The Rev. Jeremiah Williamson
Sheep, Goats, or Something Else?
Today’s Buzzfeed quiz is brought to you by the Gospel of Matthew: “BAA or MAA!?: Are you a super sheep or a ghastly goat?” Answer just six simple questions to find out! It is quite a quiz too. It has that essential element that really makes an on-line quiz pop: the element of surprise. Everyone seems very surprised by their results. And to keep it interesting, the stakes are shockingly high – not like “what will my facebook friends think of my results?” high. But still pretty high, like eternal punishment or eternal life.
Today is Christ the King Sunday and the final Sunday of the Church year. And a month of very challenging Kingdom of God parables from Matthew’s Gospel has led us to this dramatic climax: the apocalyptic tale of the sheep and the goats – the final story Jesus tells the people before his arrest and crucifixion. This is the last song in the set list.
In some ways it is shockingly different from the stories that precede it. Those parables were very much grounded in the everyday realities of Jesus’ audience. The settings were weddings, farms, business meetings – familiar places. The stories featured flawed characters who act very human – familiar faces. But as is always the case with Jesus’ parables, the absurd and the hyperbolic always nudge their way into the familiar – puzzling the listeners with unexpected twists and turns – all in an attempt to open a door into the divine mystery.
And though this story comes flush with livestock, it takes place quite removed from one’s typical day on the farm. All of a sudden it is Judgment Day – that great and terrible day, oft described by the prophets of old. Though it should be noted: not exactly as described by those prophets. In this story, there are a lot more sheep and a lot more goats in the throne room. Now, I've never been in the presence of a king upon his throne, but I imagine this scene is much noisier and much smellier than the typical royal palace.
One might consider this an absurd twist on your more typical judgment day throne room scene. And it is. But what I find even more puzzling is that everything seems a little too simple. You see, even though this is clearly a judgment, there really is no need for a judge. The King simply separates the sheep from the goats – a distinction so clear that even a child could make it. I think my boys were probably around two years old when they were able to distinguish one from the other in their picture books. The scene doesn't really require a royal on a throne, a wise king or a discerning judge, just a shepherd or a well-trained dog.
Because things are so cut-and-dry, there is no room for ambiguity, no place for nuance. There is none of the complexity we encounter in our own human relationships or even within our self – where goodness and badness seem to live together in an on-going struggle. Here there is no spectrum, no opportunity to explain, no exceptions. There are just two groups – easily identified and easy to sort.
Even the criteria by which they are sorted is simplistic. There are only six questions on the test – and no one gets a C. Half of the flock aces the exam; the other half puts up goose eggs. And the scene is utterly devoid of questions we might expect to face on Judgment Day. There is no mention of belief. There are no doctrinal standards. No prompt for a confessional statement. No indication if participation in the sacramental life of the Church plays any part in this judgment scene. Oh, and also there seems to be no grace, no forgiveness, no mercy. The people who did good things go to one side; the people who failed to do those things are grouped on the other hand.
In that way, it is a bleak scene. A surprisingly anxiety-inducing narrative, brought to you by the same guy who said, “Don't be anxious about tomorrow.” Good luck – especially to any goats out there in the congregation. I mean, can you imagine hearing this story while lying on your death bed or hanging next to Jesus on a cross after a lifetime as a bandit?
And that is the challenge of this text, right? There is no grace, no forgiveness, no mercy. And yet, these words, this story, falls from the lips of the one who forgave his executioners, responded with love to every person who begged him for mercy, and promised paradise to the bandit who died beside him – a bandit who lived a life of crime and was rewarded with an eternity of grace.
It is difficult to know exactly how to read these texts. We run into this in Bible Study all the time. For example, the book of Joshua, which we are currently studying, is teaching us that sometimes historical texts are not very historically accurate. And we realizing that that's OK because theological fluency was the point; historical accuracy was not the reason the book of Joshua was written. It is what we want from the book, but is was not the writer's goal or concern.
And this is the same challenge that we find with our Gospel today. This story is not what we what it seems to be, not even what we want it to be. We read this story and looks like a vision of the future to come – the prediction of an oracle. And as terrifying as that should be to us, to some extent that's what we want: we want it to be the solution to the problem of judgment – like finding the answers to a test, in this case the ultimate test.
Because if it is that, those of us with breath in our lungs and life in our legs, can get out into the world and earn our salvation. Jesus seems to be telling us exactly how to get eternal life. It reads like an instruction manual. And unlike Lego sets or Ikea furniture assembly instructions there are only six steps. That's not bad. It's a how-to for want-to-be sheep.
And of course, just look at the ending of the story, you want to be a sheep. The alternative is not great. Sheep or goat; goat or sheep: the answer is clear.
But one of the strange details of the story is that no one seems to know where they stand. Jesus makes it pretty clear in this Gospel; if this happens at the end of days, centuries of Gospel readers know the way to the right hand and still, each and every person reacts with surprise – both those on the right and those on the left. “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison?”
It is almost as if Jesus was not expecting his audience to identify with the sheep or with the goats. Is it possible that this tale is meant to be more than the scare tactic we often see it as? The truth is each and every person in Jesus' audience, especially those first followers of Jesus who were Jewish, would already know that God expected them to care for the vulnerable. That is all over the Law and the Prophets. Jesus lived that ethic during his earthly ministry. He spoke it clearly when he reinforced Love of God and Love of Neighbor as the summary of the entire Law. He spoke it clearly in the Sermon on the Mount, found in this same Gospel of Matthew. I'm not sure a strange apocalyptic parable is needed when the message is already clear.
I think it is helpful to consider the original audience. Not only were they Jewish followers of Jesus, they were the same audience to whom Jesus gave the preceding parables: a Church in waiting. And more than that, a small, battered Church being tossed about in a world that did not understand an upstart religious sect that worshiped a crucified man. This Church had witnessed the death of their Messiah, but also the execution of their leaders as well, including Peter and Paul.
If this passage is addressed to the sheep, it is a happy story but one without grace. If it addressed to the goats, it is a tragic story and one without mercy. But what if it was addressed to a third party? What if this story was told to the least of these – a struggling first century Christian community? Then it is drenched with grace.
They were waiting and waiting for Jesus to return, to save them from the loneliness and persecution. This parable reminded them that no matter how bad it got, behind the scenes of eternity, their Christ, Jesus, was sitting upon the throne – Christ the King. He would reward those who cared for them and he would punish those who neglected, ignored, or hurt them. Things might be tough on this side of eternity, but in the bigger picture, Christ was their defender.
But even more than that, even though they felt so alone, they actually were not. Even though they waited and waited, Jesus was with them. In some mysterious way, that eternal King, who on Judgment Day would judge the nations from a throne of glory, was one of them. And every time someone showed that little Church mercy, they were showing mercy to Jesus – because he was right there with them. And every time someone hurt them, they were causing Jesus pain – because he was right there hurting with them. This parable foreshadows the final promise Jesus makes to them to end the Gospel: “Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
We are no longer that small, persecuted Church. On most days, we no longer remember that we are still waiting. Rather than the least of these, we are members of the world's largest religion – which means we bear the responsibility to be the sheep to the vulnerable and the marginalized. But one thing has not changed: Jesus is still with us – hiding in our hearts and sharing our pain – to the end of the age.