Tomorrow is officially Christ the King Sunday (technically the Feast of Christ the King), but when I look at the Scriptures that will be read in liturgical churches around the world, I can’t wonder if it shouldn’t be called Sheep Sunday instead.
It’s a fairly casual mention in Psalm 100 (We are his people, the sheep of his pasture), but the members of the Ovis aires species are central to the Ezekiel and Matthew messages.
‘Therefore this is what the Sovereign Lord says to them: “See, I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep. Because you shove with flank and shoulder, butting all the weak sheep with your horns until you have driven them away, I will save my flock, and they will no longer be plundered. I will judge between one sheep and another.”‘ – Ezekiel 34:22
‘All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.’ – Matthew 25:32-33
The passage goes on to say that the people on his left will go to eternal punishment, but those on his right will go to eternal life.
That sounds like a pretty bad day for the lefties, doesn’t it? I’d sure hate to be a goat.
But as a friend of mine blogged a couple of years ago on this passage, goats and sheep have a lot in common.
Taxonomically, they’re more closely related than humans and chimpanzees, and esthetically, they look and sound more like each other than either of them do like any other animal I know of. They serve fairly similar purposes agriculturally, too – we keep both of them for their milk and their meat.
Most sheep’s actual primary purpose is to grow fleece we can shear off and use to make wool, but there are also plenty of hair sheep breeds – and these critters look a lot like goats.
According to Wikipedia, two key distinguishing characteristics are a goat‘s beard and a sheep’s divided upper lip. Not much of a difference, but I suppose wars have been fought based on less.
But sheep people are clearly treated better than goat people in this passage.
I wonder if the similarity of sheep and goats is key to the point Jesus is making here. Christians look like everyone else. We have jobs like everyone else. We eat, sleep and go to the bathroom like everyone else. We can watch TV, we can have a beer, we can use our money to buy a nice car or great vacations – all those things are fine.
None of those things are a goat’s beard, and the abstinence from them isn’t a sheep’s divided upper lip. So how do you know if you’re a sheep person or a goat person?
Thankfully, Jesus is uncharacteristically unambiguous on this point: feed the hungry, clothe the needy, look after the sick and visit the imprisoned. To Jesus, a sheep’s divided upper lip looks like caring for the least of these.
But how literally do we need to take this? Does Jesus require us to quit our jobs to roam hospital hallways looking for a neglected patient to dote on? Does He expect us to hang out at jails and penitentiaries looking for inmates to comfort – whether they like it or not?
Do we need to clean out our cupboards every week and give everything to the food bank? (The needs of the needy certainly outweigh all of the resources at our disposal. Do we need to sell everything we have and give it to the poor, before we can come and follow Jesus?)
I don’t think so.
First of all, Jesus doesn’t need anything from us. We are saved by grace alone, not by works, so caring for the least of these isn’t what saves us. As Atlanta megapastor Andy Stanley quipped recently, everything on our to-do list is merely a response to what God has already to-done.
And in Matthew 11:30, Jesus says ‘my yoke is easy and my burden is light‘, so I don’t think He needs constant, unsustainably grandiose activities from us.
But maybe there’s a struggling family in your church with a kid a little smaller than your son, and he could use the clothes Reader Jr. has outgrown. Maybe you heard that your neighbor’s under the weather, and a pot of home-made soup or a little help with the cleaning would be a huge relief for her. Perhaps you have an elderly uncle with mobility issues, and therefore his house feels a little like a prison. Maybe he needs some company.
These small gestures won’t change the world, but they might make the world a little more bearable for some of God’s own. And as we do for the least of these brothers and sisters of His, so we do for Him.
What might be most challenging in this passage isn’t how much we have to do in order to be able to check this box, but how little.
These activities seem so insignificant, and it’s so easy to put them off until tomorrow, or blow them off entirely. Nobody, including the folks who we could help if we chose, will know the difference, so it’s tempting to let those good deeds go undone.
But God knows.
And aside from a nudge here or there, or a tiny pang of guilt in our consciences, He’s content to let the sheep mingle with the goats, and let us decide which kind of bovine to be today.
And maybe more importantly, you know.
You know that Jesus didn’t save you so you could munch on tin cans like a goat.
You know that He saved you because He’s the Good Shepherd, and He came to save His sheep.
And you know that being a good sheep isn’t just good for others, it’s good for you. It’s often only by following the obvious, unglamorous instructions He’s already given us that we discover what else He has in mind for us.
You don’t want to go through life asheep to God’s big plan for you, do ewe?
So get out there and be a sheep, already.
Baa-ram-ewe! To your breed, your fleece, your clan be true! Sheep be true! Baa-ram-ewe!
Fleece be with you.