We are not sheep. We are not goats. We are children of our heavenly Father, brothers and sisters enfolded in the embrace of Love, and we must remember that before we destroy ourselves.
The Christ the King Gospel (Matthew 25:31-46) from Nov. 23 and the tragedies in Ferguson, Mo. – both the shooting of Michael Brown and the failure to indict Darren Wilson – have mutually illuminated each other and awakened this conviction inside me.
I had been struggling with the Gospel text ever since I snuck a peak at the lectionary well before listening to that Sunday’s sermon, and I left my church with questions still unanswered. This is a difficult scripture for any pacifist theologian, for while it contains a beautiful message of how to welcome Christ in the weak and marginalized, it also points to a terrifying judgment of those who fall short – and we all know that we fall short. The sudden memory of this gospel has occasionally frightened – not gently encouraged, but frightened – me into giving spare change to a homeless person on the street, or made me feel pangs of guilt if I didn’t. (I’m not always motivated by fear when I give, but when I remember this scripture, I am uneasy at the very least.) There are, of course, those whom I have ignored, and those for whom I may have fallen short of my responsibilities, and feelings of dread creep upon me as I consider them while reading Matthew’s Gospel. What does this message of sharp division between the sheep and the goats, the good and the bad, the saved and the damned, do to a theology built on a foundation of God’s universal inclusion and unconditional love, and what can it do for a world so in need of healing?
I Get By With A Little Help From My Friends
Fortunately, I have no shortage of resources when it comes to interpreting scripture, so I turned to some friends on the internet. First, there was a sermon by Raven friend Rev. Tom Truby. After his sermon was posted on social media, it was later uploaded to the Girardian Lectionary, (hosted by another Raven friend, Rev. Paul Paul Nuechterlein) where I found further helpful information. While my friends’ interpretations helped me considerably, it was events in Ferguson and their aftermath throughout the nation that convinced me of the radically subversive, world-upending magnitude of this Gospel.
First, Rev. Truby’s sermon highlights the fact that Jesus’s parable does not introduce the language of division. Humanity was bitterly divided long before Jesus entered the scene, with “each group [seeing] itself as the sheep and its enemies as goats.” And at a time when misfortune was thought to be punishment for sin (see John 9:2, for example), it could be easy to believe that the poor were forsaken by God, doomed to destruction. Those favored by God, the sheep, were blessed with fortune and favor, and had every incentive to ignore the damned goats. Jesus’ criteria for judgment, therefore, is a far cry from the standards held by the people of his time, and sadly, a far cry from our own standards as well. Just as we do today, they considered the blessed to be those with the most — the most wealth, the most power, the most status — the very opposite of those Jesus called blessed, the poor. Jesus sees the world dividing and judging according to its own warped standards and, using familiar categories of judgment and division, subverts them from the inside-out. Instead of measuring by the standards of success we set to get ourselves ahead, the parable teaches that those most blessed are those who give to others at risk to themselves.
But that much of the message is familiar, though worthy of strong consideration with plenty of critical self-reflection. Less obvious at first, but striking once pointed out, is that Jesus’ use of division — separating out the sheep from the goats — subverts the concept of division as well! As Rev. Truby points out in his sermon, “Suddenly the sheep are those who care for the goats. They feed them and provide them with water. They are all in it together.” Whereas I had always seen a dividing line between good and evil drawn between the sheep and the goats, this line is blurred to the point of absence by the context. In a time in which the poor were thought to be cursed by God and therefore evil and deserving of their fate, they would have been seen as the outcasts, the goats. And in a society of purity codes, to associate with the unclean was to become unclean; those who fed the goats risked catching their uncleanliness like a contagion and becoming them. But if Jesus is identifying the sheep as those who feed the goats, those who care for the outcasts, he is overriding curse with blessing. He is blessing those who cross over the dividing line to welcome others into the embrace of God’s love, even as the world told them they were cursed by God. Rev. Truby’s sermon made me wonder if Jesus’s disciples were left scratching their heads, wondering what to make of the world’s dividing lines, perhaps even developing the germ of an idea that maybe God’s judgment would bring people together rather than drive them apart.
How Ferguson Blurs The Lines Between Sheep And Goats
This interpretation seemed compelling but almost too good to be true, until the Ferguson Grand Jury decision was announced. Then, in the aftermath of that decision, it became so clear: people draw dividing lines between themselves, while Jesus loves us all.
The internet has made it more clear than ever before how people can come to vastly different conclusions about the same event. While some people are outraged about the lack of indictment against Darren Wilson, others are adamant that his shooting of Michael Brown was regrettable but justified and that he had good reason to believe he was in danger. As my colleague Suzanne Ross articulated, “Good people began taking sides on Michael Brown’s death within minutes, perhaps even as the events unfolded.” Good people on both sides, vehemently opposed to each other. I am not immune to side-taking, but I struggle to ensure that my wish for an indictment is for the sake of Michael Brown and his family, not against Darren Wilson. In forcing myself to listen to the “other side,” I have learned to acknowledge the difficulties of law enforcement that I had not previously considered. I have been obliged to imagine myself taking on a career that could potentially put my life in danger regularly, acknowledging that I would not be immune to the fears Darren Wilson might have felt (fears consisting at least partially of racial prejudice). On the other hand, some people sympathetic to law enforcement have expressed affirmation of the legality of the Grand Jury decision while admitting that there might have been a better course of action. Some people are willing to build bridges without forsaking their convictions. But far more, as far as I have seen, are absolutely convinced of the rightness of their positions, their status as “sheep” and the status of those who see things differently as “goats.”
It is abundantly clear to me that the most obvious message of scripture is that God loves all of us, no matter how much we insist on dividing ourselves. What else are we to make of Jesus, who stands with the poor and oppressed and yet forgives all our sins? Who identified the same person (Peter) as both “the satan” and “the rock on whom he built his church?” Who intimately knows the very best and very worst in us, and calls us to recognize the image of God in others and acknowledge the logs within our own eyes? If Jesus separates us into categories of saved and damned, what kind of sense does “Father, forgive them” make? There must be much, much more to the sheep and the goats than meets the eye, and seeing good people on two sides of a highly contentious issue like Michael Brown’s case, convinced of their sheep status and scapegoating (defining themselves against) the other side, convinces me of that. Jesus’s modus operandi is not division, nor is it creating a false unity against a victim (the way human communities have created unity since the dawn of time); it is reconciliation. So it is becoming increasingly clear to me that Jesus uses the language of division between sheep and goats to take our worldviews, our familiar tools for making sense of the world, and turning them inside-out and upside-down.
What Condemnation Looks Like When God’s Kingdom Comes
But still a nagging voice prods me, “It can’t be that simple.” What about the “eternal punishment?” Surely we must not gloss over the more frightening elements of this Gospel. I cannot in good conscious overlook them. But thanks to the Girardian Lectionary, and with further insights from Ferguson, I think I have found an understanding that persuades me away from fear toward determination to eschew the trappings of empire and live into the invocation “Thy Kingdom Come.” The Girardian Lectionary cites Brian Zahnd’s interpretation of this passage from A Farewell to Mars, and what captivated me was this:
Yes, I believe in a personal judgment…. But I don’t think this is what Jesus was particularly talking about in his parable of the sheep and goats. Jesus spoke of nations judged, not individuals. And the criterion for judgment has nothing to do with “receiving Jesus as Savior” but with the treatment of the underclass with whom Jesus claimed a particular solidarity.
Jesus judges the nations. And in so far as our national spirit is entangled in the powers of imperialism, greed, racism, sexism, homophobia, and anything else that keeps us from reflecting the true image of God’s love, our nation will clash with God’s kingdom. The judgment that will come will be the consequence of that clash, where eventually the violence that stands in contrast to God’s love will burn itself out in conflagrations of rage.
We’re seeing that right now, as the powers of racism and violence are being unmasked, the veil of legality over unjust systems torn away. The mostly peaceful protests of the Grand Jury decision are punctuated by acts of violence as people lash out in frustration and anger, responding to a deeper evil that has dehumanized African Americans for generations. The Martin Luther King Jr. quote that has been floating around social media in the wake of this controversy is particularly appropriate:
It is not enough for me to stand here and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible of me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to gain attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it that America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the negro poor has worsened over the last twelve or fifteen years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than they are about justice and humanity.
Racism is embedded in the foundation of our nation, and the only ones who claim to live in a “post-racial” society are those who do not have to experience its daily indignities. It certainly played a role in Ferguson, where division between the predominantly African American citizenry and majority white police force has been a source of suffering. The relationship between law enforcement and the community they are “sworn to protect” is strained, to say the least. Whether or not Darren Wilson was legally justified in shooting Michael Brown, I do believe that a lifetime of insidious conditioning in racial prejudice (impossible to completely avoid, but possible to mitigate and correct with self and historical awareness) contributed to the fear that demonized Michael Brown in his eyes. Tim Wise has penned an illuminating article exposing the mimetic nature of the negative perceptions between African Americans and white police, which flow in a perpetual cycle and are but one symptom of the very real racial divide shaping different realities for African Americans and whites. Far from disturbing the peace, the protests expose the fragile nature of “peace” designed for some over and against others, rooting out the rot of violence at its core and rebuilding on a solid foundation of justice.
A nation in which not only Michael Brown, but also Eric Garner, John Crawford III, 12-year-old Tamir Rice, and countless other African Americans are killed every 28 hours without consequence, a nation in which African Americans are disproportionately profiled, arrested, imprisoned, and feared, is a nation that demonizes victims and fails to recognize Christ within them. This is exactly what Jesus condemns, and this violence will be left to burn itself out and smolder in the ashes when God’s kingdom comes.
Our nation is being judged. The kingdom of God is clashing against the trappings of Empire, and we are each feeling the tremors of this national earthquake rippling through our own lives. To the extent that we cling to identities of exclusion and find security in asserting ourselves violently against others, we will experience that judgment as condemnation; we’ll be saved, but as through fire. But to the extent to which we repent, remove the logs from our own eyes to see the Christ in our neighbors, we will experience that judgment as liberation, new creation, and everlasting joy.
Now the season of advent has dawned. The new liturgical year begins where the old one left off, with suffering and apocalyptic signs, and the admonition to keep awake. Let us awaken to the suffering surrounding us as the shroud of legitimacy over our systemic prejudice and violence is stripped away, preparing our hearts to be washed clean in the sunlight of God’s love. The time is ripe for the powers of hate and division to be upended, that we may be restored. And so we earnestly pray, Come, Lord Jesus.