Reflection January 27, 2019
"Separating Sheep from Goats" - by Rev. Dr. Thomas Aldworth
Last Sunday (January 20), I again mentioned the final parable in Matthew’s Gospel about separating the sheep from the goats (Mt 25:31-46). This is, I believe, the single most frightening passage in the entire Bible!
In this parable, better described as an allegory, Jesus comes in all his glory with all his angels. Every nation is gathered before him. Every person who ever lived is gathered before Christ the King. If such a gathering took place today, the crowd would be enormous. The best estimate is that at least 110 billion people have walked the earth so far.
This great crowd of people will be divided as a shepherd separates sheep from goats. The sheep are assured of salvation. The goats are assured of damnation. And what are the criteria used for this great separation? “For I was hungry and you gave me food; thirsty and you gave me something to drink; a stranger and you welcomed me; naked and you gave me clothing; in prison and you visited me.”
Sounds simple, doesn’t it? Give food to a hungry person: check! Give something to drink to a thirsty person: check! Welcome a stranger: check! Give clothes to someone without clothes: check! Visit someone in prison: check! Five check marks, heaven awaits!
Could it be this simple? I don’t think so. An important underlying dimension of this allegory is that both the sheep and the goats are surprised by the verdict they receive. Neither the sheep nor the goats were expecting the judgment given to them. Both groups are baffled. Apparently, according to Jesus, God’s judgment may well take everyone by surprise.
We should not believe we’ve been given a “Get Out of Jail” card just because we’ve been baptized or because we come regularly to church: important though these two things are!
Of course, I’m hoping God grades us on a curve as I’ve mentioned more than once in church. I believe God wants every one of us to be with God forever. Yet some may choose to place themselves apart from God. God must grieve such losses more than we can imagine.
According to Matthew 25, we have a final exam coming. Unfortunately, we can’t know exactly what questions God has put on that final exam. But we have a study guide. Our study guide is the Bible, especially the Gospels.
And, according to Jesus, the most important part of our study guide is the allegory of the sheep and the goats. This allegory implies that to get into heaven we will need a letter of recommendation from the poor or the oppressed.
As I’ve often preached, when the time comes for our final exam, God will not ask us what we believe. I, for one, don’t think God is much interested in what our beliefs are. Beliefs will not transform us into good and godly sheep. Beliefs can only take us so far.
I believe having a deep relationship with God and with God’s creation is ultimately what matters. And having a deep relationship with God and with God’s creation is not about what we believe, it’s about having a faith which impacts the way we see and act in our world.
We are called to see the world as Jesus sees the world. This is a primary task as disciples. But it’s not easy. It means we need not only to see the world through the compassionate eyes of Jesus but also to see Jesus in everyone, especially the poor, the down-trodden, the marginalized, the castaways, the oppressed.
As the Episcopalian minister, Barbara Brown Taylor, writes: “For the sheep and the goats alike, the surprise is not that Jesus is somewhere – but that he is everywhere – and especially with the least important people who populate our days, whoever they may be. God sees, God knows, and God will judge us according to how we behave when we (think) God (is) not around.”
She continues: “How do we find the courage to get up in the morning, knowing that every pair of eyes that pleads with us that day will be his eyes, asking us for something to eat or drink or wear, asking us for recognition, for attention?”
Now I’m not trying to unsettle us or make us afraid of our final exam. To help alleviate some of our anxiety, I’d like to offer a “cheat sheet” if I may! The allegory of the sheep and goats doesn’t mean we must all become social workers or generous donors to every cause confronting us.
What the allegory of the sheep and goats makes clear is that we’re called into relationships. We’re called by our Creator to be brothers and sisters to our fellow humans and our fellow creatures. Before my life as an American Baptist, I spent 40 years as a Franciscan Friar. Technically this group is known, in Latin, as the Ordo Fratrum Minorum, translated as the “Order of Little Brothers“. My deepest hope from an early age was to become a “little brother” to all people and all creatures, great and small.
This ideal from Francis of Assisi of being a “little brother” haunts me still. I want to be a “little brother” to all who inhabit the earth with me. I want to be in relationship not only with my dear sisters and brothers in our beloved church but with every sister and every brother everywhere.
I’d much rather be seen as a faithful and true “brother” to everyone at our beloved Morgan Park Baptist Church than be known as your “pastor.” And, yes, I am your pastor. And I relish being your pastor, I cherish being your pastor, for these past 10 and a half years.
Yet, first and foremost, I’m your brother. And, as your brother, I’m called by Christ to love you as deeply as I love my family members. If my faith in Jesus Christ does not reveal itself in the love I have for all – then I may be placed among the goats when the Lord comes with his angels to judge. Still hoping to pass the exam!
Rev. Dr. Joel Mitchell, Pastor
11024 S. Bell Avenue
Chicago, IL 60643