In this time of polarization asking people not to be divided seems to be a move our biology simply won’t allow. But what if we traded dichotomies…
As a kid I loved the petting zoo. I spent hours feeding barnyard critters pellets and Fruit Loops purchased from old gumball machines for a dime – mostly to watch the goats. Goats are really something. They act friendly enough, then bite your rump when you aren’t looking. They steal the gum out of your pocket, and nibble the park pass off your wrist just to make you chase them. I once watched a goat walk away from a child he tired of. When the kid turned his back, the goat ran at the boy and head-butted him clean over the split-rail fence. The goat then turned around and pretended it wasn’t him. No kidding.
I’m not going to say goats are “evil”…just that goats are “complicated.”
So when Jesus said in Matthew 25:31-46 that people going to hell are like goats, I’m not surprised.
That is what Jesus said in Matthew 25: Sheep are going to heaven and goats are going to hell. Which is a nice thing to know as we end an election cycle. Because, honestly, looking at a lot of Christian’s social media posts and talking to folk around the country these last few weeks, I would swear the dichotomy in God’s Kingdom is between two other animals…
But right there in “The Final Judgment,” going to heaven or hell is not between whether someone is an elephant or a donkey; but whether they are a sheep or a goat.
And just as heaven and hell are not divided between elephants and donkeys, neither is the Church.
The level to which the political divide has reached into the church is truly sad. Christians may be members of different parties, but let’s not write one another off as enemies in the barnyard.
Pastors always need to give a disclaimer on this passage: the final judgement is not about getting to heaven by good works. That is called Pelagianism, a heresy repudiated by the early church. Jesus says in v34, “‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world;” Being “blessed” is something we receive. An “inheritance” is not earned, it is a gift of being a child – also received – from the good hand preparing that inheritance “from the foundation of the world,” which was a long time before you or I did anything.
No, we gain entry into heaven by the Father’s goodness, not ours. Our inheritance comes through His only begotten Son who laid down his life freely, rose from the grave, ascended into heaven; and sent the Spirit to fill us as a pledge of that inheritance. Follower of Jesus, you were marked as Christ’s own in Baptism and sealed by the Holy Spirit forever. “The Sheep and the Goats” is not about how to get to heaven. It is about how those on their way to heaven ought live along the way: In God, FOR the world – a life grounded in Jesus and given to our fellows.
Jesus’ point is the saved serve.
In light of Matthew 25, I suggest a second move: After trading our dichotomy from the political to the spiritual, from elephants vs donkeys, to sheep vs goats; let’s trade our posture from closed to open – from a posture of picketing and canceling, to one of serving and embracing.
Matthew 25 suggests some self-diagnosis: How are we dealing with the least of these? …Are we serving, giving, loving, welcoming?
Or are we posting, correcting, interrupting, and unfriending?
It is an obvious conclusion: Those who have received grace should extend grace to others.
Extending grace matters because, your life is probably the first Bible most people will read. And if they like what they read in your life, they might pick up another more literal translation.
Here are a few places I’m starting my personal posture shift:
1. I’m going to be positive face to face, and constructive online.
2. I’m going to learn from people I disagree with (rather than writing them off).
3. I’m going to pray for people I disagree with. Jesus told us to pray for our enemies. When I am having trouble praying for someone it is a real indicator of how much work I still have to do.
4. I’m going to click carefully and click less.
St. Augustine famously said, “we become what we eat” but, thanks to the miracle of algorithmic recommendations, increasingly, we become what we click. So, I’m going click carefully and click less.
5. I’m going to serve others…the hungry or thirsty or lonely, someone in need of an outfit or a visit.
Now, the truth is, that person might turn out to be a goat. But that’s ok.
Unlike this world in which goats don’t become sheep, in the most-true world of God we all came into this life as goats. It was through the love and sharing and serving of God’s sheep that we awoke and found God…and whether it was an instantaneous moment or a long process, one day we looked in the mirror and found a sheep staring back at us.
That is why the saved serve.
There’s no need to look at your neighbor and try to figure out if they are a donkey or an elephant. Figure out if they are a sheep or a goat.
Then, take the chance that people took with you when you were hungry, and thirsty, and lonely, needed clothing, were sick and in prison…if not physically, then spiritually.
We’ve all been there.
The One who is coming back for us is asking us to mix with the goats…to risk getting our gum stolen and our backsides head butt – because the good shepherd wants to bless us by including us in his good work of sheep-making until He returns.
It’s time for a new dichotomy. And it’s time for a new posture.
Won’t you join me?