Sheep, Goats and MPs - St Bride's: Reflection

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Sheep, Goats and MPs

Matthew 25: 31-46

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31 When the Son of man shall come in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then shall he sit upon the throne of his glory:

32 And before him shall be gathered all nations: and he shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats:

33 And he shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left.

34 Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world:

35 For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in:

36 Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me.

37 Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink?

38 When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee?

39 Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee?

40 And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.

41 Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels:

42 For I was an hungred, and ye gave me no meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me no drink:

43 I was a stranger, and ye took me not in: naked, and ye clothed me not: sick, and in prison, and ye visited me not.

44 Then shall they also answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, or athirst, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not minister unto thee?

45 Then shall he answer them, saying, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me.

46 And these shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal.

Sheep, Goats and MPs
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Discovered amongst the papers of an eighteenth century land owner and Member of Parliament named John Ward was a prayer that had clearly been written by the MP himself, some time during the 1700s. John Ward's prayer runs as follows:

O Lord, Thou knowest I have mine estates in the City of London, and likewise that I have lately purchased an estate ... in the County of Essex. I beseech Thee to preserve the two counties of Middlesex and Essex from fire and earthquake, and, as I have a mortgage in Herefordshire, I beg of Thee likewise to have an eye of compassion on that county; [as] for the rest of the counties, Thou mayest deal with them as Thou art pleased.

Which probably tells you all you need to know about Members of Parliament. Although it did also remind me of that apocryphal prayer that some of you may have come across, in some version or another, the gist of which is: 'God bless me and my wife, my son and his wife.  Us four - no more.'         

I have to say that, when I first came across that prayer by John Ward, I didn't know whether to laugh (because it is actually quite funny) - or to weep (because it is so far removed from a true prayer of faith). Because one of the most important things about prayer is precisely that it helps to turn our attention outwards, as well as inwards; it helps us to focus upon things that lie beyond our own immediate concerns. Which is why the Book of Common Prayer specifically entreats us 'to pray as well for others as for ourselves, that we may know more truly the greatness of God's love and show forth in our lives the fruits of his grace.'  

Because although people argue endless about whether or not prayer actually works (I happen to believe very firmly that it does, but that is another sermon), one of the things that is much more readily demonstrated is its astonishing power to change us: to change the way that we see the world; to change the way we relate to other people; to change who and what we are. And the longer I am in ministry, the more I am convinced by that.   

Which brings me on to today's gospel reading: the famous parable of the separation of the sheep and the goats, which Jesus tells as a metaphor for the way in which the righteous and unrighteous are separated by the judgment of God at the end of time. It is in fact easy to miss the full force of this parable unless you know something about animal husbandry in ancient Palestine. Because the particular breeds of sheep and goats that are native to that region are almost impossible to tell apart. Only the trained eye of the experienced shepherd can distinguish them with ease. To an outsider they might appear to be one and the same species, but they are in fact fundamentally, and essentially different.

And Jesus uses this parable as a model for distinguishing between different kinds of human being - because, at the risk of stating the glaringly obvious, although outwardly, in their essential physical characteristics, human beings might look rather like each other, in terms of what is written in their hearts - in terms of who and what they truly are - we are all profoundly different. And the way in which the Son of Man tells the difference between the righteous and the unrighteous in our parable, between the human 'sheep' and 'goats' is not by what they say - but by what they do; because it is how we behave that reveals the truth about who we really are. As the Lord says to the righteous in the parable:

For I was an-hungred, and ye gave me meat; I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me.

But what is so marvellous about this parable is what happens next - because we discover that the righteous are completely taken aback by his observation, as they had no recollection of ever having done anything of the sort:

Lord, when saw we thee an-hungred, and fed thee? Or thirsty, and gave thee drink? When saw we thee a stranger and took thee in? or naked and clothed thee?  Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison and came unto thee?

To which the Lord replies:

Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.

So why is it that the righteous in the parable are completely unaware that they have done these things, things that matter so much in the eyes of God? It seems to me that the answer is this: it was because such acts of kindness and generosity of heart have become so much a part of the fabric of their lives that they have become second nature. They saw a human need, so they went out of their way to meet it, by offering help to the afflicted and the vulnerable. They have become the people that they are, through living generously and graciously.  It has become for them a whole way of life.

By the same token, the unrighteous are equally taken aback to be condemned for never having done any of the above. And it is very easy for us to sit back, rather smugly, and condemn them. However, for me this is where the parable gets seriously scary.  Because the likelihood is that the unrighteous people in the parable were not fundamentally cruel or hard-hearted - and they would have been outraged at the suggestion that they were; rather, one suspects that they were people rather like John Ward MP in the eighteenth century who, like him, had become so wrapped up in their own self-centred issues and concerns that they had become completely unaware of, or indifferent to, the needs of those around them. Their self-centredness had become second nature, to the point where they could no longer see beyond it.  

By the standards of his times, I doubt that John Ward MP was a particularly evil or sinful man. But he does come across as a man who had spent so much of his life preoccupied with his own investments and estates that he had lost all sense that there were other things that mattered; and in the process he had lost the capacity, or the inclination, to question how his attitude tied in with his belief in the Christian God.  Which is why today's parable is so alarming. Because that can so easily happen to any of us - even the most fervent of churchgoers among us.

The Greek philosopher Aristotle was very interesting on the subject of character, and the way in which good character is formed over time, through the exercising of virtue. In other words, he was of the view that, if you fill your life with virtuous acts, with acts of kindness and benevolence, and do that for long enough, then that will alter, fundamentally, the kind of person you are. That is how you grow in virtue.

I glimpsed a wonderful modern day equivalent of this in a remarkable radio interview in February 1996, with a woman called Gee Walker, whose teenage son Anthony was murdered in a racially motivated assault. She was asked about her extraordinary capacity to voice her forgiveness for his attackers, and in response she replied, 'Forgiveness is something we need to practice.'

'Forgiveness is something we need to practice.'  What an extraordinary thought!  I don't think that it had really occurred to me before that we might actually become better at forgiving people by practising it - but Gee Walker was, of course, absolutely right.  Because if we practice it enough it will, in time, become part of the fabric of who we are; it will change us, and it will change us profoundly.

And of course, the same is true of every other aspect of our behaviour: our capacity for generosity of heart; our readiness to go to the aid of those who are in distress; our willingness to help and support the vulnerable. Over time, if we do these things often enough, they will begin to change the kinds of people we are. And of course, the reverse is equally true: live ungenerously, and ungraciously, and you will become an ungenerous and ungracious human being. Those negative qualities will become part of the fabric of your lives and begin to define who and what you are.

As Christians we do, of course, start with one heck of an advantage, because our starting point is the knowledge that we are ourselves loved and valued by a generous and gracious God, whose Spirit has the power to fill our hearts, and transform our lives. And we have before us the model of self-sacrificial love that is Christ, the one who calls us to follow him. Although what we choose to make of that advantage, and that invitation, is of course entirely up to us.

I began by quoting that rather excruciatingly revealing prayer by John Ward MP - a prayer that is so shamelessly self-centred that it beggars belief. But, by way of a contrast, what, then would a true prayer of faith look lie?

Here is one example. The American Trappist monk, and writer on spirituality, Thomas Merton, who died in 1968, wrote the following prayer. I love its honesty, and its integrity, and the fact that the focus of this prayer, in stark contrast to the one by John Ward with which I began, is ultimately on God, rather than self.  Merton wrote this:

My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going.  I do not see the road ahead of me.  I cannot know for certain where it will end.  Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so.  But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you.  And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing.  I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.  And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it.

Therefore I will trust you always.  Though I may seem lost and in the shadow of death, I will not fear, for you are with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.        

And thanks be to God for that. Amen.

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