November 20, 2011

On Sheep and Goats

Passage: Matthew 25:31-33

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.

Preaching Professor Haddon Robinson once asked a sheep farmer what one word described sheep.  The farmer responded, "Stupid. They've got to be the stupidest animals you ever work with.” "What about goats”, asked Robinson.  The farmer thought about that one a minute and said, "Well, goats are kind of stubborn animals.”

The basic character of sheep or goats isn’t at the forefront of Jesus farming metaphor; the point of emphasis is the action the shepherd takes to “separate the sheep and goats”.  Sheep and goats grazed together but would be separated at other times—say when the shepherd would shear the sheep and milk the goats.  Jesus takes a common farming practise and likens it to the judgement when the Son of Man comes in his glory; a shepherd separating his flocks; the sheep on his right and the goats at the left.  Clearly though, the sheep’s location is the preferred side.

Let’s face it; talk of judgement makes us nervous.  On the day of separation we want to be with the sheep.  I point out to you that hope is found in the reality that the one who will be our judge is now and then also our Saviour.  I also remind you that the good news of the gospel is that you are one of this great Shepherd’s sheep now through faith in him.

1.  Does Jesus, in this lesson to his disciples, intend to tell us how to earn sheep status?  We know from his death on the cross that salvation is the gift of God to any who believe.  In this judgement scene Jesus paints, both the sheep and the goats are surprised by the assessment of the judge.  The response of both groups is the same: “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty... or a stranger ... or naked ... sick or in prison?”   I don’t think Jesus is telling us how to make sure there are no surprises; judgement day brings to light what is already known by each of them—their heart attitude towards God.

In Matthew’s gospel this parable of the sheep and goats comes at the end of what is called Jesus’ eschatological discourse; eschatology has to do with final things.  It began with the disciples’ remarking on the beauty of the Jerusalem temple.  Jesus then tells them of the coming destruction of this temple and of the future day of the coming of the Son of Man that will be the event of the final consummation.  He tells them a series of parables on how we are to live as his followers in anticipation of this day.  Watchfulness, living a life prepared for his coming, and using our talents for the kingdom are each key ideas emerging from these parables.  The concluding parable is about the sheep and the goats—again to make the point of how the follower of Jesus lives in anticipation of his coming.

2.  The element of surprise in this parable needs our attention.  Strikingly, both groups ask the exact same question: "When did all that stuff happen?" Jesus tells the sheep that he was grateful for all the ways they had nourished, welcomed, clothed, tended to, and visited him.  But the sheep cannot for the life of them recall doing any of that for Jesus, and so they ask, "Well now, when did we do all that for you, Lord?"  Conversely, the goats cannot for the life of them recall ever seeing Jesus anywhere, much less in need of anything, and so they ask, "Well now, what day was that when we missed seeing you, Jesus?"

When the king addresses these that are called sheep, he says, "Come, you who are blessed of my Father and inherit the kingdom that was prepared for you before the creation of the world.  That phrase, "blessed of my Father” is not a throwaway line.  Earlier in the Gospel of Matthew in what is called the Sermon on the Mount, that sermon begins by saying, "Blessed are those who are bankrupt in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God.”  This is to say, “Blessed are the women, the men, who sense a desperate need and have no way in the world to meet the need that they have of God.”

And then it says, "Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. Mourn about what? Mourn about their brokenness, their bankrupt spirit.

And then it says, "Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. The term meek has the idea of being in submission to God, bowing before him.

The next beatitude says, "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled.  There is no such thing as righteousness as though it were something in a box up in heaven. When the Bible talks about righteousness, it is always talking about right relationships; right relationships with God, right relationships with other people.  Those who have a brokenness of spirit, who mourn for that brokenness, then begin to crave a relationship with God.  That craving is filled as they bow before God. Out of this relationship with God flows the craving of right relationship with others.

The next beatitude says, "Blessed are the merciful. They shall receive mercy. That craving and filling shows itself in mercy. "Blessed are those who are pure in heart” because God's done something in their being. They shall see God.

"Blessed are the peacemakers because they will show that they are children of God.

Matthew 25 says that those who belong to this king, who have allowed him to do a work deep in their lives, are characterized by little unremembered acts of kindness and love that flow from their inner nature which has been touched by God as naturally as wool comes from the back of a sheep.

3. In our Lord’s parable the sheep are those who have assisted the needy and comforted the suffering and renounced themselves for the disadvantaged and made whatever sacrifice they felt they had to make when faced with someone else’s hunger or loneliness or pain or perplexity or guilt. Their only motive has been the undeniable need of someone they couldn’t ignore. Reward for this? It has never entered their head. Because they have acted without thought of reward they are surprised, stunned in fact, at the munificent reward they now receive. They had been kind not because they were thinking to be kind; they had simply acted spontaneously, without calculation, when faced with human distress. Now they are speechless when God blesses them.

The goats, on the other hand, had calculated. Quickly. Experts in mental arithmetic, in an instant they had added up that by helping those whose privation and pain were gaping, they were going to gain nothing. The “goats” wouldn’t act unless a huge carrot was dangled in front of them.  The “goats” are ever calculating what is in it for them.

There is an underlying assumption that Jesus both appeals to and subverts in his parable.  The assumption is that service of the king is of great consequence; service of the “nobodies” is of little consequence.  These five areas of need Jesus cites—the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the sick, the prisoner—these were the typical benevolence categories in Jewish thought of his day.  In his sermon on the mount Jesus said to do these things in secret—not to be seen by others so as to accrue status for benevolence.  The sheep are surprised because they had no idea of the kings regard for these things.

The “goats” were always calculating; their response implies that if they had known they would have served the king. “When was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty”, was the complaint of the goats to the king.  You can almost hear the charge that it’s the kings fault for not being more forthright about his need.   But they are still calculating—had I known how to calculate I would have done things differently.  But Jesus is rejecting this calculation game; he is subverting the whole mentality of “I-can-do-this-God-if-you-just-tell-me-the-rules”.

Obviously scripture is correct when it says the root human problem is an innermost perversity wherein we make ourselves the measure of the whole universe; wherein we make ourselves lord of ourselves, as well as lord of everyone else. To say the same thing differently, the root human problem is plainly an ego so swollen that it corrupts and suffocates everything, an ego so very inflated that the only perspective we have on others is what they can do for us.  Since super-swollen self-ism is the root human problem, then surely our Lord is concerned to do something about it, to reduce the swelling, to free us from the choke-hold we have on ourselves and deliver us from our schemes for feeding our self-interest.

4. Jesus’ parable indicates that the king identifies himself so closely with the hurting of this world that whatever we do, or fail to do, in relation to those hurting people directly affects him.  This has given rise to much talk in some Christian circles of seeing Christ in every person we meet.  Mother Teresa prayed: “O Jesus ... grant that, even if you are under the unattractive disguise of anger, of crime, or of madness, I may recognise you and say, “Jesus, you who suffer, how sweet it is to serve you”.

There is much to be commended is seeing others in this way; truly Jesus has taken into himself the suffering of the world.  Yet there is a caution that is good to consider.  First it is to observe that there is only one Jesus; when, in the grace of the Saviour, my faith becomes sight I expect to see him.  The idea of seeing Jesus in others needs that caution of not sliding into panentheism—as if to express a theology of “god in everything”.  In September (2011) Pope Benedict addressed the German parliament.  I like how he spoke of it: “the awareness of humanity’s responsibility before God” and “the acknowledgement of the inviolable dignity of every single human person”.   I put it this way—to see in the suffering person the image of God.

The second point is to avoid making this some kind of “new mathematics” as if Jesus were teaching us how to calculate; as if Jesus said get rid of all your calculation “apps” and replace it with this one.”  The sheep in Jesus parable were surprised.  Plainly the reward or blessing that Jesus promises his people is reward of an unusual sort: his reward is promised only to those who act without thought of reward. His reward is promised to those who can only be surprised at their reward. In other words, so far from reinforcing a calculation-mentality, our Lord’s promise of reward contradicts it.

In Jesus beatitudes—when he announced the Father’s blessing—he also said, in essence, “Blessed are you when you are beat up for my sake ... for your reward in heaven in great”.   There are two aspects to note here.  One, God rewards his people in the life to come; “for great is your reward in heaven.” The other aspect: God blesses his people now—blessed are, present tense.

In the first instance Jesus means that whatever kindness we do, whatever integrity we refuse to surrender in the face of opposition, whatever truth we uphold in the face of self-interested “fudging” God will honour inasmuch as God treasures all of this in a world that is indifferent to kindness, contemptuous concerning integrity, and hostile to truth. The smallest cup of water given to relieve someone else God sees. Yet he does more than observe it. What God sees God adopts; God owns; “you did it to me”; and in his own way and in his own time he will bless the selfless giver of that cup in a manner we can’t apprehend at this moment.

Many people find our Lord’s teaching on rewards difficult to understand in that they assume that reward is the same as payment.  But reward and payment are categorically different.  Payment is always something, a thing that has no logical connection with the deed it compensates.  If I cut the grass and I’m told I may now go fishing, then fishing is payment for grass-cutting. There’s no logical connection between grass-cutting and fishing. Reward, on the other hand, is always related logically to what it rewards. What’s the reward for decades of marital faithfulness—a new set of gold clubs?  No.  That is payment.  The reward for marital faithfulness is simply a richer, stronger, more resilient marriage.  Payment for the student’s diligence at her homework is a ticket to the next rock concert.  The reward for diligence at her homework is her capacity for more profound intellectual work, greater enjoyment in it, and satisfaction with it for as long as she lives.

We all understand how it is virtually impossible for historians to evaluate accurately the historical significance of events that are occurring right now. Something that appears crucial today may turn out, fifty years from now, to have been only a tempest in a teapot. On the other hand, something that seems a trifle today may turn out to have had momentous historical impact.
In the same way there are people who manage to get themselves noticed and congratulated, even feted by the prominent and the powerful. And then there are other folk. Their lives unfold anonymously. Their faithfulness and goodness will never be heard of. But the God who sees in secret sees. And what he sees he owns. In the life to come he will bless the person who thought she was behaving so very ordinarily that her ordinariness didn’t attract the recognition it didn’t deserve.

Eye has not seen, nor has human mind imagined what God as prepared for those who love him.  Great surprise awaits.

5. The clip of surveillance-camera footage is grisly: this past October a two-year-old is toddling across a market street in the southern Chinese city of Foshan when she is hit by a minivan. The driver pauses, assesses the situation, and moves on, running over the girl again with the back right tire. In the minutes that follow, she lies on the pavement, is hit by another driver, and is ignored by more than a dozen passersby, including a woman walking with a child. Eventually, a garbage collector stops and pulls the child to safety.

Appalled, Chinese people sparked a debate about the ethical health of contemporary life in their country. The driver, in a call to reporters, didn’t help matters, saying: “If she is dead, I may pay only about twenty-thousand yuan ($3,125). But if she is injured, it may cost me hundreds of thousands of yuan.”

Self-centered calculation makes for cold and pitiless society.  The indirect light of the gospel shining through the lives of God’s people who look to the need of the hurting has positive impact on society.  I suggest to you that such impact is evidence of God’s rewards; of his blessing on this life.  I know that in my life in Canada I have been the recipient of the incalculable blessings of the indirect light of the gospel shining through people is very ordinary acts.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.