Sheep Or Goat? Yes We Are – A Sermon On Matthew 25:31-46

The Great Judgment, Matthew 25:31-46, Sermon, Christ the King Sunday, Sheep and Goats,
By Philipp Peter Roos - Web Gallery of Art:   Image  Info about artwork, Public Domain,

Christ the King Sunday – Matthew 25:31-46

“And he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.”  

The Great Judgment, Matthew 25:31-46, Sermon, Christ the King Sunday, Sheep and Goats,
By Philipp Peter Roos – Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Separation, judgment, and punishment – welcome to church this morning. 

So what do you make of today’s gospel (Matthew 25: 31-46)? Is Jesus separating the good from the bad? Is Jesus saying some are welcome and included in the kingdom but others are rejected and excluded? Is Jesus keeping score of what we’ve done and left undone and then handing out rewards and punishment? And if he is, are you in or out, a sheep or a goat?

I suspect many would say yes, that’s exactly what he’s doing. That’s often how this text has been interpreted (or maybe misinterpreted). And too often that’s how we live. We separate ourselves from those who look, act, believe, live, and do differently from us. And then we label them as wrong and bad, and ourselves as right and good. Look at all the ways that is happening our country today – politics, race, immigration, the economy, the coronavirus. And the list goes on.

It’s not just happening at the national level, however. It’s also personal and local. I’ve made those kind of separations in my life and maybe you have too. When I look at those kind of separations in my life and our county I see the loss of relationships, the negation of human dignity, and the impoverishment of life. And that just doesn’t fit with how the gospels portray Jesus or what he says about himself. 

“God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world,” Jesus says, “but in order that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:17). “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10). What do we do with those verses in light of today’s gospel?

I wonder if we’ve misunderstood what’s happening when Jesus separates. Maybe the separation Jesus makes doesn’t look a thing like the separations we usually make. Maybe the purpose of the separation Jesus makes is the exact opposite of the purpose for which we often make separations. 

What if, for Jesus, separation is not the same as exclusion? What if badness is not an obstacle to being in the kingdom but neither is goodness a prerequisite? (Capon, Kingdom, Grace, Judgment, 507) After all, both groups in today’s gospel ask Jesus the same question, “Lord when was it that we saw you?” Neither had a clue about what they were doing, they just had different ways of being. And what if separation is a necessary and creative part of life? 

From the time we are born we are learning how to separate and make separations. It’s a natural and necessary part of life and growing up. A newborn experiences himself or herself as one with the world. Baby cries and the world responds with food, a dry diaper, cuddles and coos. Then one day baby cries and the world does not respond or takes too long, and baby begins to experience his or her separation from the world. 

Have you ever been around a child who was learning and practicing the word “No?” We call it the terrible twos but what’s really going on? It’s about separation. That little one is discovering some autonomy, individuality, and a new life. And it doesn’t end there. 

Do you remember the struggles, arguments, and difficulties of the adolescent years? It was a time of separating from parental authority, social norms, and beginning to discover our place in the world. 

Think about the day you or your child left home to go to school, start work, get married. That’s more separation and it was about creating a new life and a new way of being. 

The difficulty of those years is not so much about the two year old, adolescent, or young adult being wrong or bad, but a sign that separating, growing up, and claiming the fullness of our life is hard and often painful work, at any age, at every age. And it never ends. It’s an ongoing process of seeking to create and discover for ourselves life and more life. 

Every choice we make involves a separation. The only question is whether that separation is giving life or taking life. That’s the difference between the sheep and the goats. 

When have you had to separate yourself from another person or relationship, destructive patterns or behaviors, your work, busyness, fear, hatred, anger, resentment, disappointment in order to grow up, recover yourself, and let new life arise? When have you made a separation that was actually an exclusion and diminishment of life for yourself or another? 

Think about the creation story in Genesis and the necessity of separation. God separated light from darkness, the waters above the dome from the waters beneath the dome, the seas from the dry land, day from night. God wasn’t excluding, God was creating. 

Separation is at the center of creation and life. And what if that’s exactly what Jesus is doing in today’s gospel, separating in order to bring about a new creation, a new life, a new way of being, in you and me? It’s not about sheep or goats, but about sheep and goats. 

No one is all sheep or all goat. Who here has ever given food, water, or clothes to someone in need, visited someone in the hospital or jail, welcomed a stranger? Raise your hand if you have. You are a sheep. Who here has driven past the guy on the corner holding a sign that says, “Homeless and hungry,” or turned away from a stranger?  Raise your hand if you have. You are a goat. 

I’ve done both and it looks like you have too. So are we sheep or goats? Yes, yes we are. We are both. There are parts of our lives that are sheep-like and other parts that are goat-like.

I don’t know about you but it’s a whole lot easier for me to see and focus on the goat-like parts in you than in myself. I’d rather not have to face and deal with my goat-self. They are the wounded, fearful, self-betraying, and hurting parts of myself. They need growth, healing, and transformation. Or to put it in the imagery Jesus uses, they are the parts of myself in need of the “eternal fire.”

I want us to be careful here. Eternal is not about a length of time. It is a quality of God, a way of being. So when we speak of eternal life, we’re speaking about the divine life. And when we speak of eternal fire, we’re speaking about the divine fire. Both eternal life and eternal fire are God’s. It’s not as if eternal life is with God and eternal fire is apart from God. One is not an entrance to the kingdom and the other an exclusion from the kingdom. Both are within and aspects of the kingdom of God. 

This eternal fire let’s us see ourselves and others in a new light – in the light of compassion, mercy, justice, forgiveness, love. It is a purifying and refining fire, burning the dross of our life and revealing the gold that is already and always has been within us. The eternal fire is neither destructive nor exclusionary, but transformative and creative.

It’s like when I was a kid and put in time out. I was told to go sit on my bed and think about what I had done or said. My parents weren’t seeking retribution, but reformation. They didn’t want something from me, they wanted me. I was being separated but not excluded. The only reason for that separation was so that I might come back to my parents and sister with a new way of being, seeing, listening, relating, loving. 

The fire of time out was about my growing up and taking my place in the family, a place I had never lost. And I think that’s what’s happening in today’s gospel for the goats and the goat-like parts of your life and my life.

Let’s not deny, ignore, or run from the goat-like parts of our life. They are always places of hope, growth, new possibilities, and more life.  

The separation Jesus makes is never final, always conditional, and in anticipation of our returning to ourselves and one another with new life, more life. 

I wonder what that means for the goat-like parts of your life today? What are the wounded and hurting parts of your life in need of healing and transformation? What are the patterns and behaviors that continue to cause you to stumble and betray yourself? What dross needs to be burned away? From whom or what do you need to separate in order to make room and give space for new life to arise? 

And what are you doing about that?


    1. I would like to add what I didn’t have the nerve to say before. Thank you Father Mike and Irene Bender both from the bottom of my heart. My husband of 30 years died after a long, very painful end to his multiple myeloma on November 6.I miss him terribly and think of Jesus and words like yours for comfort

      Liked by 1 person

  1. “Let’s not deny, ignore, or run from the goat-like parts of our life. They are always places of hope, growth, new possibilities, and more life.” – These words are the light in the darkness for me, Father Mike. I am struggling this week as Tues would have been my second anniversary – alas my marriage ended in January of this year – we barely made it a year and then the pandemic hit and isolation completely set in. I will be spending Thanksgiving alone this year – as my family lives far away and we have all been battling bugs – thankfully I tested negative for COVID but you cannot be careful enough…

    I have never felt so separated and in the fire. Regret is like smoldering coals that burn away the soul slowly but surely and the past 10 months have been filled with regret magnified 10 times over. I keep looking for signs of new life, think I am about to experience its grace only to be reminded by some kind soul that divorce/annulment is a sin, that we were wrong to not work harder, that there is something wrong with me… All true.
    And then I am blessed further by these words: “The separation Jesus makes is never final, always conditional, and in anticipation of our returning to ourselves and one another with new life, more life.”
    I do know that I will never return to who I was, but I am being made new – every day is a step further on the journey – the end of which I will not know until I am raised up and made perfectly whole. This keeps me going. And perhaps I can extend the same grace you have given me to others feeling separated and forlorn. That is my truest hope.
    God Bless you. Have a happy Thanksgiving.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. What might seem like the end is a new beginning. Your married life ended but yoyr life goes on . God goes with you, look at your choices,dont wallow in regret and blame,especially blaming.
      Rejoice in peace and the assurance you are not alone on Thanksgiving day or any day.

      Liked by 2 people

    2. Erika, thank you for your comment. I remembered from some of our previous conversations your divorce and how painful that is for you. And I’ve also read in your comments over time how you are moving through this with faith and hope. That’s not easy or painless but you are doing it. Your comment reminds me that resurrection – a three day story in scripture – rarely happens in three days in our lived lives. It seems to me it’s less an event and more a process – often long and slow. I suspect we are always living into our resurrection.

      I hope you have a blessed and happy Thanksgiving. Peace be with you,

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Sometime ago somebody told me that shepherds used to put a few goats in with a herd of sheep – because goats are smarter, and sometimes follow instruction. This helped the shepherds move the other sheep around. What if the citation was to indicate that separating sheep from the goats simply meant that HE would lead the sheep from now on? What if it means that the goats (who already know God) will go off to be with other goats, and the sheep will be tended by God to be taught?


    1. Thanks Douglas. I think there are multiple interpretations for every text. I’ve not heard before what you said about goats hoping the shepherd move the sheep. That certainly offers another lens through which to read this text. Thank you.

      God’s peace be with you,


  3. I would love to utilize your thoughts and reflections for my sermon this weekend. I particularly find the comment regarding separation not being the same as exclusion very powerful. I sent a copyright request. I will give full credit.

    Liked by 1 person

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