The following is a very familiar passage, so familiar perhaps, that we might skip through it rather than read it carefully. So to help us slow down and read more carefully, let me ask you as you read it to identify what the sheep are and are not aware of:
31 “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. 32 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, 33 and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 34 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; 35 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, 36 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.’ 37 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? 38 And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39 And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you? ’ 40 And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me. (Matthew 25:31-40 NRSV)
What are the sheep aware of? People in need and how to help. That was easy, now, what are the sheep not aware of? Easiest to spot is that they are not aware that in serving “the least of these” they are really serving the King. They are also not aware of the potential for a reward through their service. Finally, the sheep are not aware that not only are they serving the Son of Man, the King, through serving others, they are emulating Him. Being generous in a time of need is the kind of thing God does. Consider the exodus from Egypt:
7 Then the Lord said, “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, 8 and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the country of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. 9 The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them. 10 So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt (Exodus 3:7-10 NRSV)
God saw the need, he heard the distress of the people in need, and he helped. That rescue of God’s people in the Old Testament pointed to an even greater rescue to come for people facing the greatest need ever. In Biblical times, and today there is slavery, there is oppression, there is division and painful dividing. There is addiction, there is violence and violation. There is conflict, international, and interpersonal. What is at the heart of all that? Exactly that which God came to save us from: sin. There are many who are unaware of sin, who are unaware of needing a rescue, but before we are ever aware of our need for God’s love, God knew our need and had the rescue already planned out. Sin separates us from God and destroys our ability to be fully human and in full relationship with other humans, but God was moved to help: “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:28 NRSV)
As sheep, we are called to emulate the Son of Man, Jesus, and be gospel people. Yes, sometimes we will sense and know a specific call from God to “go here and do that” or better, “go there, and help them.” But whether we sense that specific call or not, we all have a call to be gospel people. What do gospel people do? Gospel people proclaim God’s gospel, the good news of God’s rescue of us from the penalty and power of sin in Christ. But Gospel people also live the gospel. Having been rescued, we seek to rescue. Having been helped in our need, we seek to help others in their need. How much of ourselves are we to give? How much generosity is enough? To answer that we do well to remember “the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.” (2 Corinthians 8:9 NRSV)
Being in the midst of a bathroom renovation I was interested in a recent tv show highlighting some really spiffy bathroom renovations. One such cost over $500,000. I don’t know about you, but I do not want to stand before the Lord someday and explain why I felt that was necessary. Nor do I want to stand before the millions living without running water and explain why I need a loo worth half-a-million American dollars. But are there financial decisions I will be ashamed of? Are you and I really aware of the need and our potential to help? What does generosity look like in your life?
41 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; 42 for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 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. ’ 44 Then they also 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? ’ 45 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. ’ 46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life. (Matthew 25:41-46 NRSV)