Sheep and Goats

I can’t believe all the opinions I found about the goodness of sheep and the badness of goats trying to answer the question “What does Jesus have against goats?” I’ve got an answer. Nothing. According to the parable the Son of Man is not sorting sheep or goats. He is sorting people. They are simply divided the way a shepherd does. It’s a literary device. A simile. Through out the rest of the parable it is about those on the right or the left. You might recall in Exodus 12, when the original instructions for Passover were offered people were told they should choose a lamb of either a sheep or a goat.

Premised on how God has welcomed us, in the teachings of Jesus and the Apostle Paul, hospitality is presented as central to Christians’ life together. Today our culture reduces ‘hospitality’ to friendliness and private entertaining and with regard to the stranger, the indigent and the powerless, we have foisted this ancient obligation onto government and not for profit programs. Has genuine hospitality become a lost art? Christian hospitality remains a public and economic reality by which God re-creates us through the places and people we are given. Recovering this ancient tradition is essential in a world that has grown terrifyingly defensive and harsh.

Sarah Dylan Breuer says that all are invited to experience ‘salvation’ without precondition. And then goes on to answer the question “… what is salvation”? Both Jesus and Paul saw salvation not as merely a promise of a blessed afterlife. Salvation is something that starts today, and it’s about a certain kind of life — specifically, a life in community. And in both Jesus’ view and Paul’s, that’s not just any community, it’s a family. Jesus said that anyone who hears God’s word and does it is his sister or brother or mother (Mark 3:35). And the metaphor Paul most often uses for what we are as the Church, for who we are in Christ, is that we are sisters and brothers. Some modern translations have mangled that by employing the word “believers” for seeing the body of Christ of consisting of brothers and sisters. In other words, the invitation Jesus gives us is the invitation to relationship — with one another as much as with him and with the God who created us. Jesus’ invitation to us, his ragtag band of disciples from all nations, is to join God’s people. The invitation to join the community is issued to everyone. But the quality of life in the community — the extent to which our life together is an experience of members of one Body of Christ and a foretaste of the kingdom of heaven come to earth now — has a direct relationship to how we choose to live together once we accept Jesus’ invitation. That’s the invitation issued to us today. That’s the vision we’re called to claim as ours until it is realized for the world.

That’s the challenge of this parable spoken by Jesus.

Matthew 25:31-46

When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. 32All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left.

Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’

Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ 40And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’

Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’

Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ 45Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ 46And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

As this parable is structured several things are important to acknowledge. Jesus sets this parable in terms of the Pharisaic doctrine of the resurrection of the body and the eternal life of the soul with which the Jews of his day were familiar. It is set in the Kingdom of God, sometime after earthly life has concluded and all is said and done. There is no opportunity for any do-over or changes. There is no opportunity to make a defense or offer a list of reasons, excuses or alibis. The Son of Man does a basic sort of all humankind. Sheep on his right. Goats on his left.

I can’t believe all the opinions I found about the goodness of sheep and the badness of goats trying to answer the question “What does Jesus have against goats?” I’ve got an answer. Nothing. According to the parable the Son of Man is not sorting sheep or goats. He is sorting people. They are simply divided the way a shepherd does. It’s a literary device. A simile. Through out the rest of the parable it is about those on the right or the left. You might recall in Exodus 12, when the original instructions for passover were offered people were told they should choose a lamb of either a sheep or a goat.

The one of the throne pronounces sentences. To those on the right he says: ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world’… And to those on the left he says ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels;’. That seems awful unfair to us. We want to think that judgment would be a personal thing based on what we believe or our achievements or our intentions. That’s clearly not the picture Jesus paints in the parable.

In both cases the standard by which people were judged was either for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ or , for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Either you did nor did not respond to the needs of ‘The Son of Man’. That’s pretty simple.

Both neither those on the left or on the right have any conscious recollection of when they had or had not met the test. Both ask the same question: “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison…?” Why was there no recall? Because the Son of Man wasn’t in the divine throne room sitting in judgment and wearing his robe. He was out in the world identifying with the indigent, unclean, struggling, mentally challenged, anxious, vulnerable, incarcerated, hungry, homeless and powerless. “…just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” The least of these…

Could we really allow the Christ child, the boy born as king and the one appointed by God to judge the nations, to die of malnutrition in infancy in Africa, or have his hate kindled by living among the displaced being brutalized and depersonalized in a refugee camp knowing who this child is and just how little it would take to see him grow up and realize all he was created to be? Could we let a young girl have her life taken away in the sex trade or by spending her days fetching water rather than going to school, and her family suffering when the water she carries is causes illness? If we loved Jesus as much as we say we do, if we knew what we did and didn’t do for this family was what we did and didn’t do for the Christ? Or do we want to experience fellowship with Christ by serving and empowering the poor, outcast, and prisoners–the least of our world?

This invitation is not for after we die — then the chance to act is gone. It’s an invitation for this moment, this day, this generation. And, please, it’s not about avoiding punishment. It’s interesting to ask of his parable whether there were those on the left who had great intentions but failed to follow through and were there truly nasty people on the right who had unintentionally done the right thing. And what about this? Doesn’t this free us up from making decisions about who deserves our assistance and who doesn’t because they are in dire straits because of their own poor choices? I like the notion that those on the right didn’t do what they had done for praise or recognition nor did they do what they did out of obligation. Evidently they saw a need and met it, like George Mallory said of his climbing Everest, because it was there. There is no divine micromanagement of our lives.

What we do, the extent to which we respond to Jesus’ invitation not just to come into the House of God’s chosen people, but to live as one of the family, in relationship with and caring for the rest of the family, is the extent to which we experience eternal life, God’s just and peaceful kingdom, right here and now. It is in such community that we become aware of the needs of others. In Paul’s words, Christ’s risen life is the “first fruits,” and we are called to enjoy the full harvest of that abundant life. The goal is not justice. Justice alone leaves no room for mercy and grace. It’s hospitality. It’s sharing the extravagant grace of our creator. Do you want a taste of that? It’s there for you now, as abundant as are the opportunities to exercise compassion toward the least of Jesus’ sisters and brothers.

 

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