The parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25 was the first text I ever preached on. It was at an early morning high school ministry called First Priority where students, youth pastors and teachers would speak along with about fifteen minutes of worship at the beginning of every meeting.
Now I don’t remember what I talked about from Matthew 25 and I would be almost too embarrassed to know because I’m sure it was very basic and I may have mostly missed Jesus’ point. However, I am joyful that this parable has stayed with me for so many years and that it continues to draw me into communion with God.
And maybe what draws me most profoundly about this parable is the element of confusion that seems to be shared by both the goats and the sheep. If you haven’t read the parable please do so now before moving forward.
Here is the scene: Jesus, sitting on His throne, separates all those before him to the right and to the left; on the right are the sheep and to the left are the goats. Jesus goes on the welcome the sheep into His kingdom and reject the goats who are then sent to ‘eternal punishment.’
And what basis does Jesus either welcome or reject these barnyard figures? The parable would indicated that it was solely on the basis of how the sheep and the goats cared for Jesus.
The sheep and goats stand in confusion. You can almost see their furry little animal faces with jaws dropped, eyes squinted playing back the highlight real of their lives and when it would have been that they had even seen Jesus. The sheep ponder within when it was they would have visit Jesus or given him a drink and the goats do the same though maybe with greater urgency.
Finally one of the sheep pipes up, when did we clothe you, feed you or give you a drink? When did we visit you in prison or welcome you into our home? The most extraverted goat asks the converse question. When did we not feed you or give you a drink? When did we not welcome you in? When would we even have had the chance?!
Jesus looks at the confused masses before him and says, “Whatever you did for the least of mine children you did for me.”
And then comes, like a tidal wave, the million dollar question at the heart of this parable—who are the least of these among us?
There are likewise a million ways to think about and attempt to answer this question but I want to consider it from a perspective that can be often neglected but which is at the heart of the Gospel of Christ.
Carl Jung is quoted saying,
“I admire Christians, because when you see someone who is hungry or thirsty, you see Jesus.
When you welcome a stranger, someone who is “strange” you welcome Jesus.
When you clothe someone who is naked, you clothe Jesus.
What I do not understand, however, is that Christians never seem to recognize Jesus in their own poverty.
You always want to do good to the poor outside you and at the same time you deny the poor person living inside you.
Why can’t you see Jesus in your own poverty, in you own hunger and thirst?
In all that is “strange” inside you: in the violence and the anguish that are beyond your control!
You are called to welcome all this, not to deny it’s existence, but to accept that it is there and to meet Jesus there.”
We Protestants have a nag for quoting the great commission that Jesus give to His disciples to “Go, make disciples…and follow Me” but we tend to major in the making and minor in the following—unless the following is primarily focused on more of the making.
What we have to come to grips with at some point in our following after Jesus is that he is not hiding from us. We have to eventually trust Him when he says He is with us always and stop looking for Him behind the next worship concert, prayer service, mission trip or passing prophetic words. Maybe even for a time we need to stop looking for him in other people whether poor or rich, of high status or low status, of upward mobility or extreme poverty. We have to, at some point, stop looking up down or all around for Jesus around us and start looking for Jesus within us.
Now this is not an exercise in navel gazing as is often a trend in popular Christianity. No, this is a call that Jesus gives to us to follow after Him and to become whole people. It is a call to drink of the living water so that within our life may come a spring that can quench the thirst of those God brings along our path.
Looking within to see the thirsty, hungry, homeless, angry, shamed, sad, lonely, fearful parts and then welcoming them as one would welcome Jesus is the core of the Gospel.
We all have past experiences that have wounded us and beat the shit out of us and left parts of our souls like abused neglected dogs. Fathers have abandoned us, mothers have emotionally steam rolled us, grandparents told us we had to be something we’re not, church men and women have run us out of town and strangers, even those we have only briefly met threw a windshield on the interstate have verbally and visually assaulted us.
All the parts of which walk around wounded, fearful, violent and shamed, these are the strangers we must welcome in, the imprisoned we must visit, the hungry and thirsty we must share a meal with. As Christians who have often grown up in the shame based religiosity of Christianity we have been taught, even covertly, to burry these strangers and prisoner within. We’ve been taught that these are the parts of us that will hinder us from encountering God, or at the very best we are taught that Jesus needs to heal those parts and once He does we can experience true intimacy with God and others.
Now we may have also had incredible experiences where God met us in our sin and shame but there is an unspoken rule that He is somehow standing above those situations and lifting us up “out of the miry clay.” This has left many of us, myself included, incredibly discouraged because that kind of image of Jesus leaves me feeling that I should have kicked the habit of my sin or insecurity, shame or anger. That image of Jesus doesn’t allow me to continually engage the stranger within because it presumes that such a stranger is not welcome—Jesus rescued me from that stranger so He wants me to be free from that stranger so that I can be closer to him.
So we play this out over and over again in our walk with Jesus that to be close to Him is to be separated from the inward stranger and to be close to the stranger is to be separated from Jesus.
What if I told you that the relational yoke Jesus is asking you to carry is less burdensome? What if you didn’t have to pretend that you weren’t broken in order to be with Jesus? What if you didn’t have to act like you weren’t fearful that God will abandon you in order for you to be close to him.
What if I said that in welcoming the deepest darkness within that you are welcoming Jesus. When you welcome what you consider strange or shameful within you then you are welcoming Jesus. And when you welcome parts of you that you are ashamed to even be associated with then you will find Jesus.
What if Jesus isn’t found out there once you’ve found your footing and your sin and shame are somewhat at bay, but He is found in whatever you do to the least of these within you?