Sermon for November 20, 2011

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Growing up, my Mom and my Dad had two very different ways of organizing things. My Dad would divide everything into categories, organize them by color, size, shape, or purpose. Everything had a special home, and everything lived in its home. My Mom, on the other hand, would gather everything into one big pile...and then put the pile somewhere. Like a drawer, or a closet. Or on top of her desk. My Dad was a divider, and my Mom was a piler. Which one are you?

The fact that I've just divided my parents into two categories and placed each one in their respective place...should probably clue you in to which one I am.

Dividers and pilers--Which is better, though? There are plenty of ways we divide or pile things together in the world. Some good, some not so good. Racism and sexism are, essentially, ways of dividing people by ethnicity or gender. On the other hand, "stereotyping" is the practice of piling different people together under one label. All blonds are airheads, or all lawyers are crooked. I thank God for libraries, which pile together books, periodicals and other information resources from every corner. But I also thank God for the Dewey decimal system that divides them into categories so I can find the right one.

Dividers and Pilers--which one is God? To read today's passage from Matthew, you'd think God is a divider: Dividing left hand from right hand, sheep from goats, blessed from cursed, eternal life, from eternal fire. But in the passage from Ezekiel, God is the good shepherd, who gathers sheep together, heals their injuries, strengthens them and brings back those who wander too far from the pile. Definitely a piler.

So how do you reconcile those two images of God? Is God simultaneously a divider and a piler? Or in some cases one, but in differing circumstances the other? I think we want God to be a piler...until someone gets added to the pile who we think doesn't belong. Or we want God to be a divider...but only if get put on the right side. This is, of course, a problem. A very old problem in the world of Christian doctrine. And too often, this very verse from Matthew 25 is at the root of the problem.

If I've learned one thing at Seminary, it's this: The scriptures are always more complicated than they seem. People who say "just read the Bible and do what it says" are usually neither reading the Bible very deeply, nor doing what it says. There are a number of problems that arise from this particular passage, and I've divided them into three categories: Problems of interpretation, pro blems of translation, and problems of doctrine.

We'll start with interpretation. By this I mean literal interpretation, vs. figurative interpretation. Is Jesus using metaphor in this passage, or is he speaking literally? I don't know anyone who actually thinks he's talking about real sheeps or goats here--that's an obvious metaphor--and yet many people seem to think that the part about eternal life or eternal fire is quite literal. Is Jesus dividing his approach here between literal and metaphorical? And what does the metaphor mean, anyhow? "He will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left."

I admit, I had to do a little online research to learn more about sheep and goats for this one. Why would a shepherd separate his sheep from his goats? Well, apparently they don't get along so well together. The goats are more aggressive and tend to dominate the sheep. Conventional wisdom for this passage is that sheep are good followers and obedient (and therefore good) while goats are independent and strong-willed (and therefore bad). I found lots of sermons online that took things in this direction -- be a good sheep and follow Jesus! Don't be a stubborn goat! But I've got a problem with that: There are other places in both the Old and New Testaments where God's people are called an insult. Stupid sheep, who followed the wrong shepherd. Docile obedience can sometimes get you in trouble, too. Conversely, how many of the great biblical heroes of the faith could we label as "independent and strong willed?" And God uses them. Often. So being like a sheep can be either good OR bad, and being like a goat can be either good OR bad.

Another problem I have with the metaphor: Let's say you're the good shepherd, and you've just finished dividing your sheep from your goats, which as we've said, is probably a good idea. What do you do now? Burn all your goats to a crisp, apparently. Because they're bad. Seriously? Both sheep and goats have equal value to the shepherd. No self-respecting shepherd would divide his flock only to kill half of it.

One last problem with the metaphor of the Good Shepherd. Whether you're a sheep or a goat, in the end, is the shepherd really your friend? He leads you beside still waters for a few months, but then it's off to the market where he sells you for money so you can be eaten for dinner. Metaphors only extend so far, and this one in particular ought not to be taken to its logical conclusion.

Moving on to problems in translation: All translations are interpretations, influenced by the biases of the translators. Especially the NIV, which is a product of good old American individualism--it's all about me. Or, to be specific, the emphasis on "me and Jesus" and having a personal, private relationship with God, independent and detached from the larger community. Verse 32 is a case in point: "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." Only in the original Greek, it doesn't say anything about "he will separate the people one from another." The King James version actually gets it right here: "And before him shall be gathered all nations, and he shall separate them one from another." Them. The nations. Or, in Greek, the "ethne" -- the tribes or groups of people. In other words, groups are being separated from groups, not individuals within groups. That means you get to be judged as a tribe or a nation or a community, corporately. Hope you're in the right one!

The next translation issue is with the words for sheep and goat: Probata and Eriphon. Probata, according to Strong's, is "any four footed, tame animal accustomed to graze, most commonly a sheep or a goat. Uh oh. The word we're using for sheep could also mean goat. What about the word for goat, then? Eriphon comes from the word Erion, which means "hairy." Eriphon is, then, and little or young hairy creature. Jesus is separating the sheep or the goats from the little hairy creatures. Now we're really in trouble.

But all of these little problems are minor compared to the huge problem this passage raises in relation to basic Protestant Christian doctrine for the past 500 years or more since the Reformation. Most Protestant churches in America today strongly emphasize that we are not saved through our works, but rather through our faith. You can't earn your way into heaven by doing good things, but rather you must believe a certain way, confess certain things, and then God, through Jesus, does all the heavy lifting, so to speak. Good works are still a part of the picture, but we do them out of obedience, and as an effect of our salvation...they are not the cause of our salvation. But what is Jesus saying here? It seems pretty clear what the cause and effect is: "Come take your inheritance FOR I was hungry and you..." "Depart from me into eternal fire, FOR I was hungry and you..." For. Even in Greek, it's the word "gar" which Liddel and Scott's lexicon says is used chiefly to introduce the reason for something. Because. Cause and effect. Do these things and you get eternal life, don't do them and you're toast, no matter what you say, or what you believe. So much for the doctrine of Grace.

But there's another problem. On the surface, this passage seems to be dividing people into two groups: the sheep and the goats, the blessed and the cursed, those who feed the hungry and those who don't. But there's actually a third group pre-supposed: Those who are hungry, thirsty, strangers, sick, and in prison. The sheep, the goats, and...the field mice, if you will. Are they on the right hand or the left? A woman with no food cannot feed another hungry woman. A man locked in a prison cell cannot go visit another man locked in a prison cell. They cannot choose to be either sheep or goats, and Jesus leaves no third category option for their salvation. They almost seem like inhuman objects, mere tools used by God to determine whether or not the rest of us are sheep or goats.

What a mess. By this point in my sermon writing process, I was a bit depressed. The problems came easily, but are there any solutions? Surely this passage is there for a reason. Surely the problem is with the way we've interpreted and mangled it through the years (including myself) and not with its inherent meaning?

Finally, it came to me--spirit inspired, as only these things can be. I told you at the beginning of the sermon that I was a divider. I actually think that since the beginning of humanity, people have tended more often to be dividers than pilers. I had been looking at this passage through the eyes of a divider, categorizing and separating and isolating and putting things in their places. But as difficult as it is for me to admit this...I think that God is ultimately more of a piler than a divider. When I look at this passage through the eyes of a piler, I see something entirely different. Different from the way it's usually understood, but far more compelling, too.

Take the metaphor of the sheep and the goats, for example. I said that it would be a good idea for the shepherd to divide them from one another, but it turns out--if we're really talking about sheep and goats here--that you don't have to. They divide themselves. Sheep prefer the flock, and though some stray, they also tend to freak out when they're alone. Goats on the other hand prefer their independence and will avoid the sheep unless they are penned together in close quarters. They divide themselves, but the shepherd still shepherds both, but one actively (the sheep) and the other passively (the goats) by giving them space. Humanity divides itself, but I believe God piles us us all together, sheep and a big pile...shepherding each according to our needs and personalities.

But what about the issue of whether this passage is even talking about sheep and goats at all? If you have on one hand something that could be either sheep or goat, and the other hand something that is young and hairy, it's quite possible both sides could be sheep (old sheep and young sheep) or goats (old goats and young goats). Once again people (this time translators) look at this passage and make sense of it by dividing--if one word means sheep, the other must mean something different, hence goats. But God is a piler. Why old sheep and young sheep? Incidentally, if that's correct it would be the young ones that are sent away to the punishment and the fire. That doesn't seem right--it's still dividing...or is it? Let's look more closely at a few more words. Verse 46 says that the goats (or young kids) will "go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life." The word for eternal here in Greek is aionion. It's also where we get the word "eon" from, which is a long, but fixed period of time. Aionion can mean eternity, but it can also mean "for an age." The word for punishment is kolasin, which can also mean "correction" or "refinement." Oh, and that fire prepared for the goats in verse 41? It really does mean fire. But is it literal or metaphorical? Malachi 3 describes God as a "refiner's fire" who purifies his people like gold and silver. Fire is a metaphor for...correction, refinement, purification.

So if we set aside our divider's eyes, and look at this passage like a piler, we have a God who wants to place everyone in the pile--but some (namely the young) are not quite ready yet, and need to be refined, corrected, and purified for an age before they can join the rest of the flock (who likely also went through an age of refining).

And what about the problems of doctrine? Are we saved by grace, or by doing good works? I think this question misses the point. are ways of dividing, brought on by looking at what separates the two groups in this passage--those who feed the hungry, those who don't feed the hungry, etc. But looking at it a different way, what do the two groups share in common? In what ways are they all in the same pile? I think it's this: They're all surprised. One side is surprised to be told they haven't been feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, caring for the sick and the imprisoned. Probably they're surprised because they genuinely thought they *were* doing all those things. Likewise, the other group genuinely thought they *weren't* doing those things...and were surprised to be told they had been. They're all standing in this crazy line where the last shall be first and the first shall be last. First...last...those words imply that there's one line, some just get in sooner than others.

What about the third group, the "least of these?" I used to think that meant the poor. But Jesus doesn't actually use the word "poor" anywhere in this passage, like he does elsewhere. And remember the issue of metaphor? This passage comes at the end of several chapters-worth of metaphors...right before this is the parable of the 10 virgins, the parable of the talents, all metaphors. And I don't think Jesus is done with the metaphors quite yet. While undoubtedly it's a good thing to give food to the hungry, water to the thirsty, clothes to the naked, care to the sick...Jesus often uses these things as metaphors:

  • John 6:35--"Then Jesus declared, "I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty."
  • Luke 24:49--"I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high."
  • Mark 2:17--On hearing this, Jesus said to them, "It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners."

Who are "the least of these?" Is it possible that, continuing the long string of metaphors, Jesus is talking about the spiritually hungry, the spiritually thirsty, the spiritually sick and imprisoned? If so, that might at least account for some of the surprise on the part of those who were actually working at soup kitchens and organizing clothing drives. The "least of these" are not a separate category. It's all of us. Sheep, goats, young, and old alike. We're all spiritually hungry. And we're all learning to feed and take care of each other, even if some of us have to go to the back of the line and start over a few times.

So I realize that I probably haven't quite solved all the problems of this passage in a neat and tidy 20 minute sermon. And at the end of the day, I'm still a divider. But the more I learn about God's all encompassing love, about Jesus who gathers the church universal together, and the Holy Spirit who permeates the fabric of creation...the more I see scripture through the eyes of a piler, and the more I see myself and you in that one big pile of abundant life. Thanks be to God.