On the importance of being a sheep

Image from usda.gov

Homily for Christ the King 2008

Ezekiel 34:11-12, 15-17
1 Corinthians 15:20-26, 28
Matthew 25:31-46

We all want to be counted in among the good guys – the sheep,
even if we bristle a bit because we understand being sheep-like
as being docile, easily fooled or easily led.
But in Jesus’ time – just the opposite meaning was understood.
Ancient middle easterners were impressed that sheep suffer in silence
and so sheep came to be symbolic of honor, courage and strength.
Goats, on the other hand, had a much less noble reputation
since male goats allowed other males access to their mates.
Suffering in silence and fidelity give us images of the two groups here,
but the real category of judgment in the parable is hospitality.

In Jesus’ time, hospitality was something extended only to strangers;
kindness to family members and friends was not considered hospitality
but rather the steadfast love expected in closer relationships.
So the outreach of those called sheep, here, to the hungry and thirsty,
to the sick, to those in need of clothing and to those in prison
is all to be understood as generosity to strangers.
It’s not enough, says the Lord, to be kind to those we know and love:
we must reach beyond our own circle to those outside it,
and especially to those who may have no circle of love themselves.

It’s true, isn’t it, that especially at this time of year,
we take some significant steps in this direction.
If you can smell a turkey or a pie in the oven
then pretty soon you’ll be hearing a Salvation Army bell ringer,
and you’ll find Giving Trees at the church doors,
and all manner of service organizations will be tapping you
for assistance for those in need.
And that’s just the way it should be –
or at least, it’s heading in the right direction.

The problem is that those most in need of a share in what we have
usually get but a small fraction of what we might offer.
Friends and family who already know our love and care for them
will receive, in some abundance, gifts they don’t really need
and gifts they may not even want,
while those who really need what we could give
will receive a good meal, a gift certificate,
a few gifts lest their children have nothing on Christmas morning.

Christmas morning…

We should note that in his speaking of the sheep and goats,
Jesus doesn’t mention Christmas…
He’s not speaking of this yearly season on our calendar
but rather, he’s talking about the whole of our lives.
Sacrificial generosity to strangers, especially the poor, says Jesus,
is meant to mark the lives of Christians,
not just their holy days.

Think of Lent: a season of spiritual training and exercise
meant to get us back into shape again as Christians, ready for Easter.

We could look at “the holidays,” from Thanksgiving through Christmas,
as a time to develop habits of hospitality, reaching out
to those whose names we don’t even know,
whose faces we might never see,
whose identities are unknown to us
save for a tag on a Giving Tree.

We might make “the holidays” a season of spiritual training and exercise,
building up the muscles of our generosity,
stretching the reach from our wallets to those in need,
keeping our eyes on the prize that will be awarded,
not to the sleek, the strong, the successful,
but to those who learn to find in the face of strangers,
the very face of Christ Jesus…

Every week we gather here for Word and worship,
for celebration and sacrament,
and we recognize the face, the body and blood of Christ
in the bread we break in his name,
in the cup we share in his memory.

May we who find the face of Christ in the Eucharist
be nourished to seek his face in the poor
and welcome him there to share our bounty
not only in this season of holiday giving
but in every season of our lives.



  1. Kinda interesting about the sheep.... I was watching an episode of a television series today on The Military Channel that spent time follwing the Marines of "Alpha" Company, 3rd Recon Battalion. Near the end of the episode, the Company Gunnery Sergeant made a comment about how "96% of us are sheep and the rest are either wolves or sheep dogs. The difference between the wolves and the dogs is that the wolves are independent operators - they can hit the flock whenever they want. The sheep dogs know the rules, and they go after the wolves when they break the rules", or words to that effect.

    Rather interesting in this context, I think....

  2. Hi Walt,

    What the Gunny Sgt was talking about is a speech made by William J. Bennett - in a lecture to the United States Naval Academy November 24, 1997.

    Part of his speeh was used by Lieutenant Colonel [Ret] Dave Grossman in his book, On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society.

    the book is an analysis of the physiological processes involved with killing another human being and its psychological and stress effects.

    If your interested in reading the analogy of sheep, sheepdogs and wolves see this link.


    Stay safe, ~ a sheepdog


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