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?
We used to take the kids to play tennis at some nearby courts, and we would always end with the “m&m game.” Each kid would take a turn rallying with us (Dad played collegiately, Mom played other sports) to see how many times they could keep the ball in play over the net. Each time over earned them one m&m. This was agreed upon ahead of time and they were excited to play.
Now, they were small and so the payout was not too large, maybe 10-12 at most. Inevitably, one kid always came away complaining, “She got more than me!” And we would reply, well you got your 7 m&m’s, right? Why does it matter that she got 12?
Rev. Miner’s words about gratitude reminded me of the m&ms. How, no matter how much I have been given, I have a hard time feeling grateful if the other person has more. Especially, if the other person doesn’t deserve more. Is this just me or do other people have this problem? Bible people have this problem…
I mean, take for instance, Jonah, who having been rescued from three days inside a really large fish did not take kindly to God’s pardon of the Ninevites. And the workers hired early in the day who were distraught because those hired at the 11th hour got the same wages. How about that thief on the cross; he got paradise in spite of his life of crime. I wanna cry foul with the older brother who had every right to complain when dad had a welcome home party for little prodigal brother, complete with fatted calf. I guess I have not grown too far from the m&m’s.
So, today I am struggling with this. I’m picturing that day when all the nations are gathered before the Son of Man and He separates the sheep from the goats. I hope I will be selected for the sheep team. But what if, in God’s boundless compassion, He says, “Goats, you are forgiven. Join the sheep and be with me in paradise.” I’m certain I would shout, “No fair!” And there I’ll be, a perpetual goat.
Clearly, learning to hold my tongue is an eternal life skill. So I am giving thanks for this sermon series. There is absolutely no way I will ever grow pure bred gratitude without first cornering the criticism, harnessing the hearsay and binding the bitterness. I am truly grateful for the m&m’s I’ve been given. I’ll share. Except the peanut ones.