Evangelism for Goats
This Sunday, I’m preaching on Matthew 25 as we begin a five-week series on the “Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations” by Robert Schnase, and the first chapter is “Radical Hospitality.” After reading the chapter, I can see that our church does well at this, for the most part. Our Vacation Bible School day met his highest standard for a welcoming, hospitable VBS that reached neighborhood children, not just our own. One thing we might be less practiced at – or at least one thing I’m less practiced at – is knowing what we have and why we want to offer it to others. I want people to feel the relief of knowing that Jesus lived, died, and was resurrected for my sake, and that I don’t have to worry about my eternal fate because Jesus takes care of that for me. I want others to know that they, like me, are loved unconditionally by the creator of the universe, and that life is a gift – even when it’s not perfect. I also recognize that we, as Christians, are supposed to be inviting people in to full participation in God’s family – knowing that they are children of God, growing to know God better, and sharing God’s love with others. That’s partly what Matthew 25 is about – in the last part of the chapter, Jesus explains that anything we do to the least of the members of the family of God, we do to him (and vice versa – anything we don’t do for them, we don’t do for Jesus). We’re supposed to reach out and care for others (being hospitable) so that we don’t end up like the people who are sent to “the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” These people are called “goats” and the righteous people, who were hospitable, are called “sheep.”
This is one of those great passages where we can look back on all the good things we did, reflect on how unrewarded we were for being nice, and remember that one day those terrible people who aren’t hospitable like us will get their comeuppance. They will “go away into eternal punishment” but we, the righteous, will go “into eternal life.” But here’s the question I have: why, in this great lesson on hospitality to people who are weak and vulnerable and not like us, are the goats being treated inhospitably? After all, aren’t the goats the ones that the sheep should have been welcoming this whole time?
Perhaps it’s just the last straw. After all these years of having hospitality offered to them and refusing it, the goats have lost their chance to be welcomed. Their reward is eternal punishment, alongside the people who are rich and the hypocritical religious leaders. But perhaps it’s hyperbole, just as it was hyperbole for Jesus to say that it’s harder for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God. I think it’s difficult to decide without more study, but I also think the point of this passage is lost if we read it as justification for our righteous suffering because those goats will eventually get what they deserve.
Matthew 25 isn’t supposed to be a warning for people who don’t join our church. It’s supposed to be a warning for people who claim to follow Jesus. It’s supposed to remind us that believing in Jesus is great, but following Jesus is what being a Christian is all about – and Jesus feeds the hungry, gives water to the thirsty, welcomes the stranger, clothes the naked, cares for the sick, and visits criminals. I don’t think Jesus would be thrilled to find Christians not doing those things – but can we escape the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels if we don’t practice this kind of radical hospitality? I’m not sure, but I have a feeling that “what is impossible for mortals is possible for God.”