Surprise! It’s Judgement Time.
Surprise! It’s Judgement Time
In his book “Outliers,”author Malcolm Gladwell explores the history of familial violence in rural Kentucky and Virginia, linking together the murders between clans from the Hatfields and McCoys to the Turners and Howards. Essentially, he comes to the point that the history of clan violence in Scotland, where most of these early settlers immigrated from merged with both the unique social location – essentially, that guns were cheap and new lands that were up for grabs – and the fact that these settlers were often better at raising flocks than they were at farming. Putting it all together, he finds a social pattern in which the history of bad blood mixes with the constant fear of attack a herder needs to be wary of, ultimately resulting in a major culture of ambushes, land disputes, and public gunfights.
Naturally, when trying to describe two families who decided to become mortal enemies, even for an author as creative as Gladwell, there is no example more common than Shakespeare’s famed Montagues and Capulets. Shakespeare plays on the common theme of ‘feuding families’ to produce the star-crossed lovers Romeo and Juliet, whose love would be an unexpected revelation to the families if they were to find out. The play is filled with dramatic irony, from the children of rival families falling in love to the secret reason Romeo won’t duel with Juliet’s cousin. Finally, Juliet takes a sleeping drug from a friar, and though the audience knows that Juliet is not dead, Romeo is unfortunately clueless. Here, the dramatic irony takes an even darker turn, with Romeo killing himself in otherwise-avoidable grief, and Juliet following when she awakens.
This heavy use of irony relies on a few things. One, we have to know something the character doesn’t, like the Juliet is only sleeping and not dead. And two, we have to believe that people can’t change their stripes, like how the warring families in Kentucky upheld their spite and violence for generations. In literature, a major surprise can be played for laughs, or can be used for suspense and horror – we know the killer is hiding in the closet before the victim states she needs to go up and change outfits. *Suspense* Sometimes it’s about what the unwitting character deserves, sometimes it’s about what they expressly don’t deserve.
In today’s parable, we hear connections to the violent tendencies of herdering families and the dramatic irony of Romeo and Juliet. So how does Jesus use this irony as a teaching tool? Is it that the dramatic irony reveals that we ultimately get what we deserve based on our actions? Or is it something different?
The key question for our text today is, “why are these listeners surprised?” The good ones served the poor and needy, just as they had been taught. So why does it come as a shock that they did what was right? Similarly, why do the selfish ones not get it? They withheld what they had, they chose not to serve, so they were separated from the Jesus who commanded those actions. Dramatic irony only works when the unexpected is actually, you know, unexpected. But these groups shouldn’t be caught off guard – they should be expecting this, right?
To some today, especially those raised in churches which strongly preach the idea of sola fide, perhaps this Scripture does come as a discomforting shock. Rather than being saved by their emotional faith in Christ, here Jesus is specifically judging us by the merit of our actions. In many evangelical streams of our tradition, we hear a common refrain of “saved by grace through faith, not by works.” This isn’t a terrible theological statement, (it’s in the Bible), and there are reasons why one might maintain that as a central tenant of their faith. But one potential flaw is that when you believe yourself to be saved by nothing but the grace of God, there is little impetus to go out and serve people the way Jesus commanded. Also, if our eternal heaven is awarded purely on the basis of our relationship with Jesus, it stands to reasons that those living on the streets, or in the extreme famine in Yemen, or in the violence of Nigeria or Syria need only a good translation of the Bible, rather than practical solutions. But being judged purely on our actions also seems a bit reductionist, as well. The theological tension between being fruitful in our works and being saved by faith is a modern issue that often divides churches and prevents true community-building.
However, to quote New Testament Professor Greg Carey, “The Gospel of Matthew knows nothing of the grace versus works dichotomy. Matthew’s Jesus insists upon righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees (5:17-20), then goes on to explain just what such righteousness looks like. He rejects acclamation as “Lord” from those who fail to do what he says (7:21-29). He relates the parable of the two sons, one of whom promises to do as he is commanded but does not follow through while the other refuses but then goes and works (21:28-32). The risen Jesus commissions his disciples to “obey everything that I have commanded you” (28:20). Matthew is all about doing what Jesus says, and this parable fits that pattern.”
So, no surprise in the outcomes – those who follow are in line with the actions and teaching of Christ; those who don’t are proven to not be true followers. While there are still some theological gaps between this response and truly connecting the Gospel to the idea of salvation through faith, it remains clear that action has never been divorced from Christianity. So maybe we need to look elsewhere to find why this would be surprising to these sheep and goats.
Well, who are these hypothetical followers and not-followers? Matthew typically refers to Gentiles with the word ethne, or nations. That’s what we heard at the beginning of our text – all nations will be gathered. But in a moderately cosmopolitan center like Jerusalem, especially under Roman rule, there would have to be people from many areas and cultures. We know that Jesus spoke often to Gentiles and Jews alike, thanks to the diversity of the time. So these listeners who are hearing this teaching and parable are not just the Jewish elites, but the outsiders. Is that enough cause for the surprise? That even outsiders could be included as good sheep?
While it’s a nice reminder, I doubt this is the source of the surprise here. Many of the prophets were very clear about the ultimate goal of God in bringing the whole world to be united together. Isaiah, Jeremiah, Zechariah, and even the Psalms are rife with mention of how all peoples will be reconciled together for the sake of God’s reign. Jews listening to Jesus, and even those non-Jews who were immersed in Israeli culture would be expected to know these basic tenants, that outsiders can be, and have often been, acceptable to God. While it may not have been readily accepted by all people all the time, just as many today struggle to accept such a message, there’s no reason to expect a story of inclusion to be so wildly nonconformist or shocking when coming from someone as radical as Jesus.
So, the outcome of this story isn’t surprising – Matthew has a very clear, very consistent theme of the righteous being defined by their actions. And the subject of the story isn’t surprising – the familiar scriptures are clear that Gentiles and the nation’s aren’t meant to be excluded from God’s grace. And yet, these sheep and these goats are taken aback by being separated and judged. We’re still searching for the source of that surprise.
Maybe it’s this: Sheep and Goats are entirely different species. It’s common in many areas to graze sheep and goats together, and though we have selectively bred our sheep and goats to be fairly different in today’s world, more ancient species looked a bit more similar than we’d be used to. Despite the growing cosmetic differences, and the selective breeding which has made modern sheep, for lack of a better term, stupider than their historic counterparts, there has always been a general rule of thumb which has served as a tool for dividing up sheep and goats. Basically, sheep are led by their shepherd, goats lead their goatherd.
Goats are headstrong. They can be very independent. They tend to be more curious, more intelligent, more individualistic. Sheep are inherently more docile and group together. They will flock. They need constant protection – which is one reason those families in Kentucky were always on edge. They relied on raising animals for their livelihood, and the threat of someone stealing animals in the middle of the night kept them wary. But goats are rambunctious. Sheep are the sleepy newborns settling down for a nap after a meal. Goats are a the teenagers learning to how to skateboard, questioning authority and developing their own voices.
It strikes me that I would much rather be a goat than a sheep. I like to question authority. I’m curious. If this past Thanksgiving trip was any indication, I like having my own voice, especially when it comes to talking about politics or social issues. Sheep sound too passive. Too fearful. Too… boring and dimwitted. We are in a world of goats, by goats, for goats. People who take what they need when they want it. People who don’t listen to authority, but shape the world to their personal vision, rather than submit to external pressures. Wall Street’s Gordon Gekko was a goat. Lebron James, when he’s on the basketball court, is a goat. Steve Jobs. Joel Osteen. Heck, it’s basically a prerequisite for politicians to state that they are leaders, not followers. Virtually no one on our ballots would claim to be anything but a goat.
This parable that Jesus tells isn’t necessarily a critique of our modern humanism and our individualistic capitalism – though it most certainly is no friend to those ideas. What’s shocking about this isn’t the call to care for those who are struggling. We KNOW to do that. And it isn’t that every person is called to this same work. We KNOW all are included. What is shocking about this parable is that to truly follow Jesus, we have to assume a new identity, and new concept of being, and new reality of what it is to be human.
This parable doesn’t necessarily imply that the goats refused to serve the poor, hungry, naked, and imprisoned. It just means that when they did it, they didn’t see Jesus. You can do the right things, but if you are a goat, you don’t pass the muster. I can almost hear some of those goats saying, “but I did serve the poor – I gave a huge tithe to the homeless ministry down the street!” Or, “I taught my kids to always be kind to those in need and to share their food with others!” Or, “I took my elderly mother to visit my brother in prison every week, of course I did what I was supposed to!” So what do we do? How do we move from goat to sheep? If the actions are potentially the same, why aren’t the judgements the same?
You know what would have stopped those family feuds in Kentucky? If the Howards and the Turners and the Hatfields and McCoys all stopped being making their family name their core identity. If Wix Howard said, “I’m a Kentuckian, and so are you,” to Bob Turner, several gunfights and countless deaths could have been avoided. If the Montagues and Capulets had decided to be citizens of Verona first and foremost, Shakespeare would have had a very boring story about two kids who were overly sappy. But when we root our identities in something selfish, something like our own intelligence, our own curiosity, our own individualism, we can’t help but let our actions serve our own needs rather than than serving the Body. And those actions ring hollow. Those actions, according to Jesus, are what separate the sheep from the goats.
If we serve the poor because WE want to do it, we’re being goats. If we serve the poor because God calls us to do it, we’re being sheep. So as we come into this yearly season of “giving thanks” and calls to care for the poor and needy, we really need to ask ourselves, “why am I serving?” Am I serving because I want to be needed? I want to be seen as a good person? I want the respect of my family or community? It’s something that I hold myself to? Or is it because the God of the Universe has created 7 billion people with unique needs and an indwelling divine spark, and has commanded us to care for one another as a selfless family? Is it because in Christ, through grace, you have been created into something new? That the core of who you are is rooted in faith, rather than in individualism? Are our actions serving Christ, or are they serving us? As we continue in worship, and as we look forward into Advent, may we all find that the sheep inside can become stronger than the goat. Amen.