Many worship services around Thanksgiving will have a harvest theme. As the hymn says, “All is safely gathered in, ere the winter storms begin …” And in these here parts, it had better be gathered by now or it’s going to freeze!
Harvest is not something much of the country typically experiences. For urban and suburban America, food comes dried or frozen. If it’s fresh, it’s hauled to the supermarket in refrigerated trucks. Thanks to the wonders of technology and transportation, even seasonal produce is now available year-round. The grocery-store chains haul it in — sometimes even fly it in – from Florida, California, or even other countries.
If any of us plant vegetable gardens in the summer, it’s by choice. We do it not because we need to, but because we enjoy the taste of those fresh tomatoes. In our lives, the difference between a good harvest and a bad one is a couple dollars per pound in the produce section – not whether we eat or go hungry.
But for Jesus’ disciples – and for just about everyone else in the ancient Near East – the harvest is a subject of intense personal interest. When Jesus tells a parable about a shepherd’s harvest, the ordinary act of separating sheep from goats, it’s something everyone can relate to.
To this day, it’s common for Palestinian shepherds to raise sheep and goats. The two species graze together, side by side. There’s a practical reason for this: sheep are quiet, docile creatures, while goats are more stubborn. Should an intruder — human or animal — try to sneak up and drive the herd away, the goats will raise a ruckus to bring the shepherd running. And when he moves the flock, the goats, having been raised with the sheep, go along with the flock more easily.
When the harvest comes and it’s time to shear the sheep or bring them to market, the shepherd must separate them from the goats. The shepherd stands there, staff in hand, nudging each beast one way or the other.
When Jesus sets out to teach his followers about God’s judgment, He recalls this familiar scene: sheep go one way, goats the other.
Most of us have heard this passage as a guilt-inducing story. Those who teach it that way assume it’s mostly about the church and how some of us will make it into heaven and some of us won’t. Some of us, this interpretation goes, are going to be awfully surprised when we learn which side of the barbed wire we’re on.
But, while that’s part of the message, that’s not likely how Jesus’ followers would have heard the tale. The very first line would have grabbed their attention: “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 …” (Matthew 25:32).
The words that would have grabbed their attention are: “All the nations will be gathered before him.”
“OK,” those Jewish listeners would say to themselves, rubbing their hands together in glee, “this is the moment we’ve been waiting for. Now we’re going to hear how those goats, the Gentiles, are going to get theirs, while we sheep from the house of Israel will be saved.”
But that’s not the way the story ends up. Jesus the storyteller deals them a surprise ending, one that surely shakes their beliefs to the foundations.
First, neither sheep nor goats in the story recognize the Messiah when He comes. All of them are equally clueless. “Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty, or a stranger or naked or imprisoned?”
The messiah answers, “Just as you did it to the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” Members of my family? Say it isn’t so, Lord!
Second, the distinguishing feature between the two sets of people is not ethnic identity, as Jesus’ listeners suppose. Neither sheep nor goats seem to know which group they belong to, until the shepherd sorts them. Once they find themselves in that group, they haven’t the slightest idea how they got there.
So, this isn’t the old story about God’s people Israel being destined for salvation at the last, while all the Gentiles go to perdition. Jesus is spinning an entirely new tale. The distinguishing feature in this story isn’t who your parents were. It’s some invisible mark only the shepherd-judge seems able to see.
A moment later, Jesus clues His listeners in on that distinguishing mark. It’s whether or not they’ve lived in a caring, compassionate way. It’s not ethnicity, but empathy. Not membership, but mercy. Not lineage, but love.
This was a truly revolutionary message in that day and age, and probably not a message many of Jesus’ listeners wanted to hear. They were looking to have their prejudices confirmed, their patriotic fervor pumped up. Instead, Jesus is saying, “Look, in the last judgment it’s not going to be as you expect. The judge will look not at outward circumstances, but deep into the heart. Some who think they’re sheep will find themselves to be goats, while others who thought they were goats will discover they’re sheep after all.” Not all Israel will be saved, and not all Gentiles will be lost.
When we hear this story told in church, it often fills believers with fear and dread. We hear it as a message of doom, addressed primarily to the faithful. It’s like the medical school dean who tells her entering class each year, “Look at the student sitting on the right of you, then look at the one on the left. One of you three is not going to graduate.” Gulp.
But there’s another way of hearing Jesus’ story: as a message of hope addressed not to an in-group of true believers, but to the entire world. Remember that the story begins: “All the nations will be gathered before him …” Not just the people of Israel. Not just the devout faithful. But “all the nations.” Everyone.
All people will be judged, and some will be found worthy – both within Israel and outside it. The standard of judgment will not be the usual self-righteous human standard. It will have nothing to do with what groups we belong to. It will have everything to do with the people we’ve reached out to. It will have nothing to do with the love we’ve felt inside. It will have everything to do with the acts of love we’ve performed.
“But what about faith?” you may ask. “This sounds awfully close to works-righteousness.” Protestants know all about that. Those of us who are Protestants have been taught from a young age that we’re justified not by good works, but by grace through faith.
The parable of the sheep and the goats doesn’t rule out justification by faith. But it does hold up a truth Protestants are sometimes not so eager to recognize that genuine faith inevitably issues in good works. If you don’t have the good works, you probably don’t have the faith, either.
Most of us will sit at a Thanksgiving table somewhere this time of year. We spend at least a few moments with heads bowed, effusively telling God how thankful we are. The message of this disturbing parable is that God’s not so interested in our thankful words. God would much rather see our thankful deeds.
If our faith has become more a matter of believing than doing, then there’s still time to change that. Many churches are just wrapping up stewardship season. We are talking about stewardship right now, and I want you to understand that, while the stewardship of money is important, the stewardship of time and talents is just as important. We encourage tithing in the church: giving 10% of income to the work of Christ, either through our congregation or through other worthy causes. But what if each of us were to give 10% of our time to God as well, personally ministering to the least of these, who are members of Christ’s family?
Previously, when I’ve talked about this idea, I have not been very kind and spoke of tithing on 24 hours, but if we spend eight hours a day sleeping, then that leaves 16 waking hours. One-tenth of that is 1.6 hours. Multiply that figure by seven, and you get just over 11 hours a week. Just think of what we could accomplish for the Lord if every member of every church tithed 11 hours a week to Christian work! An army of willing Christian workers would rise up such as the world has never seen!
“When did we see you, Lord? Was it during the hours we spent binge-watching the latest TV series or going shopping just for fun? Was it during the time we spent cleaning the house, chasing the Martha Stewart ideal? Or was it those extra hours we put in at work, hoping to curry the boss’ favor and get that promotion?”
There’s nothing wrong with any of these activities, but if they leave little or no time for serving Jesus Christ, then what kind of disciples are we, really? When the Great Shepherd of the sheep calls us into His presence one day, and asks us to account for our time, how will we answer?
Try giving just a little of your time to the work of Christ, and your life will never be the same. Such was the experience of a wealthy Christian who went along on a trip to India, sponsored by an organization called the Ministry of Money. The trip was called “a pilgrimage of reverse mission.” At first, the man feared that this was an attempt to get him to give money. But no, the trip’s leaders explained, their goal was to get him, and others in the group, in direct contact with poor people.
They visited Mother Teresa’s mission to the destitute and dying of Calcutta. Here’s what the man wrote later about his experience:
“Calcutta was undoubtedly the most depressing, undesirable place we visited, but it was also the place of greatest joy for me. … I was feeding a withered, brown, old man with a gray stubble beard. He was too weak to sit up and was covered with a blanket. I accidentally spilled a few grains of rice onto his neck. At first, I didn’t want to retrieve the rice because I didn’t want to risk touching him. After some time, however, I realized that the rice was probably uncomfortable to him and that the only thing to do was to remove it with my own fingers.
“As soon as I touched him, all heaven broke loose. He began to speak, smile and wiggle his head in that peculiar Indian way. Though I couldn’t understand the words, the body language was unmistakable: he was overwhelmed with the simple joy of a kind human touch. The feeding continued for some time, interspersed with numerous outbursts of joy from him.
“Somewhere during this time something surprising happened to me. A big, childish, irrepressible grin came over my face. I had become infected with his joy. It was a joy so deep that I had almost forgotten that such feelings even existed. Joy just seemed to flow between us as we looked at each other. Then thoughts began to come to me. I realized that up until this point my reading, thinking, and experiencing of Calcutta had focused on the suffering of the poor and on the identification of Jesus (and ourselves) with their suffering. But here I was being confronted with an experience of pure joy which seemed to contradict all of that. If indeed I had met Jesus in this man, then I had met not only the suffering Jesus, but also the Jesus of great joy.”
There’s another story, closer to home, about a Presbyterian Church in Texas. This church had given money to help build a clinic to provide healthcare for poor people in their local area. Not long after the clinic opened, it came to the attention of the church’s governing board, the session, that some of the poor being cared for were undocumented immigrants.
This created a sharp division in the church. Half the session believed their financial support should continue, and half believed it should be cut off because giving healthcare to “illegals” was to disregard the laws of the nation.
After many meetings and much prayer, the session turned to a conflict-resolution specialist to help them. The consultant challenged the session to take a field trip to the clinic and experience its ministry firsthand.
A meeting was set up with the medical staff, but when the elders got there, they found everything running behind schedule. The receptionist asked the group to sit in the waiting room until the doctors and nurses were free.
One of the harshest critics of the clinic was an older man, who happened to catch the eye of a tiny Latino boy who was there with his mother. Without a hint of hesitation, the boy toddled over to the man and gave him a big smile. Then he climbed into the man’s lap.
Before long, the boy was playing with elder’s tie and laughing, as the man entertained him with his grandfather’s repertoire of games and songs.
At long last the session members were called into their meeting. The older man asked the medical team about the little boy and his family. Yes, they were undocumented. They had come in that day to receive the basic immunizations nearly every American child receives, but not commonly available to poor people south of the border.
Later that week, as the session gathered to discuss their experience, this elder who’d been the determined opponent of the clinic project spoke eloquently about how it important it is to provide healthcare to all God’s family, regardless of legal status. The session voted to continue their funding of the storefront clinic.
“When did we see you sick, Lord?”
“You saw me in the dark and laughing eyes of a little boy. He spoke no English and you no Spanish, but your hearts met and danced with each other.”
It’s Thanksgiving season, the time of the harvest. What sort of harvest does God reap?
Some may think God’s harvest is our harvest: the portion of the money and time we have at our disposal that we donate to the work of Christ. But that’s not what God’s harvest consists of. God’s harvest is not what we give, but who we are.
We are the harvest. We are the sheep that the careful and discerning judge separates from the goats. Some may still be surprised by which side of the fence they occupy, but you don’t need to be among them. For we are the ones to whom, by sheer grace, He will one day say, “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.”