Sermon preached on Matthew 25:31-45 November 25, 2017
It is not hard to tell a sheep from a goat. Sheep are large fluffy ones and goats are smaller with the hipster goatee. You can herd sheep and goats together, because they tend to eat different things. Sheep like the clover near the ground, and goats eat everything else. It turns out they need different minerals in their diet. Sheep and goats have different behavioral characteristics. Sheep stay close to flock, are more likely to be startled and spooked, and are well-known for their tendency to follow the leader. Goats are more independent and curious, don’t flock easily and are more likely to fight back. Shepherding dogs have to be trained specifically for goats, because goats outsmart the dogs by moving around in different directions, and if the dog isn’t robust enough goats will attack by rising up on their back legs and head-butting downward. Goats tend to dominate the more docile sheep, so the shepherd has to protect the sheep. Since the sheep are more valuable because they produce wool, it is in the shepherd’s self-interest to protect the sheep from the goats.
The Bible sides with the sheep over goats, even though people herded both together. Other cultures had goat gods, but not Hebrews. They were not fans of dogs, shellfish, or pigs either. They at least tolerated goats- but favored the sheep. Our culture has the opposite bias. Sheep are stupid, sheep are followers rather than leaders. When we say America is a nation of sheep, it is not a good thing. We value autonomy and may favor the curious, independent and feisty goats. But imagine if you were a shepherd and your success and survival depended upon finding good pastures and water, fighting off predators and making sure no sheep is left behind. No wonder they began to see God as the good shepherd, leading the sheepish people beside still waters and green pastures. Hebrew Kings were shepherd kings like David who defended his flock by killing a lion with his staff, and they were also expected to protect the people from invading armies and from injustice and oppression within.
Matthew’s parable should not surprise us. How does God judge our lives? Did you feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick and the prisoner? Were you a good shepherd to the weak and vulnerable and protect them as if your very life depended upon it? If you read the 10 Commandments, the prophet Isaiah, the life of Jesus, it is obvious how God sees things – Do justice, love kindness, walk humbly with our God. Don’t you all agree with this?
But can we always tell the sheep from the goats in the real world. This parable is trying to provoke us to deal with cognitive dissonance. Remember that parables are never about the obvious, conventional wisdom. Parables always contain an ironic twist that challenges us to see things differently. Here is Matthew’s twist. It was common of Middle Eastern parables to have someone speak from the dead, to warn the living. In the Egyptian Book of the Dead, the righteous speak from the grave about how they are living the good life in paradise because of their life of mercy and good deeds. The wicked lament, much like Jacob Marley in Dickens’s Christmas Carol, to warn the living of the woes in the afterlife for the unjust and indifferent.
We expect the answer from the unrighteous goats when they are told they their fate. When they are told they did not feed, protect and do justice, they cry out “When did I fail to see and do this?” Everyone in my neighborhood was fine. I was good to my family, went to church, voted, even took my used clothes to the Salvation Army, sent money to the Red Cross whenever there was a natural disaster. What did I miss? How much was I supposed to sacrifice for others? They had a chance to work hard like I did.” Goats look the other way while they benefit from injustice, while the Dow Jones enriches their retirement, while others aren’t making it. They make excuses and pretend the world is not so bad really. Jesus says to the goats, “You missed it.” No surprises there.
In Matthew, the shepherd goes to the sheep and says,
‘Come, you that are blessed…, 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….
Notice that the blessed don’t say, “I knew it all along. I knew my good deeds would someday pay off. I worked hard, followed the rules, I was kind, voted for the right party, and now I get my reward.” Instead they are stumped, “When did we see you? When did we do this? Did I really do enough to be considered good, because I was never sure. There was so much need. Sometimes I was not clear on what should be done. Other times I thought I was doing the right thing and it turned out I was doing more harm than good.” The sheep are surprised by God’s favor, because they wrestled with the demands of trying to do good in a broken, unjust and imperfect world.
Matthew’s world view is to beware of self-righteousness and look at cognitive dissonance as a chance to learn something and be better. Matthew tells the parable of the wheat and the tares, two plants that grow together and look like and you don’t know which one is good and which is bad until the harvest. Their roots are all entwined together, the good and the evil. Matthew says, “Take the log out of your own eye before you remove the speck from another. Don’t boast about your good deeds, don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.” In other words, even as you are caught up in all the good feelings of a job well done, don’t think for a minute you have arrived.
When it comes to humans, we think we know the sheep from the goats too. The devil has the goat horns and beard. We know the angels from the devils. But if a few weeks ago I gave you a list of names that included Roy Moore, Charlie Rose, Al Franken, Donald Trump, Louis CK, Bill O’Reilly and Glen Thrush, you might think you had a firm sense of who was a sheep and who was a goat. There situations may differ, but they all acted with a level of goat-like dominance. Some of them are more funny and likable and may agree with us on many values, but when it comes to their treatment of women, they are not sheep.
Worse yet, we cannot trust the shepherds to protect the sheep either. In many cases, people knew. Most of Hollywood knew Harvey Weinstein was a cretin, but he was powerful and bought silence with political contribution and intimidation, just the same as Bill O’Reilly and Roger Ailes at Fox News. Somebody knew 40 years ago you had to ban Roy Moore from the mall, but go ahead and let him be a State Supreme Court Justice for the State of Alabama. We knew about Trump before the election, it was on video for the whole world to see, yet even 52 percent of women gave him a pass, and voted for him anyway.
Not only is the scope of revelations deeply disturbing, but the amount of cognitive dissonance required to look the other way or excuse sexual harassment and sexual predators is also mind blowing. How can Christian pastors defend Roy Moore? How can James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family, attack the women who have come forward and speak as if Roy Moore is the victim? Maybe our bias is to expect conservative Christians in Alabama to be sexist, but the largest newspapers in the state are not having it. This is not a partisan issue, and women and survivors deserve better.
The problem is systemic. Even people who support feminist causes may turn out to be goats. Even opinion pieces in liberal publications this week, like the New Yorker, Salon and the NY Times are concerned that this could get out of hand, and become a “witch hunt.” The women on Al Franken’s staff say he is a really good guy. I adore Al Franken. Jeanne and I spent 15 hours this summer listening to him read his book while we drove to Virginia and back. It was inspiring. I think Al Franken is a great Senator, especially on women’s issues. You know why he is a great Senator? Because Amy Klobachar, the senior Minnesota Senator, is his mentor. She has the best record in the Congress of passing bills she sponsors, and we don’t know her name.
Franken does not get a pass. I don’t know what should happen to Al Franken, and he is no Roy Moore. Honestly, I don’t trust the Senate Ethics Committee to sort this out, because Al Franken is the tip of the iceberg. If he has the courage to go through with this, maybe we can learn what nees to happen next. For the last decade, the church has been reckoning with this, and we have made boundary awareness training mandatory for all clergy, set up “Safe Church” guidelines for congregations, trained our Church and Ministry Committees on how to conduct fair and just reports of misconduct. We have not arrived at perfection, but it’s a good start.
Times are changing. 15 Virginia Republicans lost their seats last election. All were men. 11 of the new legislators are women. One just gave birth to twins, one is trans, half are people of color. This is not just dissatisfaction with Trump. It is a new party and a real shift in our politics, and we haven’t seen anything yet.
I think the Confession and Assurance of Grace are important parts of the worship service. Many New England congregations no longer do this, because the notion that we are all sinners makes people uncomfortable. I think confession is good for the soul. And even as we do justice for all the right causes, we are called to walk humbly with our God, acknowledging that we too participate in injustice. But our imperfections should not be an excuse for silence. When we feed the hungry, visit the sick, welcome the stranger, and believe and support women, we do it to Jesus too.