Session 25: Sorting Out Sheep and Goats. Part I.

Good Friday 2020

This is post #25 of a series entitled RELIGION OR RELATIONSHIP: Five Days that Define Our Call in Christ. We hope you’ll enjoy this series of 27 podcasts and blogs that focuses a bit deeper on the first five days of what we now call Holy Week. Using the Gospel text found in Matthew 21 through 25, we explore the major differences between organized religion and true relationship with Christ. Practical sessions that give us Jesus’ view of spirituality as compared to the religiousness found in so many people today. Here’s the homepage for the entire series.

Click here to listen to the podcast version of this blog!

Today’s Lectio Divina: “When He finally arrives, blazing in beauty and all His angels with Him, the Son of Man will take His place on His glorious throne. Then all the nations will be arranged before Him and He will sort the people out, much as a shepherd sorts out sheep and goats, putting sheep to His right and goats to His left. Then the King will say to those on His right, ‘Enter, you who are blessed by My Father! Take what’s coming to you in this Kingdom. It’s been ready for you since the world’s foundation. And here’s why: I was hungry and you fed Me, I was thirsty and you gave Me a drink, I was homeless and you gave Me a room, I was shivering and you gave Me clothes, I was sick and you stopped to visit, I was in prison and you came to Me.’ Then those ‘sheep’ are going to say, ‘Master, what are You talking about? When did we ever see You hungry and feed You, thirsty and give You a drink? And when did we ever see You sick or in prison and come to You?’ Then the King will say, ‘I’m telling the solemn truth: Whenever you did one of these things to someone overlooked or ignored, that was Me—you did it to Me.’ Then He will turn to the ‘goats,’ the ones on His left, and say, ‘Get out, worthless goats! You’re good for nothing but the fires of hell. And why? Because—I was hungry and you gave Me no meal, I was thirsty and you gave Me no drink, I was homeless and you gave Me no bed, I was shivering and you gave Me no clothes, sick and in prison, and you never visited.’ Then those ‘goats’ are going to say, ‘Master, what are You talking about? When did we ever see You hungry or thirsty or homeless or shivering or sick or in prison and didn’t help?’He will answer them, ‘I’m telling the solemn truth: Whenever you failed to do one of these things to someone who was being overlooked or ignored, that was Me—you failed to do it to Me.’Then those ‘goats’ will be herded to their eternal doom, but the ‘sheep’ to their eternal reward.” Matthew 25: 31-46 (MsgB)

Over the years, for me and many others, Jesus’ sheep vs. the goats story has been a real head-scratcher. I mean, come on here, Jesus. Does eternal salvation vs. eternal damnation really all boil down to our good works or our lack of good works? Can our eternal destination of heaven or hell really be determined by our activity alone? And if that’s the case, Jesus, what about the reformation of grace which teaches us that salvation is not about good works but about relationship?

You see, this whole Lenten journey we’ve been taking thus far is based on the foundational truth that it’s Jesus and His life, death and resurrection that secures us in God, not the good works we humans do in order to earn a ticket to heaven.

So, in order to tackle these sticky theological questions, please allow me to take two blogs to unpack all this. And know that my words here will only be my feeble attempt in bringing some interpretation to these difficult issues. So now, let’s start here…

Sadly, many in the church have taken Jesus’ sheep vs. goat story and declared, “There you have it. Good works in Christ will save you, and the lack of good works will send you to hell.”

Now granted, for simplicity’s sake, that would be the easiest way for us to respond, especially if you’ve spent most of your life trying to be good for Jesus’ sake.

But hear this.

When any of us Christ-followers cherry-pick one particular scripture, declaring it to be the end-all in explaining everything about God, we stand in a dangerous place. History shows us that bad things happen when religious people put more weight on one specific text than finding balance in the whole truth of God, as found within the entirety of God’s Word.

You see, when it comes to the issue of salvation, the Bible has so much more to teach us than the simplistic “in or out” approach found here in Jesus’ story in Matthew 25. Now, please, don’t hear that I’m dismissing this text, calling it invalid or untruthful. But what I am trying to say is that it’s important for all of us who call ourselves Christ-followers to not cherry-pick this specific text and make it the proof text for a simplistic, and very limited world-view that God only loves good people while despising all others. Unfortunately, the church has a long history of declaring this type of heresy, and in each case when that happens, the end result is never good, nor does it glorify the God we desire to serve.

The Protestant reformation of 500 years ago had at its core the Truth that good works (or the lack of them) will never be at the center of Jesus’ gospel message. It’s grace that saves us. It’s God’s work through the words and works of His Son, Jesus of Nazareth, that saves a wretch like me.

So today, may I begin this unpacking of Jesus’ powerful story by simply saying this.

Don’t take this passage and quickly apply it to yourself (or others), declaring that your good works (or lack of them) will secure your place in heaven (or hell).

As a long-time pastor, who spent way too many years trying to get myself (and my parishioners) to be good for Jesus, it’s sad to hear how the misuse of this passage has done so much harm in people’s lives. Recently, I heard the story of Fred Rogers (Mr. Rogers), one of my heroes in the faith, and the nagging doubt he expressed to his loving wife, Joanne, as he came to the end of his days.

“Joanne, do you believe I’m a sheep or a goat?” Fred Rogers asked as he was dying from cancer.

Mrs. Rogers was astounded, like so many of us who benefited from the kindness and compassion of Fred’s life work, to hear her beloved husband question his salvation as he struggled to find worth in his lifetime of good work.

As I see it, it’s the work of Satan himself when a passage such as this is used to condemn a person, pushing them to believe that they’ve never done enough good works to be seen as a sheep in the Master’s eyes.

Who knows?

Maybe today, you are one of those like Mr. Rogers who occasionally battles with this text, wondering if you’ve done enough good to be on the good side of Jesus?

Fortunately, Mrs. Rogers spoke God’s truth to Fred on that day he found himself questioning his salvation. She reminded him of the good he had done, and then rightfully reminded him that Christianity is more about relationship with Christ than it is following rules and doing good works.

Got it?

More on all this, next time.

My Prayer: Father God, forgive me when I take one passage in Your Holy Word and elevate it above all others, making a doctrine out of one text rather than taking the time to integrate it with the whole of God’s Word. While I know that there is truth within Jesus’ story here in Matthew 25, allow me, Holy Spirit, to discern wisely for both myself and for others as I attempt to bring application into my life. For Your Name’s sake. Amen.

My Questions to Ponder: Where might I be guilty of over-simplifying today’s text? Am I looking at Jesus’ message much like Fred Rogers did, when under stress, he judged himself incorrectly? Have I been guilty of looking at others, judging them as goats, and then treating them in a manner that denies God’s love for them? Have I considered how the truth found within this passage needs to be rightly integrated with God’s eternal message of amazing grace?

So, what are you hearing from Jesus as we take this journey into the first 5 Days of Holy Week?

Religion or Relationship: Five Days that Define Our Call in Christ. 

A 27-session Lenten blog series from Matthew’s Holy Week Gospel.

Throughout the Lenten season (Ash Wednesday to Easter Sunday), you and I will take a deeper look at Matthew 21-25. In order to keep all the blog sessions organized, we suggest you bookmark our blog series home page for ease of use.

If you like what you’re reading, might we suggest you share this page with others!

Click here to go onto the next session in this series…

1 thought on “Session 25: Sorting Out Sheep and Goats. Part I.

  1. Pingback: Session 24: Stewarding Your Blessing Pot. | The Contemplative Activist (TCA)

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