Ovine Antics, Matthew 25:31-46
So, do you consider yourself more like a goat, or a sheep? In the prophecies of Ezekiel sheep and goats were polarized long before Jesus’ parable. The Prophet accuses the goats of stomping down and ruining green pastures. Their reputation is likely based in their behaviors around eating. Goats consume plants down to the root killing them. But sheep generally don’t kill vegetation. They stop chewing higher on the plant permitting the plant’s survival. One might think that sheep grazing behavior is socialist. Their eating behavior ensures that the plants live to later feed a sister sheep. The greedy goats seem selfish and individualistic. The sheep seem charitable. The goats serve self. The sheep share.
Aesop’s fables, Watership Down, and Warner Brothers don’t have the corner on imparting human traits to animals. In this parable, Jesus picks up the traditional and metaphorical polarity of bad goats and good sheep. He fashions super-generous sheep. Their natural socialistic, herding instincts are magnified. It’s like they grazed on some radioactive, super miracle-making shoots of the Tree of Life. Their hearts become bigger than life. They don’t simply stop chewing grass before the root. These sheep volunteer at food and clothing banks. These sheep ladle up refreshing water. These sheep create prison ministries. They beat Heloise at hospitality. Their fantastic, super-ovine antics make the goats’ selfish consumption pitiable.
The parable is one of judgment. Humans are judged by God. The parable’s setting is an end time, but I believe it means now and then. We are judged now and later. Utilizing the linguistic power of end time language, Jesus is conveying the significance of God’s opinion of our behavior. God cares about our actions. But don’t forget that our actions never merit God’s forgiving grace. Nor do they ever cancel out God’s amazing, forgiving grace. In C. S. Lewis’ last Narnia book he described the animals coming before Aslan on the last day. Some looked the great Lion in the facewith welcoming love. Others could notface his ultimate goodness. As the judged, don’t be shamed, instead be motivated to goodness.
A hungry man was walking down the street in a village of medieval Turkey. He had only a piece of bread in his hand. He came to a restaurant where some meatballs were being grilled. The cooking meat was so near and the smell so delicious the man held his piece of bread over the meat to capture some of the smell. As he started to eat the bread, the angry restaurant owner seized him and took him away to see a judge.
The owner protested, "This man was stealing the smell of my meat without asking permission. I want you to make him pay me for it." The judge thought for a moment, then held up his purse in front of the owner and shook it.
"What are you doing that for?" asked the restaurant owner? The judge replied, "I am paying you. The sound of money is fair payment for the smell of food."
The love shown to one of the least of these is love of God. Today is the first day of 2012. On New Year’s Day we traditionally look back reflecting on our past year before we set our goals for the new one. So friends, I put before you a Multiple choice query: Were you in 2011: A.- a goat, B.- a sheep, C.– a recipient of loving care (hungry, thirsty, a stranger, a prisoner, naked, sick) or D. – all of the above?
Jesus teaches us about human behavior, God’s preferred behavior. The sheep aren’t selected because of their earthly success, their doctrinal beliefs, or their moral superiority. The sheep are selected because of their demonstrations of kindness. They are not selected because of singular acts of mercy, but because they had succeeded in adopting dispositions of common care.
And the sheep are celebrated. The parable promises heaven. Heaven is created here and now and then and later when we love one another. So, which are we: A, B, C, or D. We are D. - all of the above. We cycle through blind consumption and self-possession (the goat times), merciful and loving altruism (the super-sheep times). And we are all C at times, the recipients of care. We all need other’s care.
Jesus urges us to generous ovine antics. To perceive, to see the world as God sees it, to see each other as God sees us, to see the stranger as God sees the stranger. Jesus urges us to see ourselves as God sees us. And seeing with God’s eyes, we perceive God’s value in each other, we even see God. Then we cannot but want to enrich each other. We cannot help bettering life in this world. We give food to the hungry, water to the thirsty. We welcome strangers, clothe naked, care for sick, and visit those who are not free.
Did you hear about the Layaway angels. A Christmas miracle, a marvelous ovine antic occurred around the country. People anonymously went into the layaway departments of K-Marts and paid off the accounts of strangers. At a Kmart in Colorado Springs, 25 donors paid off $14,000 worth of layaway items.
How do we come to see as God sees, to share as God would have us share, to become super sheep, to create heaven? Ask God to give us divine perceptions. Ask God to include us in divine actions. Post a note beside your bathroom mirror. Reflect on it each morning. Write on it, “Good morning God. What are you doing today? Who are you loving today? How can I be a part of it?”
A famous monastery had fallen on hard times and it was now all but deserted. People no longer came to be nourished by prayer, and only a handful of old monks shuffled through the cloisters serving God with heavy hearts. On the edge of the monastery woods, an old rabbi had built a little hut. He would come there, from time to time, to fast and pray.
One day the abbot decided to visit the rabbi and open his heavy heart to him. So, he set out through the woods. As he approached the hut, the abbot saw the rabbi, his arms outstretched in welcome. The two entered the hut and sat in prayer.
Then the rabbi began to weep. The abbot could not contain himself. He covered his face with his hands and began to cry too. The two men sat there like lost children, filling the hut with their shared pain and tears. But soon the tears ceased and all was quiet.
The rabbi lifted his head. 'You and your brothers are serving God with heavy hearts,' he said. 'You have come to ask a teaching of me. I will give you a teaching, but you can repeat it only once. After that, no one must ever say it aloud again.'
The rabbi looked straight at the abbot and said, 'The Messiah is among you.' The abbot left without a word. The next morning, the abbot called his monks together. He told them he had received a teaching from the rabbi and the teaching was never again to be spoken aloud. Then he looked at the brothers and said, 'The rabbi said that one of us is the Messiah.'
The monks were startled by this saying, 'What could it mean? Is Brother John the Messiah? Or Brother Matthew or Brother Thomas? Am I the Messiah? What could all this mean?' They were all deeply puzzled by the rabbi's teaching, but no one ever mentioned it again. As time went by, the monks began to treat one another with a new and very special reverence. A gentle, warm-hearted, concern began to grow among them. They began to live with each other as people who had finally found the special something they were looking for.
When visitors came to the monastery they found themselves deeply moved by the life of these monks. Word spread, and before long people were coming from far and wide to be nourished by the prayer life of the monks and to experience the loving reverence in which they held each other. Soon, other young men were asking, once again, to become a part of the community, and the community grew and prospered.
Jesus says to us. Enter, the promise, you who are blessed by God! For I was hungry and you fed me, I was thirsty and you gave me a drink, I was homeless and you gave me a room, I was shivering and you gave me clothes, I was sick and you stopped to visit, I was in prison and you came to me. It’s simple, it’s simple. Sheep, love God by Loving your neighbor. Amen.
Rev. Dr. Wiley Stephens. Heaven’s Audit of One’s Soul. Day1.org
Adapted from the version found at: http://www.martinasteiger.com/The-Rabbis-Gift.html