Bless me, folks, for I have sinned. It has been far too long since my last confession. But what with COVID and all, I haven’t been too eager to look into the mirror. But we have arrived at the end of the church year, and with this comes a parable attributed to Jesus, about the sheep and the goats, and I must confess my goatyness has become all too apparent. It has been sneaking up on me for weeks now. I blame the media. Why not, everyone else does? Over and over again, the news media has delivered reports about various prominent, what shall we call them, Trumpsters? who are testing positive for the coronavirus. The news of raging anti-maskers, pandemic-denying, conspiracy-theory-loving, in your face right-wing nut-jobs who, are making fun of science one minute only to test positive the next, well, forgive me but I can no longer stop my lips from twitching and breaking out in a self-righteous smile. Not that I wish them harm, but a few weeks on a ventilator might just be the medicine they need to convert them to my way of thinking.
I know. I know it’s wrong. This is after all a confession. But admit it. Go on. Tell me you don’t smirk even a little when “those people,” you know the ones who rant and rave, in that self-righteous way of theirs, ridiculing, or denying, or objecting to all the stuff that we care about. You know the stuff “we” progressive, forward-thinking, smart people, us, the ones who know better, all the stuff “they,” “them,” “those,” “others,” well let’s face it, they just don’t have a clue about.
Forgive me. I confess that I am in bondage to sin and cannot free myself from judging “them,” those others, whether they’re Trumpsters, or those science-denying, greed-inspired, racist, ignorant, card-carrying nut-jobs. Why shouldn’t we take some delight that when they get what they deserve? After all good christian folk like us, have been judging people for centuries! You’ve got your sheep and you’ve got your goats. And the good shepherd knows enough to separate one from another: sheep to the right, goats to the left. Yay sheep! Boo goats! The parable is clear! Yay us! Boo them!
According to the parable, judgement falls upon the sheep who are praised as “blessed” and rewarded with the promise of inheriting a kin-dom, prepared from them since the creation of the world. As for the goats, well there’s an ever-lasting fire fit for the Devil and the fallen angels, where they will receive “eternal punishment” while the lambs “go off to eternal life.” Blessed are those who wear a mask, for you shall be rewarded with good health. Cursed are those who refuse to wear a mask, for you shall be rewarded with a positive test for COVID! Here endeth the lesson. Or does it.
Now, clearly, I’m over-simplifying to make a point. But parables do have a way of turning our perceptions upside-down and inside-out, and they do so not just to make a point but to radically change our perception of reality. The point of this parable couldn’t be clearer: the basis on which judgement hinges is in the response to “the least of these”. Whether you’re a sheep or a goat, did you reach out to the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the ill, the prisoner? Did you give to the “least of these” the very thing they needed most? If you did, the paradise of your dreams, well congratulations, you’re in it. If you failed to reach out to the least of these then, woe is me, for the hell of your worst nightmare, well look around for it is yours.
Now if this was simply a moral tale, the point would be clear. But a parable is more than simply a moral tale. Parables are designed to turn everything upside-down and inside-out for the sole purpose (pun intended) for the soul purpose of radically changing our perceptions of reality. The turning point of this parable of the sheep and the goats is when we see who Jesus is. “For I was hungry, and you fed me; I was thirsty, and you gave me drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me; naked and you clothed me. I was ill and you comforted me; in prison and you came to visit me.”
When? When? When” Ah, there’s the rub. “The truth is, every time you did this for the least of my sisters or brothers, you did it for me.” Jesus not only identifies with the hungry, the thirsty, the poor, the needy of every kind; Jesus identifies himself as one of “them”.
Now. Not so fast, we’ve turned it upside-down. Now let’s see how it looks when you see it inside-out. Imagine the needy for just a moment. Think about what it would be like to be hungry, thirsty, a stranger, a prisoner, poor and needy. Sounds like hell to me, perhaps even the kind of torment which feels like eternal punishment. The problem with categorizing “them,” “those people,” you know who I mean, the problem with labeling or judging “them” as “other” is that the ONE we profess to follow, this Jesus of Nazareth, not only identifies with “them,” he doesn’t just sympathize with “them,” this Jesus fellow, he sees himself as one of them. We are, all of us, both sheep and goats. We all have the power to give and to withhold.
Now as clear as this parable may have sounded to our ancient ancestors, some of us may not fully hear it, so let me be clear. “Those people,” substitute your particular goat of choice, “those people” they too are just as capable as “us,” substitute your particular sheep of choice; “those people” are just as capable as “our people” of giving and withholding. The question is not whether or not we can identify or sympathize with those we have judged to be “others”. The question is can we see CHRIST in them? And before we go seeing CHRIST as “other than” remember, this CHRIST is the same ONE who lives, in, with, through, and beyond us.
So, what this parable is also asking us to see is ourselves in “the least of these.” For until we can see our own humanity in the humanity of those in need, we will not see eternal life. This parable is not a cautionary tale about how to avoid judgement at the end of it all. This parable invites us to see the CHRIST in, with, through, and beyond, the least of these of whom we are ONE. Our ancient ancestors spoke about the vast realities of the cosmos in language so plain and ordinary that even, “the least of these” could see themselves as part of extra-ordinary reality of a life which has eternal dimensions.
We are indeed all sheep and goats. We are also embodiments, incarnations, of the ONE Jesus embodied; we are the Body of CHRIST; a CHRIST which is so much more than we can begin to imagine, a CHRIST of COSMIC dimensions. As for “them,” you know, “those people” the “others,” well surely, we too have the power to see beyond our labels, beyond our categories, beyond our judgements, to see the HUMAN ONE, the CHRIST who lives, in, with, through, and beyond even “them.”
Let us take no pleasure in the misfortunes of others, whether they be sheep or goats. Let us be CHRISTs to one another, giving and receiving, LOVEing and being LOVEd, so that together we can create the heavens of our dreams and let us live life, in all its eternal glory, here and now. Let it be so among us. Let it be so. Amen.
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Thank you for nurturing my soul