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?
It’s so hard to stay on track. What with everything pulling us this way and that. Attractive things. Tempting things. Necessary things. They all tug at our sleeves insisting we pay attention. Perhaps this is something of the sense Jesus had in the crowd when the woman who had suffered hemorrhages for years touched the hem of his clothes and was immediately healed. It stopped him into asking “Who touched me?” because he felt the power that had gone out of him.
I wonder about the power going out of me by all this tugging and touching and tempting. Is it dribbling and leaking? Or is it the power of healing to those whom I pass? Am I so determined to stay the course, persist in my doing, struggle through any obstacle, that I apply all of my power to my own path? Because that, I fear, is what happens when I fix my eyes on an objective and insist on getting there in my own strength.
“He guides me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake…” Psalm 23 says. Not, he jumps me straight to the end because I am special or because I have been well-behaved or even because he chooses to. He guides me on the path toward right. The ‘not right’ in me gets me off track. People call this ‘not-rightness’ sin. The Bible calls this not-rightness sin. And we suppose it stands on the path between us and Goodness. It separates us from God, we say, and that seems so.
But what separates may not be something that stands between. It may very well be something that stands behind and calls, or stands next to and tugs, or passes near and tempts. All it takes to draw me off course is a slight misalignment. So, I must attend to my guide, moment by moment.
How many paths of righteousness are there? I don’t know. But they all lead to the foot of the cross. And from each of our vantage points that direction will look a bit different. Almost as if we each stood and looked at the shadow cast by the sun’s beams spilled on the cross itself. The way would look straight from where we are. How simple! But as we walk, the sun rises and the sun sets and the path ebbs ever so slightly. Following it requires constant attention, supreme diligence and everlasting patience when clouds descend. All character traits I expect God intends to sow in me, not to battle death or defeat sin; He has taken care of that. No, I expect they are the power of God to heal. Heal me and heal others.
So we can journey onward toward the foot of the cross, the gateway to the Father Himself. Same gate. Same Way. Infinite number of paths.
Funny, during Lent the path has a different feel under my feet – a sodden, squishy, slosh. And there is a beautiful reflective quality to it, a sort of darkened, deepened, glow. Almost as if the shadow is cast on a lake and I am, we are, walking on water. The cross is planted on firm ground right at water’s edge. Set there to welcome travelers who are damp from effort. “Come on in and dry off,” it seems to say.
Hey, if we are baptized into new life, surely we can be dried off into Kingdom living.