The Parable of the Sheep and the Goats is often used by preachers like me to urge their congregation to be like the “sheep” in the parable. And since most of us are more “goat”-like than “sheep”-like, that means we need to “try harder.” The problem with this approach is that it ignores the context of the parable. Jesus is speaking here of Final Judgment. Salvation or damnation hangs in the balance. If the only difference between “sheep” and “goats” is that one did something that the other failed to do, then are we saying that we have to earn our way into heaven?
I hope not! If so, I’m lost, and so are you!
In this sermon, I’ll offer what I hope is a grace-filled way to understand the parable—one that will inspire us into doing good works rather than guilt-ing us into it.
Sermon Text: Matthew 25:31-46
[To listen on the go, right-click here to download an MP3.]
The following is my original sermon manuscript with footnotes.
Last Sunday marked the end of an era: In the game between the Kansas City Chiefs and the Denver Broncos, Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning, a future Hall-of-Famer, who now holds the record for most career passing yards, who has won a Super Bowl, and who is easily among the best to have ever played the game of football, Peyton Manning was benched. His coach put in the second-string guy. I can’t blame the coach: Last Sunday, Manning finished the day with just 35 yards on 5-of-20 passing, zero touchdowns, four interceptions, two sacks and an almost unheard-of zero passer rating. For the season, Manning has nine touchdown passes and 17 interceptions. It’s not good.
Manning went from being a hero to being a goat. It’s not the first time Manning has been a goat, just not usually during the regular season. In fact, the only knock against his career is that while he’s been consistently heroic during the regular season game, he’s sometimes been goat-like during the playoffs—and in two of this three Super Bowl appearances. Of course, football is a team sport, so he doesn’t deserve as much blame as he gets. Besides, this season, one problem is that he has plantar fasciitis, which I know from painful personal experience is just awful!
Heroes and goats… Have you heard that expression before? Sports writers, sports-talk radio show hosts, and sports fans use this expression often. I don’t know where it comes from—but it’s clear from today’s scripture that being a goat back in the first century was no better than being a goat in the twenty-first century!
What Jesus says about the “goats” in today’s scripture seems incredibly harsh and frightening: He says that at Final Judgment, the people who fall into that category of “goat” will “go away into eternal punishment.” They will go to hell. To make matters worse, Christ the King seems to make this determination—whether we’re identified as “sheep” or “goats”—based on works of mercy that we’ve performed such as giving food to the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, visiting the sick, and visiting people in prison.
So… how do we feel about this? Let me get a show of hands: If this parable makes you uncomfortable, raise your hand. My hand is raised, by the way. Why does it make us uncomfortable? Because, let’s face it, we more easily identify with the goats than we do with the sheep.
If you’re like me, when you read or hear this parable, you perform a quick mental inventory… “Feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty… When was the last time I volunteered at a homeless shelter? Um… I think it was 2010. And I didn’t want to do it then, but since I was the pastor, I felt like I had to, since so many of my parishioners were doing it. I didn’t want to look bad. But I did it, so… I’m going to count that. Check! Oh wait… just last Saturday I passed about a dozen panhandlers on my way to the football game, and I didn’t give any of them anything! I didn’t do it to the least of these.”
Truth be told, I don’t do most of these things very often, if ever. And I do some of them because I get paid to do it, so that doesn’t count. I don’t think I’m alone. I think most of us are more like goats than sheep! So are we in trouble?
This parable was featured on social media a lot last week—especially on blogs by Christians who were advocating for our letting in more Syrian refugees. In case you didn’t hear, many state governors, including our own, refuse to do so because at least one of the ISIS terrorists in Paris last week was also a Syrian refugee. And these governors fear that we may be letting in terrorists, as well. So people on both sides were fighting about it. What I’m about to say right now has nothing whatsoever to do with the political question of whether or how we’re going to help Syrian refugees; it only pertains to the way this parable was used to advocate for the Syrian refugees.
United Methodist megachurch pastor Adam Hamilton, for instance, on his blog, described the difference between the sheep and the goats in this parable. Whereas the goats, he said, “allowed their fear to override their compassion and humanity,” the sheep “found the courage to overcome their fears and to act with compassion and love.” And that’s the difference between the sheep and goats: one group did this; the other group didn’t do this.
My problem with this is that Hamilton left out way too much of the context: Jesus speaks these words in the context of Final Judgment. What’s at stake here is nothing less than salvation or damnation, heaven or hell. Does Hamilton really mean to say that the difference between those who are saved and those who are lost comes down to their ability to “find the courage to overcome their fears”?
Probably not. But without qualifying his words, he’s implying that we’re saved or lost based on what we do!
This isn’t the gospel of grace; it’s the gospel of good works! It’s the gospel of “try harder or else.” It’s the gospel of “try harder or be damned.” As I said last week when I talked about the parable of the Good Samaritan, if the message of today’s scripture is “try harder or else,” I’m in trouble. But Hamilton is also in trouble. We’re all in trouble!
This isn’t just me talking. Listen to the apostle Paul: “For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.” The law—the commandments that tell us that we’re supposed to do things such as feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and welcome the stranger—can only remind us of how often we fail to do these things. Or listen to the apostle James: “For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it.”
So, sure, maybe in the instance of Syrian refugees, Adam Hamilton and others are “overcoming their fear” by welcoming these strangers; they’re obeying God’s law. But aren’t there plenty of other times in Hamilton’s life when he fails to “overcome his fear” and doesn’t do what God commands? Aren’t there at least thousands, or tens of thousands, of times in his life when he “did not do it to one of the least of these”? That’s true for me! If the difference between the sheep and the goats boils down to what they do or what they fail to do, how will Hamilton and the rest of us not be condemned to hell?
Another politically outspoken pastor-blogger said that the issue of welcoming Syrian refugees “strikes at the core of the gospel.” And all I can say in response is, “I hope not!” Because once again, that implies that the gospel of Jesus Christ is mostly about something we’re supposed to do—it’s about our good behavior, our good works, our virtuous actions, our ability to obey God’s law. It implies that these behaviors define whether or not we’re sheep who go to heaven or goats who go to hell.
Again, if that’s the case, I’m lost and so are you.
Surely… surely this is not the message that Jesus is communicating because it would contradict so many other things that Jesus teaches and shows us—both in the gospels and in the rest of God’s Word.
Yet I’m afraid that preachers like me have used this scripture to make people feel guilty, ashamed, and scared for too long. And why not? It’s a powerful weapon in our arsenal for a preacher like me to tell my congregation: “Do this or else… face judgment and go to hell.” That message may get you to change your behavior in the short run, but it doesn’t change your heart.
Besides, even if we were doing all these things a lot more often than we are today—things like feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, visiting the sick, visiting those in prison—there would always be room for improvement. Right? Even the saintliest among us would sometimes fail to do the loving and merciful deed that was in our power to do. So even if we were much more sheep-like than we are today, there would still always be an occasion for our king to pronounce those frightening words of judgment: “Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” And we’d remember James’s words: “For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it.”
And we’d feel guilty and afraid. We’d worry. “I’m not doing enough. I’m not good enough. Maybe I’m not a sheep after all. Maybe I’m a goat. Maybe I’m not really saved.” At our best, we’d still be the spiritual equivalent of Peyton Manning—most of the time our good works would be heroic, but occasionally we’d slip and be a goat again. And if that’s the way we’re living our Christian life, how can we begin to experience the joy of salvation, the assurance that comes from God’s Spirit testifying with our spirit that we are children of God, the joy that Paul assumes should be ours when he tells us to “rejoice in the Lord always.”
There isn’t a single Christian alive who could measure up to Christ’s words in today’s parable! Even Pope Francis. He gave a talk last week to a group of Protestants—to Lutherans—in Italy, and he said, “I know that I’m a terrible sinner.” And it was such a relief to hear that! Because I know I’m a terrible sinner, too! But even this pope, who has distinguished himself through his merciful actions, even he, by his own admission, is positively goat-like at times.
So Jesus can’t be saying what we often think he is saying… Surely we’ve misunderstood him.
And one reason we’ve misunderstood him is because we think of this parable not as the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats, but the Parable of the Good Sheep and the Bad Sheep. What’s the difference? Well, think about it: You read this parable and say, “Oh, no! I’m not doing any of these things! I’m a goat! I need to go volunteer at a soup kitchen right away, then I’ll become a sheep.” But what you’re trying to do is impossible, isn’t it? Because there’s absolutely nothing that a goat can do to turn himself into a sheep. He can change his behavior; he can even start acting like a sheep as best he can, but he’s still a goat. They are different species!
But… if we imagine that Jesus is instead telling us the Parable of the Good Sheep and the Bad Sheep, well… if you’re a bad sheep, then you can change your behavior, you can do things, through God’s grace, to become a good sheep. That’s very possible. But a goat can never become a sheep.
And that’s what Jesus is talking about: not good sheep and bad sheep, but sheep and goats. He’s not telling us a story about behavior, primarily; he’s telling us a story about our identity identity. We don’t do these good deeds in order to become sheep; we do these things because we already are sheep.
The point is, you have to become a sheep first—not a “good” sheep, just a sheep sheep!
Did you hear the news about Charlie Sheen last week? He went on the Today Show and told Matt Lauer and the whole world that he has H.I.V. That he’s known about it for four years now, and for the past four years, he’s been blackmailed by many people who know his secret and threatened to go public with it—unless he paid them off. Which he did! He estimates that over the past four years he’s paid them upwards of ten million dollars! And he just can’t afford to do so anymore.
He told Lauer in the interview something that has the ring of gospel truth. He said that as of today, he’s not paying these people anymore. He said, “I think that I release myself from this prison today.” I can’t help but think of Jesus’ words in Luke 4, where he says that he came to “proclaim liberty to the captives,” or in John 8 where he says that we will know the truth, and the truth will set us free!
Let me tell you the truth about myself: I am someone who is hungry. I’m desperately hungry for the “bread of life” that Jesus Christ offers me, the “food that endures to eternal life.” I am someone who’s thirsty. Desperately thirsty for the “living water” that Jesus Christ offers me, which, when I drink it, will become “a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” I am a stranger. A stranger who desperately needs Jesus Christ to prepare a room for me in his Father’s house—who will take me to live with him there forever. I am naked, and I desperately need Jesus Christ to clothe me in “garments of salvation” and a “robe of righteousness,” as Isaiah says. I am sick. I’m sick with my own sinfulness, and I desperately need for Jesus Christ the Great Physician to forgive me, to heal me forever—so that even when I die, I’ll still be well. And I’m in prison because of my sin. I’m enslaved to it, and I desperately need Jesus Christ to “proclaim liberty to captives” like me, to set me free with the truth of his gospel message.
When I consider just how needy I am… I know that I’m the “least of these,” too—alongside all these others. And so are you. Our needs may not be physical like the needy people that Jesus mentions. But look at it this way: You know who the neediest people in the world are right now—not the ones who suffer physically in this world. But the ones who will face Jesus Christ our King on Judgment Day without having received the gift of forgiveness, the gift of new birth, the gift of eternal life that is ours as a free gift through Christ’s death and resurrection.
Remember I said earlier that there’s nothing a goat can do to become a sheep? I should have said, “There’s nothing a goat can do to become a sheep—apart from divine intervention, apart from a miracle.” It takes a miracle for a goat to become a sheep. Fortunately, that’s what God has done for us in Christ.
No one in the history of the world was able to do all of these sheep-like things and avoid doing all of these goat-like things except for Christ. He was the sheep that we are unable to be. He was the sheep on our behalf. In fact, the Bible uses special language to describe the kind of sheep he was: he was the Lamb. In Isaiah 53, which prophecies Christ, it says: “like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth.” In the first chapter of John’s gospel, when John the Baptist sees Jesus coming toward him, he says, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” Revelation chapter 7 describes saints and angels worshiping this Lamb, and it says that the robes that the saints are wearing have been washed white in the blood of the Lamb. It is only the blood of the Lamb that cleanses us from sin, not anything we do. In fact, as John the Baptist implied, Jesus Christ our Lamb took away our sins, died for our sins, paid the penalty for our sins. He takes away our sin and shame and guilt.
And because of that, now when Satan our Accuser tries to blackmail us with those words of guilt and fear, when he says to us, “You’re not feeding the hungry enough; you’re not clothing the naked enough; you’re not visiting the sick enough. You’re a goat, not a sheep. Get to work. Get to work now! Or you’re not going to make the cut when that Day of Judgment comes.”
Now we can say to Satan our Accuser, “You’re right… If you judge me based on who I am and what I do, I am a goat. On my own, apart from God’s grace, I can’t be a sheep; apart from God’s grace, I can’t do all these amazing things. Fortunately for me, there is a Sheep—a Lamb, in fact—who could do it for me. And this Lamb is the reason I can live my life with confidence, and joy, and peace rather than worry, and fear, and guilt.” Amen.
And Happy Thanksgiving.
 Romans 3:20 ESV
 James 2:10 NIV
 Philippians 4:4
 John 4:18
 John 6:27, 35
 John 4:10, 14
 John 14:2-3
 Isaiah 61:10
 Isaiah 53:7
 Revelation 7:9-14