Of Sheep and Goats


November 26, 2017 — Christ the King Sunday

The Rt. Rev. Mary D. Glasspool

Today’s Readings:

Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24
Psalm 100
Ephesians 1:15-23
Matthew 25:31-46

Of Sheep and Goats

Will D. Campbell was a Mississippi-born, Tennessee-based Baptist preacher, author, and farmer who was known for his longstanding support of civil rights. His best known autobiographical book was Brother to a Dragonfly, published in 1977. But my favorite Will Campbell book was Forty Acres and a Goat, published in 1986 and also autobiographical, given that the goat in question was a long-time family pet named Jackson.

Campbell begins his memoir by musing on the Bible and biblical interpretation. He says this:

There are many things in the Bible I have never understood. Sometimes I have dealt with them through blind acceptance. Some I have chosen not to spend much time thinking about. A few I have taken to the scholars.

My early conditioning makes it difficult for me to take even the most tentative exception to anything Scripture states, even the things which to me make no sense. But there is one question I have long harbored: Jesus, what was it with you and goats?

He never seemed to like them. Sheep were synonymous with good. Goats with evil.  The sheep are on the right. Goats on the left. (The political implications of that used to bother me too, until I learned that such declensions are largely irrelevant to anything that really matters.) Sheep receive the blessing of the Father and are said to enter and possess the realm of reward. Goats go to the eternal fire that is ready for the devil and his angels. Sheep are loving and compassionate. Goats leave people hungry, naked, and in prison and do not visit them. Face to face, I’m sure I’ll see it clearly. But here and now, in this prisonhouse of the flesh, I don’t. For I loved Jackson very much.

[Will D. Campbell, Forty Acres and a Goat; New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc., 1986; pp. 9-10.]

The passage that bothered Mr. Campbell most in its treatment of goats was, of course, today’s Gospel Lesson from Matthew. It’s not really a parable. It’s a dramatic, colorful picture of the Final Judgment Day, painted by Matthew’s Jesus as a way of wrapping up his teaching before the events of his passion, death, and resurrection.

Pages and pages and pages of biblical commentary are written about this particular passage, and believe it or not, the most controversial identity issues have to do not with the questions of Who are the sheep? and Who are the goats? but rather with the questions Who are the nations?(which are gathered before the throne) and Who are the least of these? All the nations could mean either all humanity or the Gentiles. The least of these could mean either anyone in the world who is vulnerable, or, much more specifically, missionaries who are disciples of Jesus.

I’m going to let these particular interpretive questions stand, because no matter who the nations are, and no matter who the least of these is – there are some basic things being said in the passage which apply to us, and need to be taken seriously.

First, let’s consider what both sheep and goats, the righteous and the unrighteous, have in common: They were both surprised at the judgment! The righteous as well as the unrighteous ask the King-Judge, Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry, thirsty, a stranger, naked, sick, or in prison? The behavior of the righteous points to a kind of unself-conscious giving; a kind of doing works of mercy without thought for merit or without being motivated by the (false) idea that somehow, somewhere, God is keeping score. In this passage, my friends, we are called to be Christians Anonymous. So the question for us today is, How do we go about being Christians Anonymous?

I think there are at least three ways suggested by the text, in which we can go about being Christians Anonymous. The first is this: Have compassion for the hurting people of this world, wherever and whoever they may be. Perhaps that seems simple, yet there are many roadblocks along the way to compassion. A friend of mine once wrote an editorial for the Baltimore Sun newspaper that he titled Goats. It was written by J. Peter Sabonis and was about a City Council Bill which was going to outlaw “aggressive and other forms of panhandling.” Peter Sabonis told the story of the sheep and goats straight out of Matthew’s Gospel and then wrote this:

The beauty and truth of the tale … varies according to the interpreter. Yet I’ve never heard a preacher ask why the disguised king was hungered and naked to begin with. Had he squandered his opportunities? Was he sick because of his own addiction? Naked because he was slothful? In prison because he was a criminal? And if this were the case, why should the goats be condemned for not investing time and energy in him?

These however, are the questions asked and the reasoning used by most of us – …- to deny assistance to the poor, or to condition it on some change in behavior, or to outlaw panhandling. 

[Baltimore Sun, 11-17-93, Editorial Page]

Sabonis goes on to say that The beauty of the King’s tale seems to lie in the fact that the sheep did not pass judgment on the least among them. They saw not only the intrinsic worth of others, regardless of condition, but the intrinsic value in compassion and giving, regardless of the result. One way in which we can be Christians Anonymous is to have compassion for the hurting peoples of the world, wherever we find them.

A second way is to seek to understand the systemic nature of much of the injustice in the world. Individual Christians volunteering at homeless shelters, giving to food pantries and visiting people in hospitals and prisons are all good works – but not enough. Whoever one interprets the nations to be, one thing is certain: the word is plural. Do we dare ask the questions: Does our nation feed the hungry and give drink to the thirsty? Does our nation welcome strangers? Does our nation clothe the naked? Does our nation visit the sick and those in prison?

Recently Bishop Dietsche and I were in the country, or nation of Tanzania. In the 1990s the government appeared to be anxious to tell the world that leprosy in Tanzania was decreasing, so the ministry of Health stated as much, reduced the financial support to Hombolo Hospital for leprosy, and donors from other parts of the world, believing there was no more need, ceased their donations. In the middle of this situation, the Church (I’m writing here about the Diocese of Central Tanganyika, in particular) recognized that it might be the case that villagers in more remote, impoverished villages were reluctant to come to any treatment center for fear of being expelled from the community. So people from the Church went out to those villages and where new cases of leprosy seemed probable, encouraged and even accompanied the people to Hombolo Hospital for diagnosis and treatment. Leprosy is curable through Multiple Drug Therapy (MDT), but (obviously) it has to be diagnosed and treated as early as possible.

The Diocese of Central Tanganyika is a wonderful model for me of the Church going out into the world and seeking those who (in this case) the Government overlooks or even actively wants to ignore, and serving them. The Church actively participates in reducing the social stigma associated with leprosy, because they recognize the stigma as part of the disease. DCT sponsors and supports a school for the blind; a school for the deaf; the Ibihwa Vocational School; Hombolo Hospital; and other institutions which serve people who would most likely not be served by any other institution. The Church goes out of its way – in our own manner of speaking, though this approach should be right in the way of the Gospel mandate – to seek and serve the poor, the oppressed, the widowed and orphaned, the diseased, the homeless, and those it would be easy for nations as well as individuals, to ignore. We need to understand the systemic nature of much of the world’s injustice.

The third thing we can do to become better Christians Anonymous, is to have the heart and mind of Christ. Throughout the Gospels it is clear that Jesus’ purpose is to heal the sick, liberate the oppressed, and proclaim good news to the poor. He came to call not the righteous, but sinners (Matthew 9:13; Mark 2:q17). And he made it clear, on more than one occasion, that as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me. From the Beatitudes to the Last Judgment; from the Sermon on the Mount to the Sermon on the End; from the first instruction of Jesus to this last, the criteria for attaining life in the kingdom remains the same: forsaking greatness for smallness, propriety for people, one’s own religiosity for another’s need, and the protection of respectability for the vulnerability of compassion. In short: we are to have the heart and mind of Christ.

Sheep and goats. The righteous and the unrighteous. The nations and the least. Can we strive to be better Christians Anonymous? Yes! By having compassion for the hurting peoples of the world; by seeking to understand the systemic nature of much injustice; and by having the heart and mind of Christ.

One thing more – and this is especially for those of us, certainly myself, who generally feel more like goats than sheep. This passage, terrifying as it can be, contains also a word of comfort. There is a final judgment; and there will be a Final Judge – and that Judge is Jesus, who loves us, forgives us, and calls us to be his own.

In the Name of God, Amen.