Sheep and goats. Goats and sheep. That’s all we are. All we’ve ever been. All we’ll ever be. But here’s the rub, which are we?
Recently, I have been hearing a lot folks say they are tiring of the battle. Tired of the in-fighting. Tired of the online fighting. Tired of the rock-throwing, vitriol spewing free-for-all they are witnessing among their friends and family and in their community. They say with a sigh, “I just want to be part of Matthew 25 community.”
The Matthew 25 society they seek refers to the parable of the sheep and the goats — the one where Jesus does his sorting.
To the sheep on his right, he says, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.“
To the goats on his left, he says, “Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.”
What’s a bit unnerving is that both sheep and goats respond to Jesus’ proclamation the same way. “When?… When did we see you?” Apparently, we don’t get to keep our own score. We aren’t privy to our sheep or goat status. What separates sheep from goats is the did or did not.
“Truly I tell you,” Jesus says, “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” Jesus is in each of these interactions, and counting it for or against us.
We don’t get to record our own righteousness. Jesus does that. If we want a Matthew 25 community, we can build it, attending to one need at a time. Beginning with our own need of a Savior, who will help us with our deepest longings and strengthen us in our weakness. In our gratitude, we’ll begin feeling sheepish.
I have a sneaking suspicion that when the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the angels with him, and he sits on his throne, if he looked out upon all the nations gathered before him it would be to his utter delight to say, “Y’all come.”
Perhaps he knows though, that very likely there then would be a mad dash to the Kingdom door, with pushing and shoving and trampling. He would have to appear in the rear of His glory and remind us, The last shall be first… You goats in the back need not bother. Perhaps the separation of right and left is just his way of keeping things orderly so no one gets hurt.
The church is funny that way. Sometimes, it seems, that we think the ordering is up to us. Then in our trying to keep things orderly people end up getting hurt. I remember my hurt when I was a new Christian and, while I sat in the coffee shop reading my NIV version of the Bible, a total stranger approached in order to share that I was reading the wrong version of the Bible. The King James version was the only right one. What a goat, right?
Not necessarily; not my call. But certainly anyone witnessing this moment left with a sour taste in their mouth. Surely, at the very least, we should be living as good pasture grass so no ewe sheep will be driven to the goats.
What if, instead of aspiring to be sheep and not goats, we considered this sincere and honest admission from Abraham Lincoln. When asked why, with his obvious interest in religious matters and his familiarity with the Bible, he did not join a church, Lincoln replied:
When any church will inscribe over its altars, as its sole qualification for membership, the Savior’s condensed statement for the substance of both Law and gospel, “Though shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul and with all thy mind and thy neighbor as thyself,” that church I will join with all my heart and soul.”Henry C Deming, Congressman from Connecticut, as quoted by Carl Sandburg in the introduction to Lincoln’s Daily Devotional
I want to be part of THAT community. Don’t you?
Sometimes you just have to do things in order. First things first. No exceptions.
Oh, I want to put things behind me and just “get on with it.” But life is not a ‘now we join our regularly scheduled program, already in progress’ experience. Stuff happens. Sometimes it is big stuff, and we need to put on the brakes, step off the roller coaster, and put that big item at the top of our to-do list. Everything else takes a seat. Not a back sat, mind you, but its place tossed with everything else in the trunk. You’ll unscramble it later.
Well, God-willing, the later does come. You unlatch the trunk and everything you were doing, everything everybody wanted you to do, and everything you had big plans for smiles up at you. It’s like a trunk full of golden retriever puppies, wagging and whining and hoping you’ll pick them up first. It is very tempting to just fling yourself in the trunk and submit to death by licking.
But that would be self-serving and irresponsible, so you resist. Instead, you stand there and try to decide which puppy to pick up. Which needs me the most? Which is clamoring for attention? Perhaps if I just clear a few away, either by pushing them to the side or setting them free to run around, then I’ll see the one who is really meant for me. (Honest aside: we have been looking at puppies) While that sounds like a terrific strategy, it isn’t working. And I think it’s because there’s an order to things: first things first, no exceptions.
I have uncovered this as I have tried to move on to the “next thing” but been prevented. This is not to say that I am twiddling my thumbs until a light bulb illuminates and I know just what to do. It is more that I am trying to mount several stairs at a time and something reminds me to take just one. And because life seems to be moving so fast at present, today it feels like I am on the slalom course, moving at break-neck speed, and the forces of nature unite with the rule-makers to remind me that I must go around each gate on the blue course to stay in the competition.
What I had been trying to do is join the racers, already in progress. Skip the first few gates and catch up with my friends. Nope. But please, won’t you take pity on me? I got a late start, had some trouble with my bindings, my goggles fogged up, I…please?
But the longer I wait in the starting gate, the further behind I get. So I blast out and cut my turns as sharply as I can around one blue gate, then another. I’m pretty good through three, but the slope steepens and I’m picking up speed. I miss the fourth gate altogether, whizzing past without turning, and the fifth gate is upon me in a split second. Might as well continue; perhaps no one will notice. It can’t be helped.
Yes it can. I slam on the brakes just shy of the fifth gate and sidestep up the mountain. Gate #4 demands navigating. Something about its terrain, its pace, or its trajectory is designed to teach me, heal me, and lead me into Gate 5. Everything in order, all the way to the finish line if you want a score and maybe a chance at a medal.
So, while death by licking has its appeal, life in an ordered course is being exacted from me now. Articles, emails, meetings, phone calls, they’re my gates. Each in order. Now to establish that rhythm…
“We will so order our lives after the example of Christ…”
That’s the beginning of the prayer we offer to newly baptized children or just confirmed young people in our church. This phrase always catches me. It’s that word: order. Not just act like Christ. Not just dress up like Christ. Not just have Christ as a playmate or an imaginary friend. I am promising to order my life after His example. Whoa! Now there is a tall order.
I am pretty sure I have been getting this wrong. Normally, I place my order. I’d like this healing and this protection and this special consideration, and maybe toss in a few of these extras, if it’s not too much bother, Lord. I’m surprised I haven’t heard a resounding, “Would you like fries with that, ma’am?” from heaven.
But God’s not about giving orders, just establishing order. Re-ordering things that have fallen away or gotten out of line.
How about instead of giving orders I “be the order.” That is, take it upon myself to be this very thing, to actually personify the very thing I want to bring. Hey, writers do this all the time. It’s a figurative language technique where non-living or non-human things are given human characteristics.
- The trees clapped their hands
- Amber waves of grain
- The sun smiled
- The earth melted
- My winnings evaporated before my eyes
It’s a very powerful way to make a comparison. Effective. Gets you right there. Simile is such a weakling; metaphorical language lassos you. Gotcha!
So, why not “Be the change you wish to see in the world,” as Gandhi said. I can seek to be order, be healing, be patience, calm, wisdom. Not act like I’m the doctor or pretend that I can wait or put on a veneer of calm or an air of wisdom. Bolder than any of these, I can be them. Not impersonate these qualities, but personify them. Become them in my very person.
Then I will stop asking how can I establish order, stop trying to orchestrate the world around me and turn to the One in me who knows my circumstances and put me here as His emissary. By Be-ing what’s needed I will act differently because the one who’s behaviors I can control, I do: mine. They’re mine to manage and His to guide. I can Be because the Great I Am, is. I feel like He can work with this. Probably all my relationships are heaving a huge sigh of relief right about now.
This all sounds good until you have one of those days. Too little sleep and too many things pinging from too many directions have you scattered and turning in circles. I had to hang up on the guy calling with the quote I wanted because I couldn’t focus on one thing at once. Yes, that bad. The gibberish my brain was feeding me was so disordered, I dared not venture out into the world.
Just then, my handbag glared at me. It was sitting on the seat of my desk chair, snickering. The small compartments to the side had collapsed and were spilling their contents into the black hole of its middle. I could live with this except for one thing: in that black hole was my cell phone. UGHH!
Be the order.
Yes, Wendy, you can return this bag to its ordered self by supplying a few stitches to the side compartment.
Yep, I pulled out that sewing kit, squinted to thread that needle, applied a few running stitches and poof. A few, rare, domestic moments later, I had two functional pockets with cell phone, pens, business cards, and sticky notes all in their customary spots.
God knows I need order. But this isn’t something I need to seek elsewhere. God has made it available to me in Himself. As I complete the row of stitches I marvel at the order. I haven’t just sewn stitches, I’ve sown order. With God’s help, after the example of Christ, it’s a simple fix. Whoa! Who would have thought God with bother with something so terrestrial?
But hey, if a writer can bring life to story by giving human characteristics to non-human things, is it so far-fetched to think that God can bring His story to life by investing human things with Divine characteristics?
… perhaps we can do this …
With God’s help, we will so order our lives after the example of Christ… that all His children, surrounded by steadfast love, may be established in faith, and confirmed and strengthened in the way that leads to life eternal.