Striving for Sheephood, Stuck in Goatdom
I am always incredibly convicted by this story from Matthew 25 encouragingly called “The Judgment of the Nations.”
Any time I read the words “eternal punishment” attributed to Jesus, I get a little antsy.
It is probably not a coincidence that usually take my last vacation week of the year beginning on Christ the King Sunday every year.
What makes it so hard to hear is that Jesus is being really clear in this text.
He expects us to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome strangers, clothe the naked, care for the sick, and visit those in prison.
That is a very concrete set of tasks that do not need a whole lot of interpretation.
And I know I’m not living up to those tasks.
I feel rather goatish.
It’s actually kind of hilarious to me that we poor, shamefaced goats who don’t care for others like we should are hoping that we could, by virtuous living, attain the lofty status of being…sheep.
It just goes to show that even if we’re stars of works righteousness, we’re still just sheep.
It seems like a pretty challenging set of tasks for sheep to attain.
The balance to the intensity of demand that Jesus places upon us is found in our text from Ezekiel.
If we are goats—in the sense that we are making no effort at all to care for those around us—then there is no provision for us.
But if we are sheep—even imperfect, faltering sheep with rather a lot of goatish characteristics, but really, honestly trying to reach out and to serve—listen to what God will provide for us: “I will feed them with good pasture, and the mountain heights of Israel shall be their pasture; there they shall lie down in good grazing land, and they shall feed on rich pasture on the mountains of Israel. I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord GOD. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak.”
We are not left alone and without resources to try and care for the sick and feed the hungry.
God provides for us abundantly, does everything we are being asked to do for others for us with extravagant generosity and patient love.
If we commit to living lives that will get us called sheep instead of goats at the judgment, we will be provided the strength we need for the journey, and the tender companionship and care of our loving God along the way.
Aside from the important call to concrete mission that this text provides, it is also at heart about the search for and the finding of Jesus.
The sheep knew they had cared for the sick, imprisoned, and hungry and had welcomed strangers. The goats knew they had not.
What none of them did know was that while they were doing or not doing those things, they were doing them to Jesus.
Jesus is revealing his location to us very tellingly in this parable.
Jesus tells us that if we want to find him, we are to go to the disadvantaged, the marginalized, the lost, the least, the oppressed, and the poor.
In some sense the goats have already begun to experience the outer darkness of being banished from the presence of God during their lifetimes, because they searched for God and/or meaning in the all the wrong places.
They searched for God in, or named God as power, wealth, and privilege. The fact that they did not seek God in poverty has now doomed them to continue their fruitless search for a lonely eternity.
Many of us are familiar with that hunt for satisfaction that we try to sate with material goods or status or success.
God is not in those things.
The great thing is that unlike the goats at the final judgment, we have every day of our lives from here forward to turn our search to where Jesus has told us he is to be found: in the hearts, minds and lives of the poor, the hungry, the sick, the imprisoned, and in serving their needs.
The danger of this text is that we can think of the hungry, poor, thirsty, sick, imprisoned, or stranger, as always someone else.
“I’m called to help ‘those people,’” we say to ourselves, our private hearts shuddering and saying, “Thank God I’m not one of them. I’ve got my act together, unlike those people who’ve let their lives fall apart and now have to depend on my charity. What a virtuous sheep I am, look at how generously I serve! I’m free of goathood now!”
Well, folks, that ain’t necessarily the case.
Remember, Jesus is telling us where to find him.
And searching for him in our internal places of pride and self-righteousness and power and wealth is no more fruitful than searching for him in external places of exaltation.
Jesus is found in poverty, and that includes our own internal poverty—our fear, our regrets, our shortcomings and the smallest, most selfish corner of our heart that we think we’re hiding from God and the world and would love to hide from ourselves.
Franciscan monk Richard Rohr says it best: “God is not as transcendent as we first imagine. God is now humble, with us, indwelling, on our side, and for us more than we are for ourselves. God is not found in distant glory, but in humility, where we are all living our oh-so-humble lives. This awareness totally repositions the spiritual journey. Now the goal is poverty, not affluence…Now the goal is the bottom, not the top. We stop ranking vertically and we start connecting horizontally.”
Connecting horizontally is what it’s all about when we’re searching for Jesus.
He is not far away in heaven.
He’s down here with all of us goaty sheep, in all our spiritual, mental, and physical poverty.
And we find him by connecting with each other and ministering to each other’s needs.
We’re going to spend a lot of time over the next ten, twenty, fifty years trying to be faithful sheep, knowing how much of the time we’re stingy goats, and at some point coming to terms that in the end we’re probably at best goat-sheep hybrids. (Geep? Shoats?)
But we’re going to make it.
We’re going to learn generosity one slow, hard-won step at a time.
We’re going to find our hearts unclenching and unfolding until grace begins to flow through us with joy and abandon.
It may seem hard to for us to believe now, but God believes it for us.
Jesus says, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”
God has always known we’ll make it someday.
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