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 who 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 brothers and sisters of mine, you did it to me.’ 41 Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You who 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.”
I have a memory of celebrating the lunar new year in 2015, which happened to be the year of the goat. During the festivities, a member of the church approached me with a curious question: why was it called the year of the goat instead of the year of the sheep? I clarified that while both sheep and goats are raised in China, sheep are primarily found in the grasslands of the country’s northern fringes, while goats are more commonly seen crossing all of China. Therefore, it’s tradition to refer to it as the year of the goat. She then shared that she had a fondness for sheep, and at first, I assumed it was because of sheep’s adorable fluffiness. However, it wasn’t until later, after reflecting on a well-known scripture, that I realized the deeper meaning behind her words.
Today is the last Sunday of the year before Advent. This Sunday is traditionally known as “Reign of Christ Sunday”. The gospel reading in the lectionary is Matthew 25.31–46, the so-called “judgement of all nations” also called “the Sheep and Goats” which is Jesus’ last speech and longest speech in public before Passion week. Jesus told his disciples that there would be a future scene of judgment after his glorious second coming. He will judge all nations depending on what they did and what they did not do. Sheep – representing the righteous people, are on the right because of their caring for the least of these, and goats are on the left because they did not. It seems that if you want to go to the kingdom of heaven, take care of the least of these. That is most commonly interpreted as an encouragement for followers of Jesus to care for the poor. Obviously, this scripture was a defining text that God favored the poor simply because they were poor, which is suggested in verses 35 – 36 “35for 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.” (25:35-36). This tells us that the more you help the poor the closer you are to the heart of God.
While studying “The Grace of God” while at VST, I began to feel troubled by this passage. Upon the interpretation that “the more you work for the poor the closer you are to the heart of God” can lead the people who serve the poor to fall into the trap of becoming self-righteous, thinking they are doing more important things than people involved in other ministries. It was not until I heard a pastor’s sermon a few years ago that I finally grasped the true essence of grace as it is relevant to this scripture. The pastor’s explanation was thought-provoking and highlighted something so obvious that I couldn’t believe I hadn’t noticed it all these years. Because I missed these verses, I think I missed the point of the story itself.
Let’s go back to the verse 34-39: “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?’ (25:34-39). In this passage, the sheep – representing the righteous individuals – seemingly have no recollection of the good deeds they have done. They are taken by surprise when Jesus commends them. These things have not been tracked. They said to Jesus, “Thank you for your commendation, and you have to forgive me here, but I do not actually remember what it is that you are talking about. I don’t recall seeing you hungry and giving you food, seeing you thirsty and giving you something to drink, seeing you naked and clothing you, seeing you in prison and visiting you. Forgive me Lord but could you remind me exactly when that was?”
Maybe Jesus might say it like this: “Did you remember the refugee family moving to your city and your church was trying to help them get settled?” “Did you remember your church helping the downtown homeless people with socks? Did you remember some of you from the church going to First United to give a foot-wash to the homeless people?” “Did you remember that some of you cooked lots of food to welcome newcomers?” “Did you remember your church made a donation to the school board to help the education of First Nations children?” “Yeah, Lord, we had forgotten about that, so many things that what we have done in our memory are blurred.” Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these you did it to me.”
Jesus came to Earth as a selfless act of love, offering his body and blood to nourish us, clothing us in his righteousness, and sacrificing his life to save us. He broke our chains and set us free out of mercy, grace, and kindness, not because we had anything to offer in return. We are transformed by His grace, filling our hearts with love and mercy that naturally spills over into everyday acts of kindness, justice, and love toward others.
As we approach next Sunday, we will be entering into the Advent Season. The word “advent” comes from the Latin word adventus, meaning “coming” or “arrival.” The Advent Season encompasses three meanings: it is a time for Christians to prepare for and celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ at Christmas, to rejoice in new life when someone accepts Jesus Christ as their Savior, and to eagerly anticipate Jesus’ second coming. As we look forward to his second coming, let us keep in mind the message of today’s scripture: Those who have been touched by Jesus’ grace do good without even thinking about it, as it has become a natural part of their lives. We do not prepare to earn anything, but rather because we have taken on the character of Jesus, and we have been changed and transformed by His grace.