Thoughts on Sheep and Goats

So, in my previous post I committed one of my own pet peeves, making a passing reference to the parable of the sheep and the goats (Matthew 25:31-46) in promoting social teaching. Verse 40, in particular, is a favorite verse to quote in order to add force to calls for social justice. I wonder, though, how often we really stop to consider how convicting this text really is. So here it is (please read a number of times reflectively):

31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33 and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 34 Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38 And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39 And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ 40 And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family,[g] you did it to me.’ 41 Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42 for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ 44 Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ 45 Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ 46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

Parables are meant to challenge. They are supposed to shake us up and make us ask questions. This story is more than a mere ethical exhortation to care for the “least of these,” as it is often used in contemporary discourse. A deeper reading of the text reveals that righteousness is not as tangible as we might like to think.

In the parallel verses 37-38 and 44, each of the two groups questions the judgment they have received. The sheep ask, “when have we…” as if they are not aware of their righteousness. They have served “the least of these” without thought or expectation of reward, or even awareness that they have done so. Perhaps something even more scandalous is going on here. Maybe some of these “sheep” have completely failed in service and receive the reward anyway.

The goats ask “when have we not…” as if they were practicing these acts of piety all along. Perhaps they see what the sheep get and expect a greater reward for their faithful service. As far as they know, they have served “the least of these.” Maybe their attitude about it has been wrong, or they did not serve with genuine solidarity. Maybe this is dual predestination and it never mattered how much good they could do.

It is all too tempting to try to separate the sheep from the goats before the appointed time, but the truth is that we lack the perspective to sit on the Judgment seat. Even on that day, the judgments may appear arbitrary from where we stand. Our own concepts of justice may be shattered by the verdicts that are handed down.

Perhaps I am reading a bit too much into the text and bringing in too many concepts from elsewhere in the canon. We can at least distill the message, “it is good to care for the least of these” and attempt to proceed from this truth with integrity and humility. Yet, we must leave room for scandalous grace and leave judgment up to God.

A Christian approach to sin

I currently have sin on my mind. It is difficult to imagine a concept with more theological baggage than that of sin. By its simplest and perhaps most literal definition, sin means to miss the mark, whether it is established in codified law, or understood as absolute perfection. As human beings, we are well aware of our limitations and imperfection. Sin is a term that can be used to describe our awareness of imperfection. Missing the mark causes negative emotions such as guilt and shame. When others sin, we may respond with fear and anger. Throughout the history of human civilization, religions and laws have been built in order to clean up the negative effects of sin as the experience of imperfection and to actively seek to prevent future misdeeds and failures.

Christian approaches to sin typically involve a process of confession, repentance, and devotion to the unique redemptive work of Jesus Christ. Exactly how this process works is a matter of much debate, but these are the basic motions. I tend to view this as an ongoing process and as a cycle that builds on itself. Confession occurs as soon as we become aware of our imperfection. Repentance is a manifestation of our desire to turn away from our imperfection and to remedy its negative effects. Devotion to the unique redemptive work of Jesus Christ not only recognizes that this process is beyond our control, but also spurs us on into deeper confession, deeper repentance, and deeper devotion.

These are all very active words and Christianity is indeed a very active faith. It would be most excellent if these basic motions would be more public. The church needs to proclaim to the world, “we confess our imperfection and our sin; we are doing X, Y, and Z things to turn away from our misdeeds and failures and to seek remediation; we devote our lives to Jesus Christ, through whom all things are possible!”

How can the church more clearly manifest active repentance? I like to think that it is through working to fix the broken power structures of this world that force people into poverty, violence, and destitution. I like to think that if we treat “the least of these” with the same devotion we give to Jesus Christ, our Savior, it would show the world that our faith is real, relevant, and worthwhile.

What are some other means of publicly displaying active repentance?

Authority and Receptivity

I get stuck on the concept of authority from time to time in my theological life. There is no doubt that this is an important concept and one that is at the center of just about every possible theological debate (not just the ones current to American culture, politics, and church). What has me stuck is the incredibly complex nature of authority. Sources of authority have influence on human thought and behavior on a largely unconscious level. While we may claim to consciously choose to believe or disbelieve the claims that we hear or read, we cannot change the fact that we receive them and are affected and shaped by them.

Life is filled with a complex polyphony of different narratives. We are constantly engaged in everyday hermeneutics, the task of interpreting and applying the tapestry of stories that we receive on a daily basis. This task is simply too big for the conscious mind to handle. We can, however, choose to focus our attention on specific narratives, on places where different narratives support one another, or on places where different narratives compete with one another. Quite naturally, theology tends to work within these narrowed parameters. To expect a more expansive approach may be somewhat unreasonable, given the limitations of the conscious mind, but we can at least acknowledge the fact that many different stories and sources of authority influence our thoughts, our beliefs, and our behaviors, whether we are consciously aware of them or not.

So, what is important is receptivity, the attitude with which we receive the information that we are given from a variety of sources. Our attitude toward sources of authority is largely influenced by parameters that are set up within the mind. We are naturally inclined to treat certain authorities with trust and others with suspicion. This may be a bit of a false dichotomy though. It might be more accurate to say that we sift what we receive from different sources through our own parameters, searching for the pieces that support our own narrative (what we tend to treat with trust) and pieces that compete with our own narrative (what we tend to treat with suspicion).

Theology depends upon a hermeneutic of trust. Simply stated, there must be a belief that God can be, and is, revealed through a variety of sources in order for theology to happen. Regardless of the parameters, one must be receptive to the divine communication present within those parameters on both conscious and unconscious levels. There must also be recognition that God can, and does, speak outside of those parameters.

I am still stuck on authority, largely because I am aware of its complexities and struggle to clearly define my own parameters. I can say, though, that I believe God to be the only true source of authority and in my spiritual life I strive to be increasingly receptive to Divine communication in whatever context I find myself in.

It may be somewhat puzzling that a post dealing with authority, hermeneutics, and revelation has made it this far without explicitly mentioning the Bible. I hope that it is apparent that my thoughts can easily be applied if the parameters for theological inquiry happen to be the Bible. The Bible is a complicated document, steeped in ancient cultural assumptions and read and interpreted through many different lenses for our own time. It also contains multiple narratives that can support one another or compete with one another. Finally, if not approached with receptivity to God (the ultimate source of authority) and a certain level of trust, the Bible is just an ordinary book.