This is my personal blog. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the congregations or presbytery I serve.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Sheep and Goats.

Matthew 25:31-46

            In Jesus’ great parable of the Last Judgment, the nations are all gathered into one great flock, sheep and goats together. The King then divides and separates the sheep from the goats.  The goats are assigned to the King’s left, where they are cursed and sent into the eternal fire, and the sheep are on the right.  They are blessed and go to heaven.
            Now, I am an urban/suburban person.  I don’t really know from sheep or goats.  What may have been obvious to Jesus’ hearers when he talks about sheep and goats, is a mystery to me.  So I had to look up some facts about these animals. 
            The King addresses the sheep first.  What are sheep like?  Why would Jesus use the image of sheep to talk about the redeemed and blessed ones?  What were the qualities of sheep that made them a good image of disciples, for jeus?
            First, sheep have a reputation for not being very bright.  (Actually, I understand that they’re smarter than cows but not as smart as pigs.)  But maybe their skittishness makes them seem less intelligent than they are.  Sheep have an innocence and vulnerability about them.  They are famously docile and credulous.  They are so trusting that they could easily be led “like lambs to slaughter,” as we say.
            I don’t think Jesus wants disciples to be stupid.  But there is this childlike openness and trustingness that he values.  
            Sheep also are known for having poor eyesight.  When they respond to the King they ask, “When did we see you?”  On the other hand, sheep do have excellent hearing.  With training they can even recognize their own names.
            Finally, sheep were known for their flocking ability.  Especially in the face of danger, sheep regularly cluster together in a tight group.  They are therefore somewhat communal animals.
            Jesus refers to his followers as sheep, lambs, or a flock on numerous occasions.  He identifies himself as the Good Shepherd, who takes care of and protects the sheep.  Jesus does call individuals, but he establishes them as a flock, a group, a community, the church. 
            The sheep are the ones who hear Jesus and know his voice.  They trust his voice more than they trust in what they see.                              
The lesson we learn from sheep is that we are not to judge by what our eyes see, because so often what we see is conditioned by our expectations and desires, our prejudices, biases, and self-interest. 
            Rather we are to listen to the voice of the Good Shepherd who feeds us, gives us water, heals us, remains with us and clothes us, and gathers us together, including even strays from other flocks.
            Goats, I learn, on the other hand, are considerably smarter than sheep.  Their intelligence rivals that of dogs.  But they do not have dogs’ loyalty. (Dogs, of course, are eternally loyal to whomever has a bone.)  Goats will only become loyal to people if a relationship is developed over time.  They will not follow you as readily.  They will hang back and make their own decision.            The intelligence of goats makes them less cooperative.  They tend to be defiant, cunning, independent, and capricious.  In fact the word “capricious” literally means “goatlike.”  They are always conniving how to get what they want.  Goats have been known to figure out how to escape from complicated enclosures, for instance.                                      
            The eyesight of goats is equal to humans.  That’s not saying very much when compared to the eyesight of hawks, but their intelligence probably makes them seem to have better eyesight.  They pick up on and notice things.  So their response to the King’s charge has a different emphasis than the sheep.  They answer, “When did we see you, Lord?”
            But the big thing I want to emphasize about goats is their ravenous appetite.  Goats are known for destroying whole landscapes because they will eat just about anything.  The cartoons that show goats eating tin-cans, or that commercial where the goat is munching on office waste-paper, are accurate.  They will eat all kinds of junk, just about anything they find in front of them.  They are the consummate consumers.
            Historically, some countries even banned goats because they are so destructive of crops.  Today, goats continue to be used by people to clear out unwanted vegetation.  They have been described as "eating machines" and "biological control agents".  Herds are used to clear dry brush from California hillsides to prevent wildfires.
            But goats will not actually swallow and digest everything; in the end, they are a bit more picky about that.  But they will taste and chew up almost anything in order to find out whether it is good for food or not.
            I wonder if it isn’t the omnivorous destructive appetites of goats that makes them an image for those rejected by God.  I wonder if that doesn’t have anything to tell us in terms of our approach and attitude towards God’s creation.
            In this sense goats remind me of people, especially people in our economic regime.  We have mowed through creation like goats on steroids or a veritable plague of locusts, carelessly chewing up everything in our path.  This is not even just because we need it for nourishment.  We are addicted to consumption and growth.
            We are laying waste to this planet for the sake of our own greed and pathological desire for more. 

            If this is the ideology we follow, then it is not surprising that we have no perception of, or time for, other people around us who may be in need.  We don’t see them as sisters and brothers, members of the same flock, whom we need to gather around and protect, whom we need to lift up and serve.  We see them as competitors for scarce resources.  We see them as unlucky losers.
            So the goats’ answer to the question is to say, in effect, well, yeah, there’re these pathetic poor and sick and imprisoned people here, we see them every day.  But when, Lord, did we see you?  If we had seen you we would certainly have served you.  You’re the King!  It is in our interests to get on your good side and win your favor!  Had we seen you, we would have bowed down and worshiped you!  But we didn’t see you.  All we saw were these homeless, unemployed, indebted, sick, undocumented, criminals, and such.”
            The “goats” of this world do not see anything of value except insofar as it can be consumed.  The balance and beauty of a landscape is lost on them; they see only the coal or the natural gas beneath, which can be ripped out and sold for a nice profit.  We chew up mountains to get to the buried resources the same way a goat chews on an empty can to squeeze out a few drops of soup.
            The “goats” of this world do not see people and villages, they see cheap labor they can suck some wealth out of.  They see real estate.  They have to do with the commodification of the world, that is, reducing it to its raw economic value.  They ask, “What can I get out of this?  How can I benefit from this?”
            To this mentality the hungry and thirsty, the strangers and the homeless, the sick and imprisoned, are opportunities… not for service, but for exploitation.  The “goats” would say: “What do you mean I didn’t help the needy?  Look at all the stock I have in ADM, Suez, CCA, J&J, Citibank, and Cigna!  I’m doing good by doing well!”
            The goat nature of our economy, rooted in the goat side of our human nature, is what created poverty, hunger, and homelessness.  And it is aggravating disease and incarceration.  It is this goatishness, this ravenous wastefulness, that Jesus sees in the people who find themselves on the wrong end of the last judgment. 

            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.  All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left.”
            The criteria for making the cut between sheep and goats  are very clear.  The King does not give the nations a theological test, as if believing the right doctrine was what mattered.  Neither does he assess everyone’s personal or sexual morality.  Indeed, the King doesn’t even evaluate the nations on how well they kept the letter of the Law. 
            No.  The only thing the King cares about here, the only criteria for dividing the sheep from the goats, the only question that matters in determining whether people are blessed or condemned, is whether they gave material assistance to those in need.  What the King measures is the quality of our actions towards “the least of these who are members of [God’s] family.”
            Because what we do to them, we do to him.  If we reject them, we reject him, and then we cut ourselves off from the life he offers.  If we serve them we serve him, and we participate in the life he offers. 
            And let’s remember who it is that Jesus is talking to?  Who is his audience?  You have to go back to the beginning of chapter 24 to discover it, but it’s the disciples.  He is not talking to the nations and telling them what they should do.  He is addressing the disciples and basically telling them that the nations will be judged on how they treated… them. 
            When he says “the least of these who are members of my family,” I see him opening his hand to indicate the disciples  themselves.  They are “the least of these.”             
            At this point, at the end of his ministry, we know who the disciples are.  We know where they came from.  We know who was following Jesus.  We can go through Matthew’s gospel and find all these people who had joined Jesus’ entourage.  The hungry and the thirsty, the strangers, foreigners, and aliens, the naked, the sick, and the imprisoned.  That’s to whom Jesus’ ministry was addressed.  That is who left everything and followed him.
            Jesus’ disciples were these people.  This was his flock, gathered together around him, supporting each other, healing and accepting each other, participating together in his liberation.  These were his sheep.  And the ones from the nations who are saved are the ones who show themselves to be sheep as well.  They show this by the way they treat other needy people as equals, as people deserving of attention and salvation.

            The church that Jesus envisions is the poor serving the poor, the needy serving the needy, the broken healing the broken, the hungry feeding the hungry.  For we are all sheep, members of one flock, and he is the “one shepherd.”
            That’s the vision he wants us to have, as he concludes his teaching ministry, and moves into his sacrificial work.  He is saying to his disciples, “Always choose community over consumption, service over gain, generosity over cheapness, compassion over hardheartedness, and weakness over power.  Then you will be choosing life over death.  And in so choosing, you will be chosen… for life!

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