Monday, December 19, 2016

ARE YOU A SHEEP OR A GOAT?

We are fast approaching Christmas but we're still in the season of Advent which ends on Christmas Eve.

The season of Advent, in the Church year, is a four-week period of spiritual preparation for the coming of Jesus. It's a time when Christians also look forward to the Second Coming of Jesus.


Now, I don’t interpret the Bible literally for the most part. For me, the events in the life of Jesus depict and represent various stages in our potential spiritual growth. Thus, doctrines such as the Incarnation, the Resurrection, the Ascension and the Second Coming of Jesus have for me a deeper, more spiritual meaning and importance than a literal reading might otherwise afford. We can be resurrected at any time into newness of life, with our minds and bodies being restored in any number of ways. We can ascend to greater heights of understanding and achievement. As for the Second Coming, it can be right upon us now. It is not a matter of whether Jesus will again appear in the flesh.

In all my years of regularly attending Baptist and Anglican churches I rarely, if ever, heard a sermon on the parable of the sheep and the goats. I think the reason why preachers rarely speak on the topic of that parable is simple--its message doesn't sit at all well with the ‘believe and be saved’ evangelical interpretation of Christianity.

In the parable of the sheep and the goat, in the 25th chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus talks about the Day of Judgment. Now, once again, I do not actually think there will be a literal day of judgment when some people will go to their supposed reward in heaven while others will be sent to hell for everlasting punishment. You can believe that if you wish but that is not how I see it. The Day of Judgment occurs every day, and every minute of each day, when we get the result in our lives and in our world of our thoughts, words and deeds.


According to the parable of the sheep and goats, everyone we meet, everyone we serve, is in the image of Jesus, a personification of the divine. The Anonymous Christ, as he or she is known, comes to us in so many ways, and we fail to recognize that Jesus’ incarnation continues all the time, in us and in other people. In the parable, Jesus talks about the Day of Judgment:

‘When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.
‘Then the King will say to those on his right, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.”
‘Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?”
‘The King will reply, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”
‘Then he will say to those on his left, “Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.”
‘They also will answer, “Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?”
‘He will reply, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.”
‘Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.’

Notice how the separation of sheep and goats is not on the basis of what people believe or don’t believe. No, the separation takes place on the basis of what people do or don’t do with their lives. The sheep are the ones who feed the hungry, give a drink to the thirsty, invite in the stranger, clothe those in need of clothes, look after the sick, and visit those in prison. The goats are the ones who do none of those things.


The message of this parable seems lost on conservative Christians. They are so damn good at judging others on the basis of what they believe or don’t believe yet they fail to realize that the Bible says they will be judged on how well they have looked after their fellow humans---as respects the provision of such things as food, water and clothes, and attending to the needs of the homeless, the sick, and those in prison.


Many Buddhists I know, even many atheists and other secularists, live lives that are so much more nobly and deeply and closely molded after that of Jesus than those fundamentalist and evangelical Christians. I repeat, many people, who would not identify as Christians, are real followers of the way of Jesus. There is a hymn written by Marguerite Pollard which contains this verse:

And there are some who love him well,
yet know not it is he they love;
he tends the holy fire within
and draws them to the heights above.

Of course, many, if not most, of the people who Jesus declares to be ‘sheep’—true followers of the way of Jesus—would not want to be called Christians. They have given up on Christianity. Well, they have given up on Churchianity. I don’t blame them. Far too many of the Christian churches have so grossly distorted the teachings of Jesus, and far too many so-called Christians are so damn unappealing, that the ‘sheep’ want nothing to do with Jesus. That is sad, because Jesus was a revolutionary.

The separation of sheep and goats takes no account of race, religion or ethnicity. It takes no account of what people believe or don’t believe. The separation is solely on the basis of what people do and don’t do with their lives. Deeds, not creeds.

Advent is all about the coming of the kingdom. Jesus envisioned a beloved community of all humanity living in peace with one another. The good news of the Gospel is that you don’t have to be a card-carrying Christian to seek, work for and hasten the coming of that kingdom.

Have a wonderful Christmas, all of you.



Image opposite. Detail of a stained glass window depicting the parable of the sheep and the goats. Church of Saint Mary the Virgin, Gunthorpe, Norfolk, United Kingdom.



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