Readings: Ezekiel 34:11-46, Matthew 25:31-46, The Doctrine of Faith #68, Divine Providence #101:3 (see below)
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Photo by Magda Ehlers
In the gospel of Matthew, this story of the sheep and the goats will be the very last teaching that Jesus delivers before the plot against his life is put into motion and the march toward the cross begins. One imagines then that it is a pretty important teaching. We start out with a depiction of the coming of God’s kingdom, where there will be separation between kinds of people, pictured as the work of a shepherd. The sheep are those who ministered to others, not as a way to receive reward, but because it was the right thing to do. The goats are those to whom such ministry did not even occur. Both are surprised that their action, or lack of action, would mean something to God…but God reveals that God is present with those in need, with the “least of these,” and that how we act has relationship to who we become.
Technically, this story is less of a parable, than it is an apocalyptic drama. In a parable, we begin with a familiar setting which is then tweaked a little in order to bring a new understanding, to demonstrate something about the nature of God’s kingdom. In this case, we first start with a description of what is going to happen in God’s kingdom, and then it is revealed by what means this will come to pass, through the grounded and familiar acts of caring for one another. This is actually what the word apocalypto in greek means: to reveal. In modern use the term has become associated with an idea of endings, but really, an apocalypse is simply a revealing, a lifting of the veil. What makes this lifting of the veil so powerful is that what we see behind the curtain is not otherworldly but decidedly earthly, the intersection of need and brokenness with compassion.
Now, understandably, the Matthew passage will lead us to focus on our actions, our process, as we imagine ourselves as either sheep or goat. But first, I’d like a step back and recognize how this parable is a larger picture of God’s work in the world. I would like to dwell for a moment on the king in the story, the one who recalls the image of shepherd in Ezekiel, the one who reveals his own solidarity with those who are in need.
From our reading today, indeed from the whole of scripture, we learn that loving God is inseparable from loving others. This is because we cannot love God without loving the character, the nature of God; and the nature of God is pure love. In Ezekiel, we see this nature pictured in God as a shepherd, a God who cares about his flock. In this picture, we learn that God notices and identifies with those who suffer. God is with us, among us, traveling with us. God is affected by our suffering, doesn’t want it to continue. God wants healing, wholeness, blessedness, plenty…and not for God but for US. We must remember again, that this was a very new concept in antiquity, that such a God could exist. Yet this is every human’s story: We find ourselves in exile or in need, we are lost sheep, yet God seeks for us, looks for us, bring us out of what is enslaving us, feeds us and cares for us. The exile might be due to our own sin, or it might not, but God’s presence does not depend upon the genesis of the suffering. God’s action may well change in response to different conditions, for a sheep wandering into a ravine on it’s own will require a different response to a sheep falling prey to a wolf, but the response of God’s heart is the same regardless; to reach out and to save.
And so as we begin to approach the Advent season, we can see that the incarnation we will soon be celebrating is grounded in this kind of God, this shepherd God who tends and guides and protects. We are about to learn just how far this God would go. How far God would go for the hungry, the thirsty, the estranged, the entrapped, the vulnerable, for us. God would go as far as it took. God embodied, quite literally, this parable and calls us to do the same.
And how easy it sounds, how poetic, these well known verses. How peaceful and pastoral this shepherd image might seem. But anyone with a knowledge of farming will understand how messy shepherding really is. How down and dirty one must become. How acquainted with mud, and food and weather and birthing and physical exertion. And this is when everything goes right! How difficult shepherding becomes, how difficult caring becomes, when we are afraid of each others brokenness.
What struck me today, though, was the fact that both the goats and the sheep were surprised. This surprise is important, narratively. It’s purpose is to communicate that the sheep were not calculating - they did not care for others in order to get into heaven, they cared because they were moved by suffering. And for the goats, it is to communicate that thoughtlessness and self-absorption is not protective. Just because the goats did not cause the suffering of the least, does not mean their inaction was morally neutral. To quote the author Charles M. Blow: One doesn’t have to operate with great malice to do great harm. The absence of empathy and understanding are sufficient.
And yet, of course, no one is purely sheep or purely goat. We all have sheep-y and goat-y tendencies, habits and impulses mixed up together. And now that the gospel has been proclaimed, now that we see this reality of what could be, we are called to exercise a ongoing separation of the sheep and the goats within ourselves. We are called to recognize the times we do not want to see the least, the times we shut our eyes, the times we justify our blindness, the times we argue that some people and things are just too hopeless to be resurrected. And, we are likewise called to recognize the times we *do* see with God’s eyes, the times we are moved to feed, house, bind, connect, the times we recognize God in the least, God connected to the world. And hopefully, in recognition of the king who acts like a shepherd, of a God who would get down in the mud, we call on our goat-y-ness to be transformed, and we do the work that would make it so.
Where then is the surprise? Is there still room for surprise in the ongoing work of regeneration? In spiritual work, driven as it is by reflection and self-knowledge, surprise seems impossible. If we are trying to become like the sheep, it will not surprise us if we do become so. The thing about having a progressive theology of salvation, about recognizing that the sheep and goats are parts of all of us, is that the simple and instant judgment of the text today is revealed as a snapshot…the whole point is for the goats to become sheep-in-training, just as we strive to become angels-in-training. And so the surprise becomes less a pre-requisite for a sheep-nature, but rather the reward. To quote Helen Keller “there is joy in self-forgetfulness.”
If heaven is a state of mind, a state of being, then perhaps the surprise is the peace and freedom that comes from not calculating anymore, from being able to finally forget our selfishness and fear. If heaven is a state of mind, then we must accept that, to get there, our goat-like minds will change over time, and we are an ongoing construction project. We heard in our Swedenborg reading today “life constructs a belief system for itself and constructs a faith for itself.” To me this sounds a lot like neuroplasticity, a term meaning the ability of the adult brain to change over time, that our experiences and actions can contribute to the alteration of the synaptic structure of the brain.
Our life over time constructs the way we understand things. The sheep were surprised because their actions had re-made them. They had acted their way into a new way of thinking. When the veil is lifted on the kingdom, we will see that we cannot escape the imperative toward action through right or pure belief, for the answer does not begin thought at all. The answer is compassion, literally “feeling together,” the answer is connection, first and foremost.
Transformation of the self is possible. What an amazing, simple, breath-taking hope…a hope and a faith that leads us straight into Advent, where a God believed in us so strongly that God would reach so far, straight into the heart of our vulnerability, our need, our blindness. Because the fact is, as we are now, sometimes we are the sheep, sometimes we are goats, many times we ourselves are the least, in body or spirit. We find ourselves on all sides of the equation, mired in suffering and need. And so was God. God was, and is, both shepherd and lamb, redeemer and sufferer, teacher and baby, both the king and the least. And for this we are grateful. Amen.
11 “ ‘For this is what the Sovereign LORD says: I myself will search for my sheep and look after them. 12 As a shepherd looks after his scattered flock when he is with them, so will I look after my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places where they were scattered on a day of clouds and darkness. 13 I will bring them out from the nations and gather them from the countries, and I will bring them into their own land. I will pasture them on the mountains of Israel, in the ravines and in all the settlements in the land. 14 I will tend them in a good pasture, and the mountain heights of Israel will be their grazing land. There they will lie down in good grazing land, and there they will feed in a rich pasture on the mountains of Israel. 15 I myself will tend my sheep and have them lie down, declares the Sovereign LORD. 16 I will search for the lost and bring back the strays. I will bind up the injured and strengthen the weak, but the sleek and the strong I will destroy. I will shepherd the flock with justice. 17 “ ‘As for you, my flock, this is what the Sovereign LORD says: I will judge between one sheep and another, and between rams and goats. 18 Is it not enough for you to feed on the good pasture? Must you also trample the rest of your pasture with your feet? Is it not enough for you to drink clear water? Must you also muddy the rest with your feet? 19 Must my flock feed on what you have trampled and drink what you have muddied with your feet? 20 “ ‘Therefore this is what the Sovereign LORD says to them: See, I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep. 21 Because you shove with flank and shoulder, butting all the weak sheep with your horns until you have driven them away, 22 I will save my flock, and they will no longer be plundered. I will judge between one sheep and another. 23 I will place over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he will tend them; he will tend them and be their shepherd.
31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. 34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ 37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ 40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’ 41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’ 44 “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’ 45 “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’ 46 “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”
The failure of caring in the people described in Matthew shows that goats mean people who are devoted to a faith divorced from caring…A neglect of deeds is characteristic of people who are devoted to a faith divorced from caring because of their refusal to believe that deeds have anything to do with salvation or the church. When people so set aside caring—which consists of deeds—then faith fails as well, because faith comes out of caring…
Divine Providence #101:3
In the spiritual world where we all arrive after death, no one asks what our faith has been or what our beliefs have been, only what our life has been, whether we are one kind of person or another. They know that the quality of our faith and the quality of our beliefs depend on the quality of our life, because life constructs a belief system for itself and constructs a faith for itself.