This week, Faith in Real Life discussed the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats from the gospel according to Matthew. In the story, the king separates the sheep from the goats based on who served him by caring for “the least of these.” Interestingly, neither the sheep nor the goats understand that, in caring for others, they serve the king. In this week’s blog, Vernon explores the differences in thinking that separate the sheep and goats, and how our natural human inclination to earning our way through works separates us from the King.

Matthew 25: 31-46 (NSRV)
31 “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. 32 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, 33 and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 34 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; 35 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, 36 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.’ 37 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? 38 And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39 And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ 40 And 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.’ 41 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; 42 for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 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.’ 44 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?’ 45 Then 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.’ 46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

My most basic belief about God is that God is a God of love and grace. Reconciling my understanding of God with the religious language that speaks of rewards, punishments and final judgements has always been difficult. This passage stirs up all of those issues. More often than not I hear such language as some combination of ultimate vindication and/or an attempt to scare people straight. It is a carrot and stick approach to good behavior. Good people go to heaven. Bad people got to Hell. Every child on the planet is familiar with such a view. Every child seeks to be ‘good’ in order to be rewarded—or at least avoid punishment. But this emphasis inevitably focuses on our good behavior and compliance rather than God’s activity for us.

But it’s hard to escape anxiety when the passage is frequently titled ‘The Judgement of the Nations’ and as you can read, it suggests that the judgment leads to eternal punishment or to eternal life. So the question of who is a sheep and who is a goat has great consequences. In FIRL one of the first reactions was the concern that we have all seen people in need and have walked by. Does that make us goats—destined for eternal punishment. It is difficult to get past that basic worry in order to hear anything different. We will return to that human anxiety in a moment but, first, let’s look at what is new in this parable.

Notice that neither the sheep or the goats quite get the idea that God is found in the face of our neighbor. As the sheep are being judged, the sheep are unaware of the basis of praise. They do not even notice the consequence of their behavior. ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink?…’ Very few, if any, courageous people will say they chose to be courageous. They will tell you they just did what needed to be done. I believe the same is true of the saints of our church. They see inequity and they respond with hospitality, care and loving kindness. Such care for others is the natural outgrowth of that care extended to us. We love because we are first loved. Our loving is the manifestation of what we have received. And it is the place that we find God.

It has to be explained to them that their mindfulness of others is where they meet God. That is a new understanding. The tradition suggested that God would be found in the Ark or in the Temple. That’s where you went to meet God. Jesus is announcing that unless you see him in the face of your neighbor, your time in the temple is misplaced.

Similarly the goats are confused. ‘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?…’They had done their due diligence. They had been obedient. How could they be judged so? The answer they receive refocuses religious practise. It presages the experiences of the disciples on the Road to Emmaus. They discovered their Lord at table, in the face of a man they thought a stranger. And they were transformed. With Jesus, worship must include our neighbor.

That said there are inescapable consequences for the way we live our lives. It makes a difference how we choose to live our lives. Choices will have known consequences. No matter how gracious God is, we can screw it up. Jesus repeatedly makes that charge to the religious establishment—and by extension, to us. However we seek God, in our church, in nature, in meditation, in study, in spiritual unity….if we miss God in the face of our neighbor, it will be a sure sign we missed God in all the other places we looked.

Unfortunately our anxiety about whether we are sheep or goats exposes our struggle with God’s promise that we are all the sheep of his pasture. The minute that promise comes into doubt, we will be plagued with doubt and anxiety. We will reveal that part of us that insists our ‘good’ behavior is what attracts God to us. And we will have missed God. We’ve turned God’s grace into a measure of our performance. That is the human predicament that plagues us. When we have to acquire our worth, we are doomed to a false self-reliance, competitive and adversarial relationships and ultimately to failure. It is not possible to secure our value and worth. In enough time, no matter what we achieve, we will be forgotten.

Our unity with God depends upon our trusting and relying upon his loving us. In real life, that faith is uneven and fraught with human inadequacy and turning away God. But when it is there. When you can accept that gift, you want it for others, you give up entitlement, you live in gratitude. Safe with God, we no longer need to compare or compete; we are freed to love our neighbor.

Choose this day whom you will serve. Will you live your life in grateful response to the gift of your life. Or will you dedicate your life to proving yourself and seeking a security that can never last. No matter how gracious God is, we can screw it up. We can be part of the eternal. We can be part of a river of love that precedes us and which will prevail through eternity. Or we can live a life dedicated to the advancement of ourselves and our security that can only end in dust.

The Christian faith claim is that living such a life is a life in communion with God, is a life of purpose, and a life of meaning and abiding support—even in the worst of times. It is eternal A life lived separated from God is the opposite—a never ending attempt to prove ourselves and to make ourselves secure. You cannot love another if who you are depends on making comparisons. You will be apart from God.

One last comment on the sheep and the goats. We all too often try to make the world an either/or choice. None of us are that simple. Every saint is a sinner and every sinner is redeemable. Regardless of how competent or incompetent you are, try to lean on God and trust him. As the parable of the the wheat and the tares promises, God will harvest the good. Trust him.

Live like you’re loved and live like love matters. That is eternal life. Let it be so.