31“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33 and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left.
34Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, 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, 36 I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38 And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39 And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ 40 And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’
41 Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42 for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ 44 Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ 45 Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ 46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
Some of you will go to heaven when you die, and some of you will go to hell.
Let’s be honest: Isn’t that pretty much how we interpret this passage whenever we hear it? The Sheep and the Goats. The Good and the Bad. The Saved and the Damned. For those who assume they are going to hell, or who just aren’t really sure one way or another, reading this passage can cause fear and anxiety. For those who assume they are going to heaven, I’m afraid the tendency too often is to use this passage to judge others: “They’ll get what’s coming to them…those goats.” Neither assumption really accomplishes anything constructive at the end of the day.
So today I’m going to ask us to take a step back from our preconcieved ideas about what this passage means. I have two masters degrees from a really expensive seminary, and the more I read this passage, the less certain I become about what it really means. Today we’re going to go deep. We’re going to go long. We’re going to go nerdy. But hopefully when you really do get up and go today, it won’t be in fear or judgment, but in faith, in hope, in love.
Growing up, my Mom and my Dad had two very different ways of organizing things. My Dad would divide everything into categories, organize them by color, size, shape, or purpose. Everything had a special home, and everything lived in its home. My Mom, on the other hand, would gather everything into one big pile…and then put the pile somewhere. Like a drawer, or a closet. Or on top of her desk. My Dad was a divider, and my Mom was a piler. Which one are you?
The fact that I’ve just divided my parents into two categories and placed each one in their respective place…should probably clue you in to which one I am. I am married to a piler, my eldest son is a piler, my daughter is a divider, and my youngest son…well right now he’s a thrower. We have yet to see where he (or his things) will land.
Dividers and Pilers―which one is God? To read today’s passage from Matthew, you’d think God is a divider: Dividing left hand from right hand, sheep from goats, blessed from cursed, eternal life, from eternal fire. But elsewhere in the gospels we read that Jesus is the good shepherd, the one who brings the lost sheep back into the fold. Definitely a piler.
I think we want God to be a piler…until someone gets added to the pile who we think doesn’t belong. Or we want God to be a divider…but only if we get put on the right side. This is, of course, a problem. A very old problem in the world of Christian doctrine. And too often, this verse from Matthew 25 is at the heart of the problem.
If I’ve learned anything in studying the Bible, it’s this: The scriptures are always more complicated than they seem. People who say “just read the Bible and do what it says” are usually neither reading the Bible very deeply, nor doing what it says. There are a number of problems that arise from this particular passage, and I’ve divided them into three categories: Interpretation problems, translation problems, and doctrinal problems.
We’ll start with interpretation. By this I mean literal interpretation, vs. figurative interpretation. Is Jesus using metaphor in this passage, or is he speaking literally? I don’t know anyone who actually thinks he’s talking about real sheeps or goats here―that’s an obvious metaphor―and yet many people seem to think that the part about eternal life or eternal fire is quite literal. Is Jesus really jumping back and forth between literal and metaphorical? Because that would be unlike his typical approach. And what does the metaphor mean, anyhow? “He will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep at his right and the goats at the left.”
I admit, I had to do a little online research to learn more about sheep and goats for this one. Why would a shepherd separate his sheep from his goats? Well, apparently they don’t get along so well together. The goats are more aggressive and tend to dominate the sheep. Conventional wisdom for this passage is that sheep are good followers and obedient (and therefore good) while goats are independent and strong-willed (and therefore bad). I found lots of sermons online that took things in this direction ― be a good sheep and follow Jesus! Don’t be a stubborn goat! But I’ve got a problem with that: There are other places in both the Old and New Testaments where God’s people are called sheep…as an insult. Stupid sheep, who followed the wrong shepherd. Docile obedience can sometimes get you in trouble, too. Conversely, how many of the great biblical heroes of the faith could we label as “independent and strong willed?” And God uses them. Often. So being like a sheep can be either good OR bad, and being like a goat can be either good OR bad.
Another problem I have with the metaphor: A shepherd doesn’t divide his sheep from his goats…in order to kill the goats. And he certainly doesn’t intend to keep the sheep around forever, either. In the end, the really good shepherd sells both the sheep and the goats for at the market, so they can be eaten for dinner. Metaphors only extend so far, and this one in particular ought not to be taken to its logical conclusion.
Moving on to problems in translation: Verse 32 reads “All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.” Only in the original Greek, it doesn’t say anything about separating individual people from one another. The King James version actually gets it right here: “And before him shall be gathered all nations, and he shall separate them one from another.” Them. The nations. Or, in Greek, εθνη (ethne)―the ethnic groups or tribes of people. In other words, you get to be judged not by your own individual actions, but by the cumulative actions of the people you are associated with.
The next translation issue is with the words for sheep and goat: προβατα (probata) and εριφων (eriphon). Probata, according to Strong’s Dictionary of Biblical Greek, is “any four footed, tame animal accustomed to graze, most commonly a sheep or a goat. Uh oh. The word we’re using for sheep could also mean goat. What about the word for goat, then? It means little and hairy. Jesus is separating the sheep or the goats from the little hairy creatures. Now we’re really in trouble.
Now on to doctrine. Basic protestant doctrine teaches that you can’t earn your way into heaven. Salvation has nothing to do with good works, but comes instead from faith: Believing (or confessing) that Jesus is Lord. Obviously, this passage gave Martin Luther and John Calvin fits! They had to do great feats of mental gymnastics to try to explain why, in this passage, it seems like Jesus is saying “Come, inherit the kingdom prepared for you BECAUSE I was hungry and you…” Depart from me into eternal fire BECAUSE I was hungry and you…” In Greek and in English, the preposition “for” or “because” imply cause and effect. In other words, Jesus is pretty obviously saying that you are in or out based on what you did (how you treated others)…not based on what you believed. So much for the Reformation.
What a mess. By this point in my sermon writing process, I was a bit depressed. The problems came easily, but are there any solutions? Surely this passage is there for a reason. Surely the problem is with the way we’ve interpreted and mangled it through the years (including myself) and not with its inherent meaning?
I told you at the beginning of the sermon that I was a divider. I’ve been looking at this passage through the eyes of a divider, categorizing and separating and isolating and putting things in their places. But when I look at this passage through the eyes of a piler, I see something entirely different.
Take the metaphor of the sheep and the goats, for example. I said that it would be a good idea for the shepherd to divide them from one another, but it turns out―if we’re really talking about sheep and goats here―that you don’t have to. Sheep prefer the flock, and though some stray, they also tend to freak out when they’re alone. Goats on the other hand prefer their independence and will avoid the sheep unless they are penned together in close quarters. They divide themselves, but a good shepherd still shepherds both, one actively (the sheep) and the other passively (the goats) by giving them space. Those of us who are sheep fear being divided from our flock. Those of us who are goats fear losing our independence, being forced into the group. But God, the good shepherd, (the piler and not the divider) guides the whole flock, each of us according to our need, disposition, and personality.
What about the translation issues? Are these sheep, goats, little hairy creatures, or what? Again, if we look with the eyes of a divider, they must be different, even opposite extremes somehow: Sheep/goats, good/bad, saved/condemned. But I the ambiguity of the original Greek might be intentional. The things on either side are…kind of the same thing. Yes, some are ultimately rewarded, and some are ultimately punished. But there’s not as much difference between them as we might expect. We are all sinners. We are all saints, depending on the time of day, the weather, and the person driving in traffic in front of us. No matter what side we end up on, we’re much more alike than we are different.
And the problems of doctrine? Are we saved by grace, or by doing good works? Again, that’s a way of dividing, and maybe that age-old argument misses the point in the end. Looking at those who fed the hungry and those who didn’t, perhaps we should ask, “In what ways are they all in the same pile?” I think it’s this: They’re all surprised. One side is surprised to be told they haven’t been feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, caring for the sick and the imprisoned. Probably they’re surprised because they genuinely thought they *were* doing all those things. Likewise, the other group genuinely thought they *weren’t* doing those things…and were surprised to be told they had been.
Jesus often says that the last shall be first and the first shall be last. First…last…those words separate, divide and judge…God is indeed a God of justice. But those words also imply that everyone is standing in the same line. They imply that everyone is moving in the same direction, toward the same objective. Some get in first, and others get in last…but everyone who is standing in the line…gets in.
So is God a divider? Or is God a piler? I think my current answer is, “Yes. He is.” And whichever one you are, whichever eyes you see the world through, it is helpful to occasionally look the other way around. In any case, it should be a comfort to know that the one who judges and divides us is also the one who unites us and calls us together.
I suspect I will never fully understand how that works.
But that’s ok, because where understanding ends, faith begins.
Where certainty falters, hope flourishes.
Where grace and good works, sinners and saints, sheep and goats alike ultimately fail…
Love…God’s love…will always prevail.