Sermon for October 11th, 2020

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Matthew 25:31-46

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.”

Jesus and His Pair of Bowls: The Sheep and the Goats

A devout cowboy lost his favorite Bible while he was mending fences out on the range. Three weeks later, a sheep walked up to him carrying the Bible in its mouth. The cowboy couldn't believe his eyes. He took the precious book out of the sheep's mouth, raised his eyes heavenward and exclaimed, "It's a miracle!" At this, the sheep replied, "Well, it's not *really* a miracle...I mean, your name is written inside the cover."

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. I am married to a piler, my eldest son is a divider, my daughter is a piler, and my youngest son...well, he's a drummer. That's an entirely different category for some other day.

Dividers and Pilers--which one is God? To read today's parable 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 elsewhere in the gospels we read that Jesus is the good shepherd, the one who brings the lost sheep back into the fold. Definitely a piler.

How do we reconcile these two images of God? We probably 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 we get put on the right side. This is, of course, a problem. Actually, there are a number of problems that arise in today's parable, and I've divided them into three categories: Problems of interpretation, problems of translation, 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 sheep 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 really jumping back and forth between literal and metaphorical? Because that would be unlike his typical approach. And if it's all a metaphor--sheep, goats, eternal life, eternal fire--what does it represent? Who are we in the parable?

I actually did a little research for today's parable, to learn more about sheep and goats. Mostly, I wanted to know why a shepherd would 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.

Now, conventional wisdom for this parable is that sheep are supposed to represent obedient followers (and therefore good) while goats represent independent and strong-willed people (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.

Conversely, how many of the great biblical heroes of the faith could we label as "independent and strong willed?" People like Moses, David, the Apostle Paul, and even Jesus himself. God uses them all. So I think it's safe to say that 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? According to the parable, you burn all your goats to a crisp, because they're bad. Really? No self-respecting shepherd would divide his flock only to kill half of it. The goats are valuable to the shepherd, too.

One last problem with the metaphor of the Good Shepherd. Regardless of whether you're a sheep OR a goat, the shepherd leads you beside the still waters for a few months, but then it's off to the marketplace where he sells you for profit so you can be eaten for dinner. It's always important to remember that even a good metaphor only goes so far...

Moving on to problems in translation: Verse 32 reads "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." Only in the original Greek, it doesn't say anything about separating *individual people* from one 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, εθνη (ethne) -- the ethnic groups or tribes of people. In other words, you are judged not by your own individual actions, but by the cumulative actions of the people you are associated with. Think of your country, your community, or your extended family. How do you feel about being judged on that basis?

The next translation issue is with the words for sheep and goat: προβατα (probata) and εριφων (eriphon). Probata, according to Strong's Dictionary of Biblical Greek, 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 "little and hairy." So 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 Christian doctrine for the past 500 years since the Reformation. Most protestant churches teach that you can't earn your way into heaven. Salvation has nothing to do with good works, but comes instead from faith: Believing (or professing) that Jesus is Lord.

And what is Jesus saying here in this parable? "Come, inherit the kingdom prepared for you BECAUSE I was hungry and you..." Depart from me into eternal fire BECAUSE I was hungry and you..." In Greek and in English, the preposition "for" or "because" implies cause and effect. In other words, Jesus is pretty clearly saying that you are "in" or "out" NOT based on what you believed, but based on what you (or your country) did--how you treated others. So much for the Reformation and the entire doctrine of salvation by grace through faith.

What a mess. There are so many problems in this parable...but but are there any solutions?

Well, I told you at the beginning of the sermon that I was a divider. I have been looking at this parable through the eyes of a divider, categorizing and separating and isolating and putting things in their places. BUT... when I look at this parable through the eyes of a piler, I see something entirely different. Different from the way it's usually understood, but also far more compelling.

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 at all costs unless they are penned together in close quarters. Goats divide themselves, but a good shepherd still shepherds both in different ways, according to their needs and their nature: The sheep are shepherded actively, and the the goats are shepherded passively, by giving them space.

Those of us who are sheep fear being divided from our flock. Those of us who are goats fear losing our independence, being forced into the group. So we divide ourselves, but God, the good shepherd, (the piler and not the divider) guides the entire flock--all of humanity--each of us according to our need, disposition, and personality.

What about the translation issues? Are these sheep, goats, little hairy creatures, or what? Again, if we look with the eyes of a divider, they *have* to be different, even opposite extremes somehow: Sheep/goats, good/bad, saved/condemned. But I think the ambiguity of the original Greek... might be intentional. The things on either side are... kind of the same thing. Yes, some are ultimately rewarded, and some are ultimately punished. But there's not as much difference between them as we might expect. We are all sinners. We are all saints, depending on the time of day, the weather, and the person driving in traffic in front of us. No matter what side we ultimately end up on, it's good to remember that we're much more alike than we are different.

And the problems of doctrine? Are we saved by grace, or by doing good works? Again, that's a way of dividing, and maybe that age-old argument misses the point in the end. Looking at those who fed the hungry and those who didn't, perhaps we should ask, "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.

Jesus often says that the last shall be first and the first shall be last. First...last...those words separate, divide and judge. But those words also imply that everyone is standing in the same line. They imply that everyone is moving in the same direction, toward the same objective. Some get there first, and others get there last...but everyone who chooses to stand in the line...eventually gets there.

So is God a divider? Or is God a piler? Am I a sheep? Or am I a goat? I think my current answer to all of those questions is...yes. And whichever one you are, whichever eyes you see the world through, it may be helpful to occasionally look at things... the other way around. In any case, it should be a comfort to know that the one who judges and divides us is also the one who unites us and calls us together.

I suspect I will never fully understand how that works. But that's ok, because here at First Presbyterian Church, we are a church for wonderers, wanderers and wisdom-seekers. We wonder about these things as we wander off, or wander in, on our life journeys (according to our sheep and goat tendencies). We seek wisdom by asking the hard questions, but wisdom is forged in humility--realizing that there isn't a perfect solution to every problem, a perfect answer to every hard question.

Keep wondering. Keep wandering. And may the wisdom of the parables, the wisdom of the good shepherd, always be your guide.