I believe that Jesus Christ died for my sins. I believe that his action saved me. Why, then, should I be worried about whether God will find me to be a sheep or a goat at the final judgment? Why does this gospel passage make me uncomfortable?
I suspect it’s because I feel that I have a whole lot of goat-like moments, not the least of which was when PH and I were trying to get out of the Wolf Trap parking lot on Thursday night in the thunderstorm, and a great big SUV smartly cut us off. I said some rather rude things about the driver’s appearance, his environmentally unfriendly vehicle, and his driving skills, and I finished off my little rant with “His momma didn’t raise him right.” HE was the goat, and I was the sheep, at least in my eyes.
And that pinpoints part of the challenge of this particular lesson: it’s not a good thing to judge. There is someone who alone has the right to judge, and it sure isn’t me. But that’s gotten me thinking about what it’s like to be a goat, how we know we are being goats rather than sheep, and why Jesus tells this story. We all have our little goat moments, like my complaint at Wolf Trap the other night.
But the real goat – what does that look like? Does he look like James von Brunn, the white supremacist who took a gun into the Holocaust museum and shot a guard? Does she look like Banita Jacks, who is accused of killing her daughters and letting their poor decomposing bodies lie in her house, unmourned and denied a proper resting place? We can wonder what event happened in these two people’s lives that caused them to enter into the belief that their actions were justified. We may never know what caused them to break, and we most certainly cannot know how God will judge them at the last day. But it is so tempting to judge them, as if we know them, to name them as the goats and us as the lovely sheep, under the Shepherd’s arm, blessed, saved, protected. But we don’t really know them, do we? We have no relationship with them, despite all we’ve read in the newspapers or all we’ve heard on television. And relationship is key. How can we know? Only God does.
It is no surprise that this parable appears in this part of the Gospel of Matthew.
Let’s digress for a minute and think about the time and place that Matthew was writing this Gospel account: most scholars think it likely that it was written around 80 CE in the city of Antioch, in Syria. The great temple in Jerusalem has fallen, and the Jews, including the Jewish Christians, are scattered in a great diaspora throughout the Roman empire. Rome rules even more harshly than in Jesus’ time. Unlike when the Apostle Paul was writing, a couple of decades earlier, the Christians in Antioch realize that the end times are not going to happen immediately…Jesus will not return right away in triumph. Matthew has emphasized that no one knows the date of the second coming in the prior chapter. So these Christians in Antioch are hunkering down for a long wait, and in the meantime, they have to learn how to be a church, how to live in relationship with one another, and with other Christ-followers in the area. This gospel is intended to give them encouragement and guidance as they figure this out. So we get a series of parables, all of chapter 25, including the parable of the ten virgins awaiting the bridegroom and that of the ten talents…the focus is on watchful waiting, wisdom, faithfulness, and now, in this final story, on how to care for each other, even “the least of these,” in the meantime. It wouldn’t be a surprise if these embattled Christians also did a bit of judging themselves, seeing discussion of the goats and the bad thing that happens to them as somewhat comforting. After all, if you are oppressed, and you hear of the possibility that justice will finally be meted out against those who oppress you at a later point in time, it helps you get through, doesn’t it?
In the midst of the hunkering down, they have been given instructions for survival…and the heart of those instructions is to care for each other. And to care for each other, and for the larger world, requires that there is a relationship, however brief. Whether the relationship engenders the care we show to someone or whether the care we show engenders relationship is irrelevant – either route works if it gets us to what Jesus is expecting of us. At the heart of it is the question of relationship, and that is really what this end-times parable has to tell us. Jesus is all about relationship, whether it is the tenderness that the shepherd shows to his sheep, or the kindness a disciple shows to a stranger. And the quality that condemns someone to identification as a goat is a lack of relationship, or a spurning of relationship. That absence is the key.
That kind of intimacy in relationship with each other mirrors the intimacy of our relationship with God, who knows us completely. And that guidance, to feed the hungry, give something to drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, care for the sick, visit those in prison – a direct quote from the prophet Isaiah – is all about relationship. Even more important, it is about connecting not only with those whom we find easy to help, but with “the least of these,” those who are not so easy, those who rub us the wrong way, those who we think are lazy, those who we are uncomfortable with because they are different, or old, or angry.
And it is the absence of relationship, in this picture, that becomes the outward expression of evil.
Karl Barth, a German theologian of the early to mid 20th Century, comes up with an interesting way of describing evil. He names it Nothingness. It is the absence of goodness, the absence of relationship. When people lose their relationship with their God, they are subject to the gravitational pull of that Nothingness, a cosmic black hole that sucks out all the goodness and leaves nothing but negativity, despair.
Barth says: [God] knows the Nothingness. He knows that which he did not elect or will as the creator. He knows Chaos and its terror. He knows its advantage over his creature. He knows how inevitably it imperils his creature. Yet he is Lord over that which imperils his creature. Against him, the Nothingness has no power of its own. And he has sworn faithfulness to his threatened creature.... He intervenes in the struggle between Nothingness and the creature as if he were not God but himself a weak and threatened and vulnerable creature…. This is how God himself comes on the scene. —Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics III/3, 358
God dispels that evil, that nothingness…he reaches out to rebuild relationship, to change goats into sheep of the fold, because he loves us all and longs for that relationship. We may fight our way back to good relationship with God, with difficulty, because of our imperfect nature. But we fight back to reach God, as God reaches out for us, because relationship with God is something that we hunger for.
Martin of Tours, a 4th Century monk and bishop, describes this deep desire for relationship:
People naturally do not shout it out, least of all into the ears of us ministers; but let us not be deceived by their silence. Blood and tears, deepest despair and highest hope, a passionate longing to lay hold of ... Him who overcomes the world because He is its Creator and Redeemer, its beginning and ending and lord -- a passionate longing to have the word spoken, the word which promises grace in judgment, life in death, and the beyond in the here and now, God's word -- this it is that animates our church-goers.
Martin describes that hunger for relationship, to dispel the nothingness, in passionate terms, perhaps because he himself was so desirous of relationship, and of living into that relationship with God by serving in relationship with others. One of the most famous legends about Martin was before he was baptized a Christian. On a cold day, the teenaged soldier met a scantily dressed beggar. He impulsively cut his own military cloak in half and shared it with the beggar. That night he dreamed of Jesus wearing the half-cloak Martin had given away. He heard Jesus say to the angels: "Here is Martin, the Roman soldier who is not baptized; he has clad me."
It was a brief moment of relationship, of caring for the least of these. And after that dream, he was baptized, and left the army to serve God.
Martin’s relationship with God began with a moment of relationship, a moment of caring for another. He dispelled the nothingness that meant that a poor beggar would freeze on a cold night, and opened a door to understanding God.
We want to be sheep, not goats. We want to ally ourselves with the power of our Creator, not with the darkness of nothingness. We understand that relationship with God is our goal, but it seems like something so beyond our comprehension. That is what Jesus’ instructions are all about: we take a giant step toward relationship with God by taking the small step of building relationship with others who need us, by seeing God in those brothers and sisters who are members of the great family of man, by loving them as we ourselves are loved. Then we have nothing to fear on the day of judgment. We are recognized by our shepherd as sheep of his flock. The darkness is in abeyance. All is light.