March 5, 2017
Union University Church
Reverend Laurie DeMott
In the passage which I just read from the gospel of Matthew, Jesus describes the day of judgment in which the sheep are sorted from the goats with the sheep — those who were compassionate and cared about the vulnerable in society — earning salvation while the goats — those who ignored the needs of their neighbor — are condemned. This passage may raise many questions for readers but apparently the most burning question on some people’s minds is, “Why do goats get such a bad rap in the Bible?” In fact, in my sermon preparations, I came across a long discussion online among sheep and goat herders debating the appropriateness of Jesus’ analogy.
One woman said, “[I have five sheep and two goats.] My five sheep are flighty and don’t warm up to people very easily. They are also a bit dirty and smelly, rather fragile, and easily injured, but the two goats are much more friendly (more like dogs), warm up to humans much faster, and will even eat out of my hand.”
Forum members chimed in with similar experiences and so a few began to propose possible reasons the Bible favors sheep in its analogies. One person argued that this chapter was an example of early gender bias saying that in ancient Palestine, sheep herding was the responsibility of men while goats were maintained by women, so sheep were associated with higher social status. Someone else claimed that goats were often featured in Greek religion as symbols of sexual promiscuity — think of satyrs and the god Pan — while another person claimed that in a nomadic culture, sheep were favored because goats were more apt to wander and their willingness to eat anything damaged grazing land. Sheep, they said, left less of an environmental footprint. All of these things may have been factors in the Biblical use view of goats, but the most persuasive argument I read was by a man on a different site who said that he thought the Jesus’ choice to use goats to represent those who ignored the needs of others was because while sheep are communal, goats are more individualistic and apt to exploit situations for their own benefit. He said, “[A friend of mine raised goats as a boy, and told lots of stories about the antics of their animals.] Once, after the big noon meal, his mother took the children down the road to their grandfather’s house [leaving the table to clear for later.] When they returned home, though, they found the biggest of the goats standing right in the middle of the table, amidst all the dishes and leftovers. The screen door had been no match for Billy! On a later occasion, before [his family] had electricity installed in their house, his mother picked up a lamp and went to a back bedroom. Moments later the family heard her screaming, “Someone’s in there!” Grabbing his gun, his father went to confront the intruder. Instead of a burglar, he found the same goat in the bed—under the covers!—with only his eyes peering out!” 1
Goats, this man argued, can be friendly and delightful but they are also opportunistic and independent, often leaving chaos in their wake.
This foray into sheep and goat behavior may seem like a side issue to the parable but in fact, I think it is important to our understanding of Jesus’ point in Matthew 25 because while on the surface, the parable appears obvious — Jesus commends those who care for others and condemns those who don’t — his use of the metaphor of sheep and goats reveals something about what Jesus believes causes a person to be in one group over the over. Like his parable about the good tree bearing good fruit and the bad tree bearing bad fruit, Jesus indicates that our behavior is a result of an internal orientation to the world. Are we looking at the world as goats look at it, always ready to exploit situations that will advance our own interests, or are we really concerned about the rest of the flock?
Now whether the sheep and goat herders among us agree with the typecasting of the sheep and goats here, there is another indication that Jesus is using this parable to get us to consider our internal orientation to the world, another aspect of his story that asks us why we do what we do and whether what we are doing is in alignment with who we claim to be, and that is the element of surprise.
When Jesus commends those, saying, “I was hungry and you fed me, I was a stranger and you welcomed me,” they respond with surprise, exclaiming, “When did we see you hungry?” They had no idea that Jesus was anywhere around while they were doing all of these good things. They didn’t do these good works hoping that God was watching and putting little gold stars next to their name. They didn’t do them because Jesus had told them that this is what they should do now that they were Christians. They didn’t do them with any sense that these acts were going to get them closer to heaven but they did them because something about becoming Christian had changed their hearts toward the most vulnerable in their society. Faith hadn’t changed their behavior; faith had changed their hearts and their changed hearts had resulted in changed behavior.
This may seem like hairsplitting but it’s a crucial distinction. We read this parable as a command to go out and care for the hungry, the suffering, and those in need, but this parable is not a command, and if we read it as a command and try to go out and do all of the things Jesus lists because we believe that doing these things will make us good Christians, we will get worn down and burned out. Our faith will fizzle because we will quickly come to realize that no matter how many hungry people we feed, there will always be more, and no more how many sick people we visit, the hospitals will never be empty, so how will we know when we have done enough? If we read this parable as a guide book for getting into heaven, watching for Jesus’ approval every time we care for another person, we will end up discouraged and depressed and farther from faith than when we began. In this parable, however, Jesus is not telling us what to do as Christians; he is telling us what will be the natural result of accepting his grace into our lives. The Christian will feed the hungry and comfort the sick and welcome the stranger and visit the imprisoned, not because it is the Christian thing to do but because faith in Christ changes our hearts and we cannot help but do them. Jesus’s grace gets deep down into our bones and we no longer see the world through self-interested eyes but see the world through the eyes of grace and we are moved.
The mini-series “Band of Brothers” told the story of the 101st Airborne division and their mission in Europe during World War II. In the fifth episode, news arrives of an Axis offensive in the Ardennes Forest which will later become known as the the Battle of the Bulge, and Major Richard Winters is ordered to hold the line. As he prepares to move his troops into position, the man he is replacing warns him, “The Panzer division is about to cut the road south. Looks like you guys are going to be surrounded.”
Winters calmly replies, “We’re paratroopers, Lieutenant. We’re supposed to be surrounded.”
Winters knew that what his men confronted would be difficult, even dangerous, and that many of them might die. His words weren’t meant to be cavalier about the task before them but rather to point out that his men had understood that those challenges would be part of being a paratrooper. To warn a paratrooper that he might be surrounded would be like warning a man in the cavalry that he might have to ride a horse or like warning an exterminator that she might have to touch ants…. or like warning a Christian that he or she might be called upon to feed the hungry.
“We’re Christians,” we say. “We have been saved and redeemed by the grace of Christ. We who were broken were made whole by the grace of Christ. We who have made so many mistakes, failed in so many ways, who have been weak when we should have been strong, have been forgiven by the grace of Christ. We who were pretty sorry looking creatures were made anew by the grace of Christ. You don’t have to warn us that we might will have to care for the most vulnerable members of society because we who have been remade by the grace of Christ can’t help but care about those who suffer and are in despair. We may look different from all of those people on the surface but inside, we know that we are no different than them. We may not be fleeing terrorism in Syria or poverty in Mexico or abuse at the hands of racism, or unemployment because the factories in our town have moved — we may be different in the details but we are all people in need of love, in need of mercy, in need of another to notice our distress, in need of a voice that says, “I am with you and will not leave you alone.”
In Christ, we have received grace and our hearts were changed, and so now we feed the hungry, comfort the sick, and welcome the stranger not because it’s the right thing to do but because we can do no else. As Christ has loved us, so too we must love.
A pastor of an Episcopalian church in Macon, Georgia was told by his congregation that the church had had a major turning point in the late sixties that changed who they were as a church — one might call the event their true conversion to Christ. The church had just gotten a new rector, and the congregation made it clear to their young rector that on Sunday they didn’t want to hear about the racial unrest that was embroiling the country and their own city streets. They wanted to come to church and slip peacefully into the rhythms of the prayerbook, hear an uplifting sermon about love or something easy on the ears, sing a few hymns, say the old familiar prayers, and then go home.
The young rector, however, proved to be a good enough worship leader that newcomers began showing up in church, young people in jeans and long hair. Some volunteered for the food pantry and invited the people they were serving to join them in worship. Others brought their African-Americans neighbors. Soon the congregation began to look quite a bit different and long-time members were distressed. One woman mailed a letter to the entire parish in which she stated angrily that outreach to others had exceeded reasonable limits.
One Sunday, in the midst of this turmoil, the priest preached on the encounter between Jesus and the Pharisees when Jesus reminds them that Isaiah said, ‘this people honors me with their lips but their hearts are far from me…’ The minister preached with assurance, deftly weaving the stories of Jesus’ crowd and the world of Macon, Georgia. He described the parallels in a gently ironic tone, and he looked out over the congregation who seemed transfixed, but then as he paused for breath, the unthinkable happened. A woman in the congregation stood up; it was the woman who had written the letter.
“Do you mean to say we are wrong?” she demanded. “Do you mean to say that for all these years we have been wrong?”
The young pastor opened his mouth to reply, but nothing came out. For a moment, all was silence; but then a man in another pew stood and addressed the woman’s question. And when he was finished, another spoke up and then another and then another. Some talked of trying to become part of church and being frozen out; others mourned the loss of respect for traditions held dear. Some yelled in anger and some said they were afraid of what the church and the whole world were coming to; and many people cried.
The congregation argued with one another for about twenty minutes, while the priest simply stood quietly in the pulpit. Finally, there was silence, born of exhaustion, and the priest said, “I don’t know what to do. What do we do now?”
And someone said, “Well, we might as well do Eucharist.”
And so on that morning when their world came crashing down around their ears, all of those angry, confused, sorrowing, and hurt people came to the Lord’s table together. They heard the words, “This is my body broken for you,” and drank from the cup that is Christ’s blood poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. They shared the bread and cup of grace together and then went home.
And they were changed. The enraged traditionalist woman who had confronted the priest went on to become the instrument of reconciliation between the old-timers and the new people. She was the first woman ever on the vestry, and largely through her sponsorship, the first female priest in Georgia came to that congregation. And through the grace of God in her and some others, the doors of the church opened wider to invite strangers in and to send people out to love and serve.
Somehow on that Sunday morning grace entered that woman’s life and changed her — grace came even though she had not asked for it. Grace came even though she didn’t know she needed it. God’s grace poured out on her angry broken heart and when it did, she become an instrument of grace herself.
During these weeks of Lent, we will listen to the stories of the hungry, the stranger, the prisoner, and the most vulnerable, and hear their need for grace. And we will consider the grace that we in our darkest moments have received from Christ and give thanks for how we have been changed. And then we will go forth to bestow that grace on those in need.
I invite you to the Table to hear the words, “This is my body broken for you,” and drink from the cup that is Christ’s blood poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins, to share the bread bread and cup of grace together.