Sheep Or Goat?
“And he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.”
So what do you make of Matthew 25: 31-46? Is Jesus separating the good from the bad? Is Jesus saying some are welcome and included in the kingdom but others are rejected and excluded? Is Jesus keeping score of what we’ve done and left undone and then handing out rewards and punishment? And if he is, are you in or out, a sheep or a goat?
I suspect many would say yes, that’s exactly what he’s doing. That’s often how this text has been interpreted (or maybe misinterpreted). And too often that’s how we live. We separate ourselves from those who look, act, believe, live, and do differently from us. And then we label them as wrong and bad, and ourselves as right and good. Look at all that is happening our country today – politics, race, immigration, the economy, the corona virus. And the list goes on.
It’s not just happening at the national level, however. It’s also personal and local. I’ve made those kind of separations in my life and maybe you have too. When I look at those kind of separations in my life and our county I see the loss of relationships, the negation of human dignity, and the impoverishment of life. And that just doesn’t fit with how the gospels portray Jesus or what he says about himself.
“God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world,” Jesus says, “but in order that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:17). “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10). What do we do with those verses from Matthew ?
I wonder if we’ve misunderstood what’s happening when Jesus separates. Maybe the separation Jesus makes doesn’t look a thing like the separations we usually make. Maybe the purpose of the separation Jesus makes is the exact opposite of the purpose for which we often make separations.
What if, for Jesus, separation is not the same as exclusion? What if badness is not an obstacle to being in the kingdom but neither is goodness a prerequisite? After all, both groups in this reading from Matthew 25: 31-46 ask Jesus the same question, “Lord when was it that we saw you?” Neither had a clue about what they were doing, they just had different ways of being. And what if separation is a necessary and creative part of life?
From the time we are born we are learning how to separate and make separations. It’s a natural and necessary part of life and growing up. A newborn experiences himself or herself as one with the world. Baby cries and the world responds with food, a dry diaper, cuddles and coos. Then one day baby cries and the world does not respond or takes too long, and baby begins to experience his or her separation from the world.
Have you ever been around a child who was learning and practising the word “No?” We call it the terrible twos but what’s really going on? It’s about separation. That little one is discovering some autonomy, individuality, and a new life. And it doesn’t end there.
Do you remember the struggles, arguments, and difficulties of the adolescent years? It was a time of separating from parental authority, social norms, and beginning to discover our place in the world.
Think about the day you or your child left home to go to school, start work, get married. That’s more separation and it was about creating a new life and a new way of being.
The difficulty of those years is not so much about the two year old, adolescent, or young adult being wrong or bad, but a sign that separating, growing up, and claiming the fullness of our life is hard and often painful work, at any age, at every age. And it never ends. It’s an ongoing process of seeking to create and discover for ourselves life and more life.
Every choice we make involves a separation. The only question is whether that separation is giving life or taking life. That’s the difference between the sheep and the goats.
When have you had to separate yourself from another person or relationship, destructive patterns or behaviours, your work, busyness, fear, hatred, anger, resentment, disappointment in order to grow up, recover yourself, and let new life arise? When have you made a separation that was actually an exclusion and diminishment of life for yourself or another?
Think about the creation story in Genesis and the necessity of separation. God separated light from darkness, the waters above the dome from the waters beneath the dome, the seas from the dry land, day from night. God wasn’t excluding, God was creating.
Separation is at the centre of creation and life. And what if that’s exactly what Jesus is doing in this reading from Matthew, separating in order to bring about a new creation, a new life, a new way of being, in you and me? It’s not about sheep or goats, but about sheep and goats.
No one is all sheep or all goat. Who here has ever given food, water, or clothes to someone in need, visited someone in the hospital or jail, welcomed a stranger? Raise your hand if you have. You are a sheep. Who here has driven past the guy on the corner holding a sign that says, “Homeless and hungry,” or turned away from a stranger? Raise your hand if you have. You are a goat.
I’ve done both and it looks like you have too. So are we sheep or goats? Yes, yes we are. We are both. There are parts of our lives that are sheep-like and other parts that are goat-like.
I don’t know about you but it’s a whole lot easier for me to see and focus on the goat-like parts in you than in myself. I’d rather not have to face and deal with my goat-self. They are the wounded, fearful, self-betraying, and hurting parts of myself. They need growth, healing, and transformation. Or to put it in the imagery Jesus uses, they are the parts of myself in need of the “eternal fire.”
I want us to be careful here. Eternal is not about a length of time. It is a quality of God, a way of being. So when we speak of eternal life, we’re speaking about the divine life. And when we speak of eternal fire, we’re speaking about the divine fire. Both eternal life and eternal fire are God’s. It’s not as if eternal life is with God and eternal fire is apart from God. One is not an entrance to the kingdom and the other an exclusion from the kingdom. Both are within and aspects of the kingdom of God.
This eternal fire lets us see ourselves and others in a new light – in the light of compassion, mercy, justice, forgiveness, love. It is a purifying and refining fire, burning the dross of our life and revealing the gold that is already and always has been within us. The eternal fire is neither destructive nor exclusionary, but transformative and creative.
It’s like when I put my son on the naughty step. I tell him to sit on that step and think about what he had done or said. As a parent I am not seeking retribution, but reformation. I didn’t want something from him, I want him. My son was being separated but not excluded. The only reason for that separation was so that he might come back to us his parents with a new way of being, seeing, listening, relating, loving.
The fire of the naughty step was about my son growing up and taking his place in the family, a place he had never lost. And I think that’s what’s happening today for the goats and the goat-like parts of your life and my life.
Let’s not deny, ignore, or run from the goat-like parts of our life. They are always places of hope, growth, new possibilities, and more life.
The separation Jesus makes is never final, always conditional, and in anticipation of our returning to ourselves and one another with new life, more life.
I wonder what that means for the goat-like parts of your life today? What are the wounded and hurting parts of your life in need of healing and transformation? What are the patterns and behaviours that continue to cause you to stumble and betray yourself? What rubbish needs to be burned away? From whom or what do you need to separate in order to make room and give space for new life to arise?
And what are you doing about that?
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