This is the story that has had goats down through the ages saying, “What’d we ever do to you? It was the dadgum snake that caused all the trouble, right?”
Of course, Jesus doesn’t mean people to see goats as cursed animals, although my aunt had one that made our dog, an animal that growled exactly twice in 16 years of life, angry enough to growl, snap and try to take a chunk out of it. What he wants his listeners to know is that when the time comes for judgment, God will know what he is doing. He will know one kind of person from the other kind of person, and the fact that they might seem kind of similar – sheep and goats both eat grass, run in herds, and produce a lot of fertilizer behind them, for example – won’t keep him from knowing what’s what.
We might now have some faint interest in what will characterize these different kinds of people, I’d imagine. Some of it might be obvious, after all. There will be some really, really bad people who are going to be in a lot of trouble. We all know them and we can point them out, even if our list may not be exactly the same as God’s list. Surprisingly, “chewed me out for being mouthy” is not something that will send our high-school vice-principal to hell.
Some of it will not be so obvious. We can see why Jesus approves of the people who offer help to those in need. It’s what he wants us to do and what he modeled for us. But when we come to those others, those ones sitting stage left when the final curtain comes down, things fuzz up some. They’re not murderers or thieves, it seems, and we don’t see them accused of crossing the line on any of the rest of the Top Ten “Do Not Break” List.
It seems like they even help some people. When Jesus accuses them of not helping him, they ask when they ever saw him needy and passed him by. I take this to mean that they did help some people sometimes.
Perhaps Jesus wants them to have helped everybody they ever met who was in need? But I don’t know that anyone can meet that standard. If that’s where the line is drawn, then I think we’re all goats. Which lets no one off the hook about helping people in need, by the way, in case that’s not clear. Jesus shows definite approval of what the people on his right did. I think the line between the two groups gets drawn partly by what they did or didn’t do, but also by what they saw that made them act that way.
Both groups are surprised by what Jesus tells them. The approved group is surprised that they were serving Jesus when they helped other people. The disapproved group is surprised that Jesus thinks they’d ever refuse to serve him.
After all, he’s the Lord, and people owe their lords and masters proper service. No one in their right mind refuses their king.
And that, I suspect, is where Jesus would tell them the problem is. They didn’t see their king. They had an eye out for him, sure, but their own version of what he would be like clouded their perceptions. They didn’t expect to meet their king in the middle of the least, the last and the lost, and so they didn’t see him when he was right there in front of them.
This king, you see, looks at things a little differently. In his view, he is here to serve his people. His ultimate service will be through his death and resurrection, but along the way he will serve them as he can with his teaching and what he does. Every last one of them, from the mighty to the mighty lowly.
Sure, the folks who did right didn’t know Jesus was there in the midst of them as they reached out to people in need. But by reaching out, they showed the same kind of care and compassion for those people as Jesus did, even if it was in a more limited fashion. When they saw the least of these as people whom they could help, they brought Jesus with them into those situations. Jesus was going to value every human being on the planet, no matter what their circumstances, as worth his life. Those who help others show how they value those people as well.
The others, they didn’t see Jesus in the faces of those in need. So they didn’t bring him into those interactions. They looked right past folks whom Jesus had already determined were worth dying for, unwilling to offer them anything.
May God save us all from that same kind of overlooking in our lives, and forgive us when we have done the same.