Matthew 25:31-46, February 14, 2021 – by Don Ludwig
Introduction: Benedictine Tradition
In the Benedictine tradition, there are monastics who practice something called statio. Statio means to pause on purpose; it’s the spiritual custom of finishing one task before beginning another. Sister Joan Chittister, a Benedictine nun, describes how her novice mistress insisted that the sisters in training be in the chapel five minutes before the bell rang for prayer––which was not necessarily what Sister Joan Chittister wanted to do.
She writes, “think of all the things that could have been done in that additional five minutes a day….Work, valuable work, could have been done and I could still have made it on time for prayer.” But she came to understand that “the practice of statio is meant to center us and make us conscious of what we’re about to do and make us present to the God who is present to us.” In many ways, the season of Lent is the statio season of the Christian calendar––this is that time when we take a breath and reflect before celebrating the resurrection.
The Sheep and the Goats
Our scripture reading for today is familiar since becoming a Matthew 25 church. It points to the end-times when the kin-dom of Jesus will be fully realized to the ends of the earth. Christ invites forward the sheep, those who have done well and says––“you fed me when I was hungry, clothed me when I was naked, visited me when I was in prison, and cared for me when I was sick.” The people are astonished, wondering when they had done these things for Christ, and he answers, “when you did these things for the least, the lowly, the unloved, you did them for me.”
But then come the goats. And many of us either become self righteous or judgemental or maybe even a bit uncomfortable. These complicit bystanders to injustice who fail to act, go away into “eternal punishment” and the “righteous into eternal life.” But here is the thing, neither the metaphorical sheep nor the goats even realize that they had opportunities to serve their king, they were just going about their business.
The fact is, so often we are just going about our business too. When we read this parable, we’re left wondering whether we’d be a sheep or a goat in the end? Let’s get real here. Are we unwittingly complicit in someone’s oppression? I think we should just go with, Yes. From potentially buying clothes that might have been made in sweatshops to consuming vegetables from farms where we don’t know the working conditions to purchasing a disposable plastic water bottle that will end up in that giant trash island in the ocean…
Just living our daily American life contributes to the degradation of people and the planet, without us thinking too much about it. Not to mention––when we drive past the person outside the grocery store or on the exit ramps with the sign asking for money––are we one of the goats, a bystander who does nothing to help?
We are all Sheep. We are all Goats.
Lent reminds us that we are all sheep, yes. But it also reminds us that we are all goats, too. This parable, as most parables are, simply rebels against the simple, allegorical interpretation. Like most of you I suspect, I do not believe in the dualistic nature of humanity––that sheep and goats are the opposite of one another. And I truly believe, neither did Jesus. People are much more complex. As Theologian Frederick Buechner says, “parables are a small story with a large point. Most of the ones Jesus told have a kind of sad fun about them.” The goats, the sheep, the judgmental shepherd, the hungry and the ones who offer food––we are all of these––these archetypes are within each of us. So what deeper truths might Jesus be alluding to here?
First, Jesus is making a theological statement about the nature of God. Jesus is saying that God is not some far-away being who sits above the clouds, or out in the mysterious far reaches of the universe. God is here, as close as our breath. God is in the messiness and uncertainty of human life. God is here, particularly in our neighbor––in the least of these, the vulnerable, the weak, the children. God is right here.
Second, Jesus is making a relational statement about how we are to care for one another in our lives. This text in Matthew emphasizes seeing the face of Christ in the “other”. We are not to degrade and abuse others because Jesus is there with them in their humanity. We care for one another because we are connected in the web of life, and the sacred is ever-present in that relationality.
Third, we are to give ourselves away in love, in the name of Jesus Christ, because to love is to live. Presbyterian Pastor John Buchanan says, “God wants to save us by touching our hearts with love. God wants to save us by persuading us to care and see other human beings who need us. God wants to save us from obsessing about ourselves, our own needs, by persuading us to forget about ourselves and worry about others.”
Statio: The Virtue of Presence
Friends, if we are going to be living signs of resurrection, if we are going to be part of the resistance to oppression in our country, if we are going to see the face of Christ in others, we need to realize that we are both the sheep and the goats of this story. Rather than Matthew 25 being seen as a dualistic description of humanity, it is a call to statio––the virtue of presence. It is a call to be truly honest with ourselves about who we are––about who others are––it is a call to be present in this and every moment of our lives.
The practice of statio, purposely ending one activity before beginning another, prepares us to take action on behalf of the vulnerable. But statio also also helps us to realize that we are among the “least of these” in need of care and mercy too.
And so I encourage each of you to practice statio this lenten season––I encourage you to be present––statio, the virtue of presence. Take a moment in between your busy activities to pause, to be present, to inhale, take in all that the last year has been for you––and exhale, let it all the way out, and pause before your next inhale. That pause is your statio.
And now because of that pause––you are prepared to begin afresh, holding Jesus’ vision of justice and caring for the most vulnerable in one hand, and knowing and feeling the amazing grace of God in the other.