The Sheep and the Goats (1//13/02)
University Congregational Church — Wichita, Kansas
For those of us in the mainline church who follow the Revised common Lectionary, this is an interesting time. The focus of the lectionary last year was the Gospel of Luke. This year it is the Gospel of Matthew. This may not sound like a big deal, until you take into account the fact that Luke and Matthew have quite differing views of Jesus. And because of the differences in their messages, the more careful listeners of my sermons will probably note a change in the messages you hear from this pulpit on Sunday mornings, at least on those weeks I preach on the lectionary passage.
I think this would be a good opportunity to explain some of the differences between Matthew and Luke. When those of us who study the Bible reflect on these differences, the first thing we ask ourselves is, “Why are these two accounts of Jesus so different?” To answer that, we have to ask ourselves where each of those two writers got their stories. What sources did Matthew and Luke use to write their accounts of the life of Jesus? Where did they get their information?
Most scholars will tell us that the actual names of the people who wrote these stories were not “Matthew” and “Luke.” Those names were applied to the gospels sometime in the 2nd century. And they tell us that these two stories were most likely written between 80 and 90 A.D., which means they were composed some 50 years after the death of Jesus. And for a variety of reasons which we will not go into this morning, scholars tell us that neither of these two authors knew Jesus personally. Still, for this discussion, we will call the authors of these gospels Matthew and Luke for the sake of clarity, and go back to the question: what sources did Matthew and Luke use to write their stories?
It is almost universally accepted that both Matthew and Luke had a copy of Mark’s gospel in front of them when they wrote their accounts. They used the order of Mark as a framework, and the various details of Mark’s gospel as their guide. They also had a list of the sayings of Jesus, which scholars call “Q.” Now, get that mental picture in your head, because it is significant to Bible study. Picture both Matthew and Luke sitting at their desks, each with a copy of the Gospel of Mark on one side of the desk and a copy of Jesus’ sayings—Q—on the other side of the desk. You would think they would write almost identical stories, but as I mentioned earlier, they are quite different
And this is one of the most interesting areas of Bible study. For example, if Matthew had a copy of Mark, why did he leave certain parts of Mark’s story out of his own account? Why did he rearrange the order in places? The same questions can be asked of Luke. One thing is certain: even though Matthew, Mark and Luke each believed Jesus of Nazareth was the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of God, they each had different ideas about the details of his life.
And even though Matthew and Luke used the same written sources for their gospel accounts, they evidently had heard the story of Jesus quite differently. They didn’t simply invent their different stories. Their particular communities of faith told the story of Jesus in different ways, and those oral traditions account for the differences between the Jesus we find in Matthew and the Jesus we find in Luke.
There are volumes of books that expand on what I’ve said about the reasons for the differences in Matthew and Luke, but I don’t want to turn our worship service into seminary class. So we’ll assume that what I’ve already said is enough background, and instead of asking why we find so many differences in Matthew and Luke, we’ll look at some of the differences themselves.
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First, consider the birth stories. Matthew has the newborn Jesus visited by wise men from the east. Luke has no wise men, and unlike Matthew, Luke reports that shepherds visit Jesus. This is the first hint about the many differences to come. Matthew’s primary message is that Jesus is the fulfillment of Jewish prophecy, and that Jesus is in the truest sense a king worthy of adulation by all earthly kings. So in Matthew’s story, it is wise men—kings from the east—who visit Jesus. Luke’s primary message is that Jesus, as God’s true Son, came to heal the sick, save the oppressed, and champion the poor. So Luke’s story has the newborn Son of God visited by shepherds, who were among the poorest of the poor in first century Israel. This is a hint of the differences to come. There is as much difference between Matthew’s and Luke’s gospels as there are between wealthy kings and poor shepherds. And even though our modern culture has mixed the birth stories together to place both wise men and shepherds at the side of the baby Jesus, that is not the way either Matthew or Luke tell the story.
Both Matthew and Luke collect a series of Jesus’ saying together and present them in the form of an extended teaching. In Matthew this is called the Sermon on the Mount, and in Luke it is called the Sermon on the Plain. Again, the difference in the way they view Jesus is stunning. Consider the symbolism in where Matthew and Luke have Jesus deliver his great sermon. For Matthew, Jesus delivers his message from on high—from the mount—looking down over the masses. For Luke, Jesus is down among the masses—on the plain—once again among the lowest of the low as he proclaims his truth.
And consider the message itself, as revealed in the Sermon on the Mount and the Sermon on the Plain. Listen to the differences in the beatitudes. In Luke, Jesus says, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” In Matthew, Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
Those are two very different things—the poor, and the poor in spirit. Consider the difference between what they have to say about hunger. Luke’s Jesus says, “Blessed are you who are hungry, for you will be filled.” Matthew’s Jesus says, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” Again, hungering, and hungering for righteousness, are two very different things.
I don’t want to spend the morning going through these two gospels and detailing every little difference, but hopefully you see the difference in tenor between Matthew and Luke. And let’s be honest here. Which of these two gospels do you think is easier to preach from this particular pulpit? Which gospel—Matthew’s or Luke’s—is easier for a well-off congregation to accept?
Believe me, it is Matthew’s! Luke’s is in complete sympathy with the poorest of the poor, and he is very hard on the rich. He is the ultimate champion of social justice. His is considered to be the heart of the social gospel. Luke’s message could be summarized, “If you don’t give away everything you have and spend your days actively helping the poor, you are not serving Jesus. Give away all your money, and all your possessions, and you too will be blessed.” That message preaches much better in the poorest areas of Honduras than it does in northwestern Wichita, Kansas.
While Matthew’s gospel is a little easier for those of us in 21st Century America to swallow, it is by no means tame, and today’s Bible passage is one of Matthew’s harshest writings. It comes from the 25th chapter of Matthew, and involves the great judgment at the end of the world. Many of us may consider this the downside to Matthew. His gospel believes strongly in both heaven and hell, and today’s message explains how to get on the heavenly side of the great divide. None of the other gospels contain this passage—it is peculiar to Matthew. What that tells us is that even in the very early days of the church, different congregations went down different paths. Just as there are different denominations today, with differing beliefs, then too there were different beliefs not only about the details of Jesus’ life, but also about the theological implications of the life he led.
These are the words of Jesus, according to the Gospel of Matthew:
When the Son of Man comes in his 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 king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom 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, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it 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 king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it for 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 will answer, “Lord, 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.
I personally do not believe in an eternal hell. Oh, I know hell exists. I’ve seen it in third world nations as children starve; I seen it in the slaughter of innocents as self-righteous zealots hide the politics of greed and hatred behind religious veils. I’ve seen it in the eyes of tortured souls fighting mental illness right here in Wichita.
But I can’t envision a final judgment the same way Matthew does, with the sheep and the goats being divided up, one group going to heaven and the other to the unquenchable fire. I believe hell belongs to the realm of time, it is ultimately conquerable, and that God alone reigns over eternity.
Still, I do believe we are responsible for what we do in this life. I have no idea how that plays out in the eternal scheme of things, but I believe each and every one of us is a free moral agent, capable of bringing both goodness and evil into this world. With our lives we have the capacity to make this world a more loving place. I believe that is why we are here, and I believe that God somehow holds us responsible for our actions in this world. That’s what that passage from Matthew says to me. I don’t believe in an eternal hell because I believe God’s love ultimately conquers everything, and I think God’s love somehow covers our mistakes, not from anything we do but simply because our God is a loving and forgiving God.
So even for those of us who do not believe in the literal hell Matthew evokes in this passage, we still think this is one of the greatest passages in the Bible. Matthew may not fill his gospel with the poor and oppressed the way Luke does, but he obviously feels they should be our concern. Beyond all that, I think this is a great Bible passage for one reason alone: it tells us directly where to find Jesus Christ.
Let’s think about that. Where should we go to look for Jesus? I suppose the most literal minded among us would say we should go to heaven, since the Bible says Jesus now sits at the right hand of God. Of course, believing that Jesus literally sits at the right hand of God causes a fair number of theological problems. That means Jesus is a physical being, even today, since he is sitting. It also means that heaven is a physical place, since the body of Jesus would need a place to sit. And most problematic of all, it means that God actually has a right hand, meaning that the creator of the universe, in whom we all live, and move, and have our being, and who holds all of creation in being moment to moment, is a guy that looks pretty much like you and me.
No, if we want to find Jesus, our answer won’t come in reducing the meaning of the Bible to something impossibly literal, with the very body Jesus had two thousand years ago now watching over us from somewhere just beyond the blue dome of the sky. A more philosophical answer to the question, “Where should we go to look for Jesus?” would be communion. Now this is getting a little closer to the truth. Because Jesus said that whenever two or more are gathered in his name he would be among them. And this certainly applies to communion, when through the most powerful of Christian sacraments we open ourselves to the mystery of our faith, and open our hearts to the love of God through Jesus Christ. So I believe communion is an appropriate place to look for Jesus.
But in today’s Bible passage, Matthew’s Jesus tells us quite specifically where Jesus can be found, and the answer isn’t philosophical at all—it’s very down to earth! Jesus can be found in the hungry, the thirsty, the lost stranger, the naked, the sick, the imprisoned. In the words of Jesus, he is to be found in the “least of these.”
We have to be careful not to sanitize what Jesus is saying here. It would be so easy for us to think we are serving Jesus when we help out the next door neighbor who has a flat tire, or when we are careful to be extra polite to the clerk at the local store. And those are certainly Christian behaviors, and they are certainly the way we should go through life. But Jesus doesn’t’ say, “When you were nice to your neighbors you were nice to me.” In fact, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus goes out of his way to tell us that loving the people who love us back yields no reward in the eyes of God. After commanding his disciples to love their enemies, he says, “If you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?”
I think this is one of the harder messages Jesus imparts, especially for those of us who have been raised in the modern Western world. Our culture teaches us that if we want it, we can get it if we work hard enough. And once we’ve got it, well, it’s ours, because we’ve earned it and we deserve it. It’s very hard for those of us who are thoroughly embedded in our culture, and who dearly love our country, to admit that self-interest and rugged individualism are not Christian principles. They are not necessarily unchristian. They are not evil, and our economy would be in one heck of a mess without them. But if we are honest with ourselves, we have to admit that they have nothing to do with the teachings of Jesus.
And this is where it’s much easier for me, as a person who stands in the pulpit and attempts to expound on the gospels, to be preaching from the Gospel of Matthew. I mean, Luke would pretty much tell us to give it all away. Matthew doesn’t tell us we can’t keep our stuff. He just reminds us that while we are living our abundant lives we must also serve Jesus, and he tells us how to do that: by caring for the poor and oppressed, and providing for the least among us.
Of course, on this subject, I know I’m preaching to the choir, as they say. You—the people of this congregation—are a constant source of inspiration for me. This church is doing some great things. When it comes to the sheep and the goats, I believe we are all safely on the proper side of the great divide. So as I consider today’s passage from Matthew, I’m very happy to say that my message is not let’s get busy. My message is simply keep up the good work. And from my heart, thank you, and God bless you, for everything you do.