any one sheep could ever accomplish alone. This makes room for seasons of activity and seasons of rest. This makes room for discerning God’s particular call on my life — discerning how God is calling me to serve and in what particular way. I don’t need to be all things for all people, I just need to do my part in the flock. Yet, the recognition that we are all part of the flock does not let us off the hook. This passage is intended to make us uncomfortable. When Jesus came, he came to the poor, the outcast, the demonically oppressed, the sick, the marginalized. If we find ourselves avoiding all those people, we should pause to ask what’s wrong? If we find ourselves only entertaining people like ourselves, people that we are comfortable with, people that can repay the favour, we need to ask why we are so unlike the King. If we are not acting like the sheep described in this flock, we need to ask why? We need to search for how the King is calling you and I, our church, to serve in His flock. We answer this 5

question as individual sheep, as a church, as a denomination, as united followers of Christ throughout the world. This parable points to the reality that sheep and goats don’t exist in isolation of each other. In reality we’re all mixed up. Sheep have always lived among the nations, whether the goat is Egypt, Rome, China, England, the U.S. Canada or any other nation throughout the world. Within these nations it is often difficult to hold on to our identity as sheep without assimilating into the goat’s identity. As sheep, we can often be tempted to live more like goats, and embrace dehumanizing goat practices of the nation. We need to remember our primary identity of sheep in the flock. God sends prophets to remind us of who we are. In England, William Wilberforce called Christians not to embrace the goat practice of England which supported the African slave trade. Wilberforce worked towards legislation to dismantled the practice altogether. Dietrich Bonhoeffer called the church in Germany to resist the dehumanizing cult of the Nazi regime. In the U.S., Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” called the white sheep in the United States to stop turning a blind eye and stand alongside the black community in protesting the discriminatory practices of the nation. Through these prophets, the sheep were called to return to their identity as sheep and stand against the inhumane treatment of the vulnerable of the nation. Through King and Wilberforce the nation itself became a bit more sheep-like. Yet these nations never really become sheep. I don’t believe there is such thing as a Christian nation outside of those who have sworn allegiance to the King. The only Christian Kingdom is the 6

Kingdom of God. Sure, there may be nations who act more sheep-like, but those nations are still a goat. The challenge is to hold on to our integrity as sheep when living in a Goat-nation. Sometimes the nation is more humane. In those times we, as sheep, can unite insofar as the nation shares our interest of serving and protecting the most vulnerable. Yet we protest and resist whenever the nation shows its goat nature: trampling on and ignoring the rights of others. In that sense, this parable is very similar to the judgment of the nations in Daniel and Enoch, both depict judgment of the nations based on how they treat the vulnerable. In this light, the parable may help frame the tension expressed by Christians in how the government has responded to COVID. On the one hand, we’ve argued that our nation and its authorities are expressing sheep concerns, desiring to protect the vulnerable from the virus. That goal is commendable and we can cooperate in working towards that goal. Yet we can also have conversations on how to best achieve that goal while protecting people who are vulnerable in other ways — such as those who’s work is being seriously harmed by these restrictions, or the vulnerable who find themselves isolated and find their mental health deteriorating, or vulnerable little ones for whom spending more time with abusive family members is not a good thing. We can challenge our government to work with us in seeking the welfare of all the vulnerable. On the other hand, some argue that our nation and its authorities have showed more their goat nature throughout this time. That the nation has used COVID as a way of grabbing power, and that they've made things unnecessarily difficult, 7

including for Christians — for example, you can go to a movie theatre but can’t go to church. These are the tension that Christians navigate through — how to live as a sheep in a Goat nation. How to hold nations accountable when they are a mixed bag. Goat Nations will never be sheep. The nation of Sheep is the Kingdom of God. Until the Kingdom comes in fulness, we must be true to our calling as sheep — serving the King by serving the most vulnerable. At times, the nations we find ourselves in will be a partial ally. At other times, the goat nation will resist and obstruct. Often it will be a mixed bag, we will find both an ally and an enemy in our nation. That is the challenge. Yet, wherever we live, whoever the leader, whichever goat nation collects our taxes, as sheep we swear allegiance to the Good Shepherd, our Lord and King, Jesus Christ. Him we serve by serving the least of these, His brothers and sisters. Amen.


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