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The Great Division
Goats get a raw deal. I've often wondered why goats are the bad guys and sheep are the good guys. According to the gospel lesson read this morning, at the final judgment, the king will sit on his throne, surrounded by angels. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will divide people as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. The sheep will be put at his right hand and receive the reward. The goats will be put at his left hand and receive punishment. Southpaws and goats get bad press!
Last week I attended the second annual Clergy Institute, sponsored by Congregation Beth Am. Suzanne Bar-Tal, staff archaeologist and senior lecturer from Archaeological Seminars in Jerusalem, gave two fascinating lectures on "Jesus the Jew in First Century Jerusalem." When she was describing Jesus' life in rural Galilee, I asked her, "Why are goats discriminated against?" When we lived in Manteca, there was a goat farm on the edge of town. Goat milk was shipped all over the area, and greatly appreciated by people who are allergic to dairy products. When we lived in Rocksprings, Texas, one summer, the major industry was goats. Rocksprings is called "The Angora Goat Capital of the World." So why, I asked Dr. Bar-Tal, does the Bible discriminate against goats?
She laughed and told us about sheep and goats. In Jesus' day, the indigenous, wild goat was a pain. The goat ate everything in sight, including the root system of plants. In a few weeks, the goat could completely, permanently, denude a plot of ground, so that nothing would ever again grow there. Therefore, the goat was not popular, and became the symbol of those deserving eternal punishment. Isn't it interesting how the goat which Jesus used as such a symbol is a taker; one who takes selfishly, indulgently, wanting the very last morsel for himself, with no thought for anyone else, and with no thought for the future. The Palestine goat was concerned only for his stomach, not realizing or caring that eating the root system would mean starvation in the future for even the goats. The goat resembles modern takers who want to take and use all the natural resources for our consumption today. They see nothing wrong in taking all the oil, taking all the redwoods, not caring for anyone else, nor the future.
Such behavior is not tolerated by the Son of Man, by the King, by the One who judges. Takers are not tolerated. Only givers will inherit the kingdom which was prepared from the foundation of the world. Only those who, like sheep, will give the wool from off their backs so that others may be warm, will be rewarded.
There will be a great division, a separation. Takers will be separated from givers and banished. If you've read the bulletin, you have noticed that the sermon title for next week is "Unity in Christ." Unity in Christ is not only the sermon next week, but is the theme the Committee on Worship has chosen for Advent. However, today we talk about division. The last Sunday before Advent is called the "Festival of Christ the King," and the lectionary for today suggests Matthew 25:31-46, a passage about division, not unity! The world will find its unity in Christ, but Christ also divides. Christ the King separates. Most of us would rather read this familiar passage, and feel good about feeding the hungry, giving something to drink to the thirsty, welcoming the stranger, giving clothing to the naked, and visiting those imprisoned. Most of us would rather skip over the part about the Great Division. But, judgment, whether we like it or not, is a reality. Some will make it and some won't. We don't have to look too far around us to see examples of people who are making it, and people who are not.
In this congregation, we don't often hear talk about the second coming, the rapture, last days, and final judgment. Not that we don't believe, but we tend to react to those who overuse those words. They are very literal on one hand by literally interpreting the imagery that Jesus will come out of the clouds with an army to defeat Satan at the Battle of Armageddon. In the twinkling of an eye, the dead and the living who are saved will be raised to meet him. With a round earth, it is difficult to understand how every eye will literally see him, but that difficulty is not usually raised. They are very literal with some passages, but not with others. Many do not take Jesus' clear words literally when Jesus said in Mark 13:32, "But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father."
Jesus' words seem clear to me; yet many literalists do not take those words literally. They like to interpret modern events as definite signs that the end is near. When the second coming doesn't occur as they predicted, then they look for a new series of modern events. Isn't it interesting how they will not take Jesus literally when he clearly told us that we won't know when, so don't speculate. Don't waste your time speculating and filling Christian bookstores with predictions, but be busy doing God's work. We are not to speculate, but we are to be ready at all times.
But, because we tend to overreact to those who are so sure they know all about the end times, don't be deceived into thinking there is no judgment! The Bible is very clear. God is in charge. As foreshadowed in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, in the triumph of God over death, God will triumph over the forces of evil, the spiritual forces of wickedness. Not only will God eventually triumph in a big way, but there is and will be a Great Division, a judgment.
The final judgment is essentially a division between the givers and the takers. The final judgment, described in this passage, includes everyone. "All the nations will be gathered," said Jesus. The scholars interpret this to mean all humankind. I often am asked, "What about other religions? What about those who have never heard of Jesus? What about those who are perfectly happy with their own religion?" In this passage, Jesus includes all nations and all religions. The Great Division is universal, and the criterion used to divide the sheep from the goats is not religious; the criterion used distinguishes between givers and takers, regardless of their religion. The criterion is how the king is treated. The sheep give to the king and are rewarded. Jesus said, 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,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.
The righteous were surprised. They replied, "Who? We?" True saints are surprised when they are noticed. True saints are surprised when they are rewarded, because their motivation is not for reward, not for their own glory, not for recognition or attention. True saints respond to need and do what they can. They were surprised and asked the king, When was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food,or thirsty and gave you something to drink?And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you,or naked and gave you clothing?And when was it that we saw you sickor in prison and visited you?
Then Jesus cut right through all religions, cut through confessions and professions, cut through theology and philosophy, cut through liturgy and ritual, cut through institutions and organizations, cut through pretense and self-righteousness. Jesus said, "Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these, you did it to me." To see Jesus, we must recognize him in the hungry, thirsty, strangers, sick and imprisoned. Jesus expands the Old Testament ethic where the widows, orphans, and strangers are to be assisted and treated with respect. Jesus includes all who are in need. How we treat those in need is how we treat God. Even in judgment, the all-powerful king identifies with the poor, identifies with those who have no advocate, and are unable to help themselves.
During my ten-week study leave in Europe, Ellie and I had the experience of being strangers, and being welcomed. We were assisted in so many beautiful ways. Late one evening in Erfurt, East Germany, we found ourselves hopelessly lost. We had found the Tourist office and made a reservation for a bed and breakfast. East Germany is not yet ready for tourism as we know it. There are no city maps. The street signs, when they have any, assume you live there and know what they mean.
We found ourselves hopelessly lost, and stopped to ask a woman and a young man directions. In my faltering German I let them know we were lost, and showed them the address we were seeking. They said we were a long way from there, and began to give me directions in rapid German. I understood which direction I was supposed to go, and the first two turns I was to make; after that, I had no idea, and decided that I would go as far as I could, and then again ask for directions. I thanked them, got in the car and began driving. Soon we were passed by the young man who signaled, and motioned for me to follow him. We followed him through the countryside for miles! We had gone the wrong direction from the Tourist office. I felt a little better when even the young man had to stop twice to ask directions. Finally we arrived at the address. I thanked the young man profusely, and offered him money for gasoline, but he generously refused. When he is judged by the king, it will be remembered that he met strangers, welcomed them and befriended them.
Not only do Europeans do well with strangers, but corporately they do a much better job than we with the hungry and the homeless. Nowhere did we see homeless people like we see in our country. There were no food closets. Even the communist countries, though poorer than America, fed and housed their people. Throughout East Germany and Czechoslovakia, there are ugly, tall, huge apartment buildings. They may not be esthetic, the apartments may be small, but their people are not sleeping on streets, in parks, under bushes, or in automobiles. It's scandalous that the rich land of America, where the rich continually get richer, cannot feed and house its people. It's a scandal; let us pray and work for the day, which should be imminent, when defense funds are used in more productive ways, ways that provide jobs, housing, food, and education. The cold war has thawed. Let's divert the resources, ingenuity, and technology from weapons to people.
The king is intolerant of goats who take, who practice Robin Hood in reverse by taking food and shelter from the poor. How we respond to human need is how we respond to Jesus. In the Great Division, the takers will be separated from the givers. To the givers, the king will say, "Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world." To the takers, the king will say, "Depart from me." Which are you?
© 1990 Douglas I. Norris