Friday, November 18, 2005

Sheepish goats

It seems we human beings are a tribal lot – psychologists tell us our almost universal tendency to set up divisions between insiders and outsiders helps us to see the world as orderly and even safe.  If I work out that there’s two sorts of people in the world, and I’m one of the right sort, then that’s OK.  Well, this morning we hear about the ultimate distinction – you’re either a sheep or you’re a goat.

Maybe you’ve already noticed that there’s a connection between this passage and Jesus’ very first speech in Matthew – the beatitudes – because in both of them he turns the world’s priorities right around the opposite way – in both the beatitudes and today’s gospel Jesus tells us that the standard for salvation isn’t whether we’ve got the right set of beliefs, but whether or not we show mercy – whether or not we’re willing to cross the boundaries between those that the world approves of and those the world disapproves of.  ‘Guess what?’, Jesus seems to be saying to us, ‘none of the divisions that the world thinks are important actually matter at all’ – if Jesus is a king, then he is the king of the beggars.

But there’s a contradiction in all this – because right in the middle of demolishing the divisions of this world, Jesus seems to be setting up a new outsider group in the next world!  In this world you might be ‘in’, but watch out, because on Judgement Day you’re going to be a goat and you’ll be ‘out’.  You’re ‘out’ now, but don’t worry, because later you’ll be a sheep and that’s good, because you’ll be ‘in’.  And I think that’s a problem because this passage seems to contribute a whole lot to the image that so many of us carry around with us, a sort of split personality image of God – on the one hand a genial, Father Christmas type who wants the best for us in a vague sort of way, but who deep down is really just waiting for us to make a wrong move so he can cast us out into eternal hellfire.  And whose demands, when it comes down to it, are the next best thing to impossible.  You know, that’s a bit of a caricature, but it’s not so far removed from the sort of image that a lot of people have, and it does a lot of damage – for a start, when we have a picture of God as being judgemental and vengeful, then it’s hard to act towards other people in ways that are forgiving and loving.

You have to wonder, too, whether the Jesus who eats, not only with prostitutes and tax collectors, but with Pharisees as well – the Jesus who stands on the side of the woman caught in adultery – how good a prosecuting attorney is this guy really going to make!  Much more in character, I reckon, is the vision in the first letter of Peter of Jesus going to be with sinners in hell on Easter Saturday, in between dying on the cross and rising again, choosing to be with the very ones who have made the choice to close their hearts to God.  It’d be a problem for the sheep too, wouldn’t it – I mean, talk about do-gooders! – this lot have fed every hungry person they ever saw, given a couple of bucks to every down-and-out they ever came across, regularly visited the local hospital and the local jail, helped out at the local soup kitchen.  Now they’re expected to trot happily off to their eternal reward while the goats end up as kebabs?  I don’t think so – if the sheep are as selfless as all that they’d be all for solidarity – ‘we’ll go with them’ – and so, I believe, would Jesus the Good Shepherd.

I read a while ago about a group of elderly nuns, discussing this passage from Matthew’s gospel, and someone wanted to know how you could be sure whether you were on the right side.  So the person leading the discussion asked for a show of hands – maybe we might do it here, too. [1]

How many of you, even once in your life, have ever done what Jesus asks at the beginning of this passage and fed a person who was hungry, or given clothing or blankets to a family in the cold months, or visited somebody in prison or hospital?  That’s great – you are all sheep.

How many of you, even once in your life, have ever walked past a homeless person and not offered help, or have known somebody in hospital and not visited when you could have?  That’s not so good – you’re all goats.

And this is the whole point – every single one of us is a sheepish goat - or a goaty sheep – our goodness and our failures are all mixed up together and that, I think, is part of what it means to be human.  We spend our time trying to divide the world into two kinds of people, trying to convince ourselves that we’re the right kind, when the reality is that the world doesn’t divide that easily, and the sheep and the goats both represent our own personal experience.  The reality is that it is we who are divided, and we both pass the test and fail it at the very same time.  What’s God going to do with that?

The key to all this, I think, is to fast-forward the story just a little bit – because in Matthew’s time-line we’re still on the wrong side of the cross.  The key is the cross, and the king-ship of Christ.  Actually, this day in the church calendar that we call ‘Christ the King’ is a very recent tradition, and it was started by Pope Pius IX in 1925 as a protest against the arrogance of fascism and a reminder that there is only one authority that really matters.  Yet what sort of kingship is it that doesn’t have any of the trappings of worldly authority or power, the sort of kingship that’s on the side of beggars and prostitutes, and ends up being executed as a common criminal?  Well, it’s an upside-down sort of kingship, but it’s also a kingship that’s based on a completely different view of what power is about.  In the world we live in, peace is maintained by dividing the world into those who belong and those who don’t, us and them, goodies and baddies – and power is exercised from the inside out – to keep the outsiders out and the insiders in.  In Jesus, God shows what a different idea he has of power – you might call it relational power, the power to demolish the false divisions of the world by coming amongst us as an outsider, by giving himself up to the violence and the hatred that the world’s divisions create at the very same time as loving and forgiving us.  It’s the power to reconcile what the world holds to be irreconcilable, the power to heal the false divisions within us and between us.  The kingship of Christ is the power to join together what we can’t join, to make the divided reality of human existence whole and complete.

Maybe the story ends this way:

All the nations have gathered before him, and the king asks which among them have seen him in the face of the homeless and the hungry and the condemned of this world – and with one voice they reply that yes, they have seen him there, they remember that when they most showed compassion that was where they found the Son of Man.  And so he places them all on his right hand.

And then the king asks which among them were sometimes too busy or too self-preoccupied or too afraid or in a hurry, or which among them didn’t want to get involved, and didn’t stop and look into the face of the Son of Man lying drunk on the footpath or sleeping rough at the railway station.  Which of you closed your hearts to me when it really mattered?  And they all say yes, that was them sometimes.  And so they shuffle over to the left and side.  Some of them try to stand more or less in the middle.

Well, says the king, you know the score.  As much as you did this to the least of these little ones, you did it to me.  And then the king steps down and joins them and says, ‘But I refuse to accept your choice.  If I really am king of the beggars, then I belong with you.  Nothing you can do will ever separate you from my love.  When you’re ready, we’ll rise on Easter morning together.’

 



[1] Matthew, Sheila and Dennis Linn, Good Goats: Healing our image of God, (1994, New York, Paulist Press).