I have very mixed reactions to this story, I must confess. Any of you feel the same?
You see, I know this parable was meant as a critique of the religious folks around Jesus…the religious folks who were really good at making sure people believed the right things and followed their laws and dressed the right way and behaved the right way…but ignored people all around them who were hurting and in need. It’s focused on religious people who are focused on all the wrong things. And so my first reaction to this parable is “Yes. Preach it, Jesus. You tell em!” Because religious people still so often focus on all the wrong things. I mean, there are so many Christians who give Christians a bad name. And I want Jesus to tell them off.
I’m tired of the word Christian being synonymous with judgmental and “holier than thou”. I’m tired of it being about crusading against abortion or hating my LGBTQ family. I’m tired of Christians being portrayed in every television show and movie as hypocritical. But that’s exactly what most of the world sees and believes when they hear the word “Christian”. And I mean the world. It’s not just America. I’ve been binging on Korean television while I’ve been laid up, and it’s no different there. The Chrisitans in those shows are usually the villains — the people who are greedy and only care about themselves and use their faith to justify it. And I know there are people who feel like that portrayal is unfair. They want to blame “The media”. “The media is anti – Christian….they’re against us. “
But that’s not it…not really. They’re just reflecting the reality of how people have experienced the church. Much of the church’s history has been just like the religious folks in Jesus time — full of mostly good intentioned religious folks who thought they were doing right by trying to get people to believe the right things and follow the right laws and dress the right way and behave the right way…but they have hurt people . So many people. They cared about all the wrong things. All too often, the “church” has been really concerned about how to control others and protect their own wealth and privilege while turning a blind eye to all the people they hurt in the process. And in this parable, Jesus calls them on the carpet. Jesus reminds us all that if you really want to be where God is…you aren’t worried about doctrine or labels and laws…you are simply caring for those who are in need. Basically, this is Jesus putting Micah 6:8 into parable form — what does God want from you? Prayer services and bumper stickers and laws and national pride? No…God wants you To do justice and love kindness and be humble. Honestly… if you think the media is hard on Christians….Jesus is way harsher when he holds up the mirror…throwing them out into eternal fires and punishment. This way of being religious, Jesus says…is the worst. The worst. And I say “Amen Jesus. Preach it!”
But then….I did say my reactions were mixed right?
You see, while I’m all busy pointing fingers at all those “other” Christians who have it “wrong”…I get a reality check. Because do you know how many times I have failed to help people when I could have? A lot. Do you know how many times I have done things or believed things or said things that I thought were okay, only to find out later how wrong and hurtful and blind I was?
We had our study on racism last fall, and we’re planning to schedule one again…but those who went can tell you it’s an eye opener. Things we had thought or believed our whole lives that we had no clue how much damage they had caused. One of the most telling parts of this parable is when the goats and sheep ask “When Lord…when did we do that?” Because, the truth is, so often we are blind to the ways we have hurt others.
As parents, I think we all get that. Have you ever had your kids tell a story of how they saw things or experienced things…and you realize that a couple of your mess-ups, which you didn’t even think were a big deal, have become the narrative for their whole understanding of us..or of themselves. And you’re like…”What? No…that’s not how it was…that’s not what I meant.” It’s happened with my kids. And I know I did it with my parents.
My mom would get so upset when I’d tell the story of Sunday mornings at our house. I’d say “we’d get up, go to Sunday school, go to church. We’d come home and wait for dad, get our spanking and sit down for dinner.” I told that story often…it’s what I remembered. The first time mom heard me say it, she was horrified. That didn’t happen every Sunday! You make us out to be awful parents.
Huh….the thing is. It may not have happened every Sunday…but those are the only ones I remember. And though I may joke about it…it’s just an example of how our actions can have long lasting impacts and cause pain to others that we don’t have a clue about. When did we hurt you Lord? When did we ignore you? We didn’t even realize what we had done. As tempting as it is to point fingers..I know all too well how often I also get it wrong.
But that’s what it means to be human. We hurt one another in big and small ways, unknowingly, unwittingly…all the time. Sometimes, even our best intentions are the things that cut others to the heart. We might think we’re “loving the sinner and hating the sin”….but really….the hate and judgment is all that is experienced by the other person. They are not privy to the fine lines we’ve drawn to justify our response. They’re just hurt.
So…that said….I know I’m a goat in this parable. .I may be a sheep as well…I may have helped people along the way…maybe even unknowingly….but I have also hurt them.
So…what do we do with the end of this story then. Where the sheep go to paradise and goats into the fire? The ancient Greeks and ancient Egyptians both believed that the soul was weighed upon death…good vs. bad…to see what afterlife it merited. Is that what’s happening here? Weighing the good I did vs. the bad I did? Do I tip into paradise or fire… Is that it?
No. The bad we do definitely is awful. Jesus hates our hypocrisy more than anyone. It deserves to burn. Even the stuff we didn’t even realize we were doing…it’s still despicable. But if this is our “come to Jesus” moment…or our “come to Jesus” parable…then we need to know that Jesus doesn’t judge us for what we deserve. You see, Jesus knows very well that we are all sheep and we’re all goats. And he knows that God loves and forgives us all anyway. While we are sinners…Jesus died for us. Hanging on the cross, Jesus invites us into paradise. And in the very act of crucifying him, Jesus forgives us because we absolutely do not know what we’re doing. And always, Jesus loves us. Always. That is God’s judgment today. And that is God’s judgment in the end. That will always be God’s judgment of you. Even on your goat days, You are a child of God, beloved today and forever. Amen..
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