The liturgical year ends with Matthew’s familiar parable of the sheep and goats. As a refresher, at the end of the ages people will be gathered as if so many sheep and goats. Those who have tried to live into the commandments to love God and neighbor, emphasizing justice for the most vulnerable, will be called blessed and invited into God’s presence. Those who did not will be shuffled off to an accursed place of extreme discomfort. The admission test will be whether one was generous toward those who thirsted for a cup of water, were strangers in need of welcome, were naked and needed clothes, or were in prison and needed visitors. Those who were generous toward the least of those in need, will pass the test. Those who were not, even though they professed faith, will fail.
It’s a parable that’s come up in questions from bible studies with clients at the local rescue mission, the wealthy elite, and ordinary people like you and me. Some worry about whether they will be sheep or goats. Others are certain of who they are, and equally certain of who everyone else is. Most believe it’s one or the other. You’re either a sheep or a goat. There’s nothing in between. A few have serious quantitative questions. How many cups of cold water are needed to get an A in this course? Can I substitute clothing for prison visits? Is there another menu with other things on it? The parable has led some to the odd assumption that sheep are good animals and goats are bad. For the record, not all sheep are good, or so say’s God through the voice of Ezekiel. Fat sheep, it seems, are noted for pushing, shouldering and butting weaker animals until they’re forced to flee. For what it’s worth, translations into languages that have never seen a sheep or goat use local animals that work well enough to tell the story. I don’t think Jesus minds.
But I digress. The parable is about sheep and goats. Are you a sheep or a goat? How do you know? Speaking only for myself, some days I’m a sheep, some days a goat, and most days a combination of both. I can be both generous and stingy, fight for justice and be unjust, selfish and giving, kind hearted and mean spirited, courageous and cowardly. It’s probably not going too far out on a limb to suggest you are too. This is not a parable about one or the other. We’re all part sheep and part goat. The point is that God is serious about the commandment to love God and neighbor, serious about issues of social and economic justice, and serious about blessings accruing to those who do things to make things better for the least, and thus for all.
Wanting to be a sheep is always a good thing, but it’s equally important to remember that sometimes we are among the least of these, and in great need. Not that we are literally thirsty, or a stranger, or naked, or in prison, but that we have come to a place in life where the resources at our disposal are woefully inadequate. We thirst for someone to love us when we are unlovable. We’re strangers, sometimes in strange places, and sometimes in our own homes – we need welcome. We feel naked in a world of others fully clothed. We’re in the prisons of our own minds. It happens to each of us, even though we can be tempted to think we’re the only ones. That’s what humility is all about. It’s the recognition that there is very little distance between us and the least of these, and sometimes we are among them as one of them.
Do you remember the parable of the Pharisee and tax collector at prayer? Jesus said the tax collector would enter the kingdom before the Pharisee. Neither would be kept out, but the Pharisee first needed to learn a lesson: that he is one with the tax collector. The tax collector wasn’t innocent. He also had many lessons to learn, lessons the Pharisee could teach him, but first the Pharisee needed to learn he was one with the tax collector. The thirsty, strangers, naked and imprisoned are not the targets of our beneficence, they are us in conditions of life different only by degree.
I have confidence that when the time comes, God will dispose of my goatiness. In the meantime, if I am to be serious about following Jesus in the way of love, I also have to be serious about living into the lessons of the parable because God is serious about them. I also have to be cognizant of my limitations. I don’t have every gift, only a few. I’m not expected to use the gifts I don’t have, nor am I expected to use my gifts beyond my abilities. Neither are you.