Monday, March 30, 2009

Talking Sheep & Goats: Not An Afterlife Documentary

Adapted from Chapter 4 of Heaven for Skeptics © 2009 by Bert Gary

I’ve watched shepherds in Israel. A shepherd who has both sheep and goats in his flock has a challenge. To get sheep moving he must call their names and lead them. But to get goats moving he must drive them in front of him by yelling and throwing rocks. So what does the shepherd have to do to get them moving with him at the same time in the same direction? I’ll come back to that question after we look at Jesus’ herding parable.

Look at what a serious-minded religious tract illustrator has done with a line from the Parable of the Talking Sheep and Goats:

“You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels . . .” (Matthew 25:41)

Can you believe it? Without explanation, a gigantic, faceless omni-god casts out a naked, terrified man on his knees. If the artist had bothered to actually read the parable from whence he quotes, he would have known that a shepherd-king casts out a bunch of talking goats all at once, not one man at a time. And he would have known that the blessed sheep were at the shepherd’s right and the cursed goats were at his left. The unapproachable omni-judge in the illustration is pointing the wrong way! This tract is also pointing the wrong way.

Most disturbing to me is the possibility that after all of Jesus’ teaching on unearned love and amazing grace, that, if the tract illustrator is correct, our salvation might come down to our behavior after all. If we do acts of charity, we earn heaven? If we don’t, we earn hell? Does your afterlife destiny hinge on how good a do-gooder you can be? Hardly. The tract could not be more misleading.

Here's my outline of Matthew 25:31-46. Color-coding it reveals surprising symmetry:

INTRO 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,

I. 33 and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left.

A. 34 Then 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;

1. 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.'

2. 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?'

3. 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,1 you did it to me.'

A'. 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;

1'. 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.'

2'. 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?'

3'. 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.'

I'. 46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life."

  • I and I' (red) enclose the parable. I reveals separate places in the judgment, and I' reveals separate places in eternity. 
  • A and A' (orange) are the judgments pronounced on the separated ones; they get very different sentences. 
  • 1-3 and 1'-3' (yellow, green, purple) mirror one another revealing the causes of these judgments.

Getting to the heart of it, Jesus placed an unexpected twist in this parabolic vision of judgment day. These verses are the keys:

'I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.' (italics mine) (NIV - Matthew 25:40)

'I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.' (italics mine) (NIV - Matthew 25:45)

And the key word is “these.” Who are these least brothers of the king? The obvious answer is that the least brothers are the unfortunate ones who are hungry, thirsty, strangers, naked, sick, or in prison. But there is a less obvious answer. An answer with a twist. Let’s view some of these least ones as goats! Some of the talking animals in the parable do turn out to be goats, and goats are certainly least on my affection list. Hey, can you love a mean old goat? As it turns out, that’s the key question. Can you?

Gathered before the shepherd-king (see Jesus’ face rather than an imposing, impersonal, ogre-judge) are all the people of the world. All nations are represented (Matthew 25:32). All people who have ever lived are before the throne. Now, some are put to the shepherd-king’s right and some to his left. Some are revealed as being sheep already and some as being goats already. He will speak to the sheep first.

He turns to the ones on the right and addresses them as those already blessed by his Father to inherit the kingdom prepared for them from the foundation of the world. He identifies them as sheep. Why are they identified as sheep? Because they acted sheep-like on this earth; that is, they tended to the needs of the least of these brothers of the shepherd-king.

Then he turns to the ones on the left and addresses them as those already cursed (not cursed by his Father or by him—check it yourself), and commands them to go away into a place not prepared for goats and sheep (humans), but for the evil one and his angels. These people he identifies as already goats. Why are they goats? Because they acted goat-like; that is, they did not tend to the needs of the least of these brothers of the shepherd-king.

This is what’s eye-popping. The guy on the throne, the Son of Man-shepherd-king guy, didn’t judge anyone. (See my blogs, The Father Judges No One - 1" and "The Father Judges No One - 2") Contrary to the tract and popular opinion, he didn’t reward anyone or judge anyone. He didn’t praise or condemn anyone. Let’s get the facts straight.

The sheep are blessed of the Father from the beginning of all things.

“Come, you that are (already) blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world . . .” (Matthew 25:34)

And the goats are accursed not by the Father or the Son. They are accursed by their own actions, and told to leave and go to a place not prepared for sheep or goats, but for Satan and his angels.

“You that are (already) accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels . . .” (Matthew 25:41)

Again, this bears repeating. Neither the Father nor the shepherd-king-Son did the cursing. The throngs’ sheep-ness and goat-ness, if you will, were already apparent to the king. At first glance he could see what they already were. He doesn’t curse them on the spot or bless them on the spot. He doesn’t wave a magic wand and turn them into sheep or goats. Neither does the Father. The shepherd identifies what they already are. He easily distinguishes the two species, and he separates them by kind.

But prior to the shepherd’s identification, prior to their lives on earth, the Father blessed all sheep “from the foundation of the world.” Get this, because it’s critical. Apparently originally there were only sheep! All were blessed from the beginning as sheep. All were prepared for the kingdom (not the place where the devil and his angels go). But later, tragically, some of the sheep became goats. And goat-ness is a non-sheep state of existence.

This cursed state as goats is a result of the ex-sheep’s own choices. Consequent to the blessing that they were given up-front as sheep, they chose to become non-blessed. These goats-by-choice did something or some-things that cursed them. They cursed themselves. They are self-judged. How? Simple. They judged! Specifically, they judged some as unworthy of their charity. In other words, they ended up judged as goats because they themselves judged others as not worthy of food, drink, clothing, and visitation. Their judgment boomeranged.

Do you see it? It’s beautiful. The goats are former sheep because they decided some of the “persons” in the flock were unworthy of their humanitarian—or should I say sheep-itarian—charity. They showed partiality in their love. God’s love is impartial. He loves all the sheep the same. Thus the ex-sheep damned themselves. They chose eternal goat-ishness by picking and choosing who to help rather than helping indiscriminately.

They labeled some as goats, and by doing so unwittingly revealed themselves as goats.

So what’s the shepherd-king to do? He can’t put goats in the sheep-dom. The sheep-dom is for sheep. So, the king honors the decision made by some “persons” to be goatish, and sends them to a place where sheep (humans) were never meant to go. It’s a place where “people” who play God and play judge (as Satan and his angels do) can hobnob with other judgmental pompous religious elitist goat-ites who glory over their own superiority. 

[Created and played by Dana Carvey, The Church Lady (pictured) is a skit character named “Enid Strict”, who is the uptight, smug, and pious host of her own talk showChurch Chat. Enid is a spoof of “holier-than-thou” Christian churchgoers.]

Why do we fail to appreciate the wicked humor in Jesus’ parables? Why do we take everything so literally and seriously? I guess humor is wasted on the humorless. Look, the parable says you are a sheep or a goat. What a choice! That’s like saying you’re dumb or dumber! And the sheep and goats talk! And look, Jesus portrays himself as a herdsman sorting out livestock in the sheep-dom of heaven! And look again; eternal blessedness comes to those who are generous and compassionate to goats! Surely many of “the least of these my brothers” are mean old goats. And eternal cursedness comes to those who are calloused and careless to the least of these his brothers, including the goats—especially the goats. Sheep treat everybody like sheep, as does the shepherd. Goats discriminate.

So, how do you become a goat? Treat someone like a goat. Isn’t Jesus’ humor obvious now? Do you see the boomerang of self-judgment?

Look at the parable one more time, please. The dumb sheep don’t even know they’re sheep. The dumb goats don’t even know they’re goats. Neither can tell a sheep from a goat (though the shepherd can).

Then the righteous will answer him, 'Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food . . .’ (Matthew 25:37)

Then they (the accursed) 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?' (Matthew 25:44)

Jesus uses this barnyard cartoon of the Jewish cult afterlife to elevate simple acts of charity to the level of ultimate punishment and reward. But—and this is so important—Jesus robs from this reward and punishment model any calculation or comparison or strategizing by the sheep and goats. How? By making the sheep and goats oblivious. The sheep have no idea in the end how they succeeded. They’re shocked and confused. And so are the goats. They haven’t a clue how or when they failed.

So this is not by any means a “how to” parable. This is no lesson or strategy on “how to get into heaven.” So if Jesus’ parable of the Talking Sheep and Goats isn’t a teaching on the afterlife, then what is Jesus getting at?

I hear Jesus saying that God is personally related to all people everywhere. He is everyone’s Father. That makes Jesus everybody’s brother. That makes you everybody’s brother (or sister). How you relate to your brothers is inseparable from how you relate to Jesus your brother and God your Father. We’re not talking about love as a feeling, but love as impartial treatment. Generosity and care and respect to all—whether you think they are a sheep or a goat, whether you think they deserve it or not—is an expression of knowing God’s impartial treatment of you. Knowing God is eternal Life which equals heaven. (John 17:3) Greed plus hardheartedness equals spiritual death which equals hell. Peter Kreeft put it like this:

“There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, ‘Thy will be done.’” C.S. Lewis in Kreeft, p. 164

Yet Jesus is saying that nobody knows nor can anyone assume their own ultimate status before God. Hellishness is the result of merciless presumption. Heavenliness is the result of merciful trust. Compassion and generosity to neighbors here and now is part and parcel of your relationship to God the Father. Don’t assume. Don’t even wonder. And certainly don’t worry. Just live and love. The key question that this parable asks is:

Don’t you realize that trying to figure out who is and isn’t a goat is goatish behavior?

Luke sums up his entire gospel with these words Jesus spoke:

“ . . . [God] is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked.” (Luke 6:35)

Let that one soak in. God’s love is perfect, the scriptures say, because it is impartial. God blesses the whole flock. God is kind to goats! God scatters grace on everybody like a farmer throwing seed in every direction, showing no distinction between the road, the rocks, the briars, the weeds, and whatever good soil they may find. (Matthew 13:3-9; Mark 4:3-9; Luke 8:5-8) This is God’s love, says Jesus.

for [your Father in heaven] makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.” (italics mine) (Matthew 5:46)

If God imparts grace on everyone indiscriminately, then who are we to make judgments and show distinctions? Only goats do that.

What makes sheep sheep? What makes goats goats? It’s this very thing: Loving your neighbor with tangible acts of kindness no matter how trivial, or not. A wave. A nod. A lift into town. A dollar to a drifter. It’s fruit of the Spirit that we’re talking about. (Galatians 5:22-23) It’s the good things that come from goodness inside. (Matthew 7:16-20, ..12:35..) These verses remind us that we don’t earn Life by doing good; doing good flows naturally from the gift of Life.

“We do not do good to get to Heaven; we do good because Heaven has already got us.” (Kreeft, p. 209)

I’m afraid that some, however, read the Parable of the Talking Sheep and Goats quite differently. I give you the all-too-familiar legalistic, literalized, afterlife version of Matthew 25:31-46:

1. Whenyou die you “go” to stand alone and naked before “God” to be judged.

2. If you’ve done a bunch of good stuff, you’ve earned your way into the pearly gates. The judge blesses you. Poof, you’re a sheep. You get on the “up” escalator.

3. If you’ve failed to do a bunch of good stuff, then “God” curses you; poof, you’re a goat; a trap door opens underneath your feet—I mean your hooves; and you slide down the shoot into a lake of fire.

Now you have your legal “God.” The “God” of legalism’s default setting is hell. So, legalistically, the burden of proof is on you alone. You are guilty and going to hell until proven worthy of heaven, and it’s up to you to prove it. You get what you deserve. Everybody get what they deserve. And it’s all up to you.

Notice that a savior is not needed in the legalized, literalized interpretation of this parable. Jesus is unnecessary because by your performance you determine your own fate. You save yourself, or you don’t get saved. In this model, Jesus doesn’t have a job.

So, the legal “God” aside, what’s the real moral to Jesus’ smart story? I think it’s this:

Judge instead of love, and you will die; love instead of judge, and you will live. That’s how God does it. Those who love him are called to do the same, and are driven to do the same.

As I said, I’ve watched shepherds in Israel. It looks like to me that a shepherd with both sheep and goats in his flock must drive the goats ahead of him (by throwing rocks at them!) and call the sheep by name, which then follow. Maybe this is the purpose of the Parable of the Talking Sheep and Goats. Perhaps Jesus’ parable is intended to drive goats into loving indiscriminately here and now, and to call sheep into continuing to love indiscriminately here and now.

That being the case, Jesus deals with goats on goats’ terms. It’s the only way goats will respond. He drives them to love impartially with a parable that, to goats, is as hard as a rock upside the head!

But what if a goat is yelled at and kicked and pelted with rocks and he still resists the direction of the shepherd? Will the shepherd give up on the goat? No. Will the shepherd force the direction of the goat? No. Will the goat be allowed to suffer the consequences of his own choices? Yes.

The stiff-necked goat is graciously allowed by the good shepherd to graze in Gehenna! (See my blog, “Hell Defined 2.”)

You may be wondering, why are we talking about this life instead of the afterlife? That’s where your religious training can get in the way. Far from being a documentary on the afterlife, Jesus’ barnyard parable about talking sheep and goats is about loving in this life. Today is the day of judgment and salvation.

2 Corinthians 6:2 See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation!

Jesus gives us a parable that elevates our everyday actions to the level of eternity. Failure to love produces eternal goats. Love produces eternal sheep.

Sheepness and goatness are everyday choices for those who are given eternal Life in the kingdom here and now. In the Bible, Jesus emphasizes at every turn the here-and-now-ness of Life eternal in his all-encompassing kingdom of heaven. It’s how we respond everyday to this gift, this present and coming kingdom, this Life more abundant, that makes our species recognizable to our shepherd-king.

I hope he doesn’t return when I’m having a ba-a-a-a-a-a-a-d day.

For more on Jesus' parables see my blogs The Absurd Parable of the Unforgiving SlaveThe God Who GamblesParable of the Vine and BranchesThe Crooked ManagerThe Friend at MidnightHeaven Is Like a Crazy FarmerHe Speaks Of . . .Salted With FireTalking Sheep and GoatsIs Your Eye Evil?Two Prodigals and Their Strange FatherThe Lazarus Parable Is Not About the Afterlife,and Jesus Used Parables Like a Sieve.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Don't You Hate Christian Tracts?

I found a “Christian” tract in the airport. It’s a good example of modern evangelicalism’s unfortunate cluelessness about the Gospel. It’s entitled “You have God’s Word on It.”

When you open this little tract, the very first three words inside are these:


I’m not kidding. Modern evangelicalism begins with bad news. That in itself should clue you in that something is wrong here. Like this tract, the message of the church, especially from modern evangelical circles, begins with bad news, not good.

What is this bad news that so many churches begin with? I’m following the tract word for word. If you doubt me, order the tract for yourself. Ways to order it are listed below.

The tract quotes below are in italics with quotation marks. My rebuttals, occasionally dripping with sarcasm, are in parenthesis:

1. “You are a sinner.” (What a shock!)

2. “You will die [damned]. . . because of your sin.” (The reason that damnation is God’s factory default setting for you is because, the tract writer assumes, you are a sinner and God is holy. And since God supposedly can’t even look at your sin, he can’t accept you as you are. He can’t even come near to you. You are separated from God. He’s turned away from you and is far away. Hmm. Funny how God the Son, Jesus Christ, the one who said, “When you’ve seen me you’ve seen the Father,” the one who said that he “came to seek and save the lost,” entered a sinful world, loved sinners, welcomed sinners, touched sinners, and ate with sinners. Hey, Paul wrote that Jesus even became sin. (Romans 8:3; 2 Corinthians 5:21) But if God the Father is far from me and can’t accept me and can’t come near to me because I’m a sinner, and Jesus can do all those things easily, then Jesus and the Father aren’t alike. And if they’re not alike, how can they be one? Does this tract expect me to believe that the loving side of God sent a sinner-friendly Jesus to take my whipping to appease God’s holy side? Please pardon my sarcasm. The God of this tract is double-minded about me.)

3. “[You will] be cast into the lake of fire.” (God’s very first impulse toward me, a creature he made in his own image, a creature he supposedly loves, is to reject me and punish me forever? Is this supposed to be the “gospel”—a word that means good news?)

Then the tract presents a “solution” to God’s bad news, calling it:


1. “God doesn’t want you to perish.” (Wait a minute. God doesn’t want to fry me, but that’s his first impulse toward me because he’s holy and I’m a sinner? Again, pardon my sarcasm, but following the logic of the tract, God’s Eternal Plan A is to torture me. Though his loving side really doesn’t want to do it, he has to do it because he’s a holy, legal God. How comforting to know that God is bound by law to reject me! (Dripping sarcasm. I apologize again.) There’s nothing God can do about it. His hands are tied. Rules are rules. He’s regretful, but he has to follow regulations. I wonder who came up with these laws that GOD has to follow?)

2. “God has provided the only way to be saved from hell.” (Is it just me, or does this sound like he’s trapped me like a rat and gone away? Is he an absent rejecting Trapper who requires me to love him? That makes sense . . . NOT. And not only that, but rather than salvation being about universal grace, here in this tract, you are saved from your sentence to hell. But who sentenced you to hell? The tract says God did. That means Jesus came to earth to save you from God! Think about that. The tract is telling you that the “good news” is that God sent Jesus to earth to save you from himself! Is that what the Scriptures say Jesus came for? Did he come to save you from God? Do you see how utterly bankrupt this theology is? If a legal, non-relational God must avoid sin and must punish sin, then why would he bother to send Jesus to stop himself?)

3. “God saves you forever when you trust Jesus.” (The distant Trapper’s holiness demands my blood. But the Trapper has a split personality. He sends someone (Jesus) to spring the trap he set for me. Does that make God holy or psychotic?)

Finally the tract instructs you on how to implement your escape from God’s eternal sinner roast. This section is entitled.


Well, at least the tract is consistent. If your theology is decisional rather than relational at the beginning, it should remain decisional throughout. Who wants personal relationships anyway—not when you can have the comfort and warmth of legal, decisional individualism instead? (I’m truly sorry about the sarcasm. One of my friends says I can sometimes get a bit snarky. I have no idea what snarky means, but I don’t think it’s good.)

1. “You must turn from your way and completely trust Jesus.” (Turn from my way? I guess that means turn from sinning. So all I have to do is obey all the Trapper’s rules from here on out. If I can manage to be a perfect peach, then maybe he’ll come back. Maybe he’ll accept me. But wait. It also says I have to “completely trust Jesus.” But if I try to turn from sin and keep Gods laws, then I’m not trusting Jesus. And if I completely trust Jesus, why do I have to keep all the laws? There is a contradiction here. Which do I do? Trust completely that Jesus has taken care of me? Or work hard as hell to keep all the rules so Trapper-God won’t zap me? I can’t do both! What’s the point of having a savior if we do all the saving?)

2. “Will you . . . ask Jesus Christ to save you?” (I have one more question. If Jesus saved humanity 2000 years ago, being the Lamb of God who took away the sin of the world, then why do I have to ask him to save me? I thought Paul said God saved us while we were still sinners to prove the Father’s love for us. Why can’t I just say, Thanks, Jesus? And by the way, what’s the difference between “the sinner’s prayer” and a Harry Potter incantation? Yeah, I know. I’m being snarky again.)

3. “If you will accept Christ as your Lord and Savior, please pray the sinner’s prayer with all of your heart.”
(So what words exactly do I use to make sure this “sinner’s prayer” works? How can I make sure that I really mean it? Will it help if I kneel and cry a lot when I ask? Do I get dramatic and throw myself prostrate on the ground? How will I know when I’ve groveled enough? Do I have to walk the isle of a religious institution? Do I have to shake the “right” preacher’s hand? Wait a minute. Come to think of it, if it’s up to me believing enough, then I’m just thrown back on myself. I’m not believing in Jesus. I’m believing in believing enough! I’m having faith in having enough faith. But how do you ever know you have enough faith? How do you know that you believed in believing enough for Jesus to save you from God? How much screwier can decisional evangelism get? Parenthetically, I have a comment about acceptance: I thought that the point of the incarnation and crucifixion and resurrection and ascension was Jesus accepting us into the heart and Life of his joyful relationship with his Father, not us accepting him into our hearts. Who made your heart anyway, and if he made it, how could he not be in it from the start?)

OK, let me get this straight. (I’m on a snarky roll! Sorry, I can’t help it.) According to this tract, the only thing standing between me and eternal punishment is whether or not I can stop sinning and then believe completely without a doubt that I’ve convinced Jesus in a very sincere prayer and/or religious ceremony to stand between me and the blood-rage of a rule-driven G-O-D? How should I word the prayer? “Jesus, please save me from your Dad. Amen.”?

Then the tract ends with a warning and a plea:

1. The Warning: “If you reject Jesus Christ—condemnation.” If you don’t turn from sin and ask Jesus to save you from God’s destiny for you in hell and believe with all your heart that Jesus has saved you from God’s plan, you are rejecting him. If you reject Jesus, you will burn in “a lake of fire” as planned from the beginning by G-O-D. You’re toast.

2. The Plea: “Please don’t reject the Gospel.” In this tract, the Gospel, which is supposed to mean Good News, is that God’s eternal plan to roast you might be changed provided you stop sinning and start praying earnestly the “Jesus-provision prayer.”

Let me personalize this:

1. God’s initial plan for Bert is to burn him forever because he’s a dirty sinner.

2. If Bert doesn’t improve his morals dramatically, and if Bert doesn’t pray sincerely enough, God will burn Bert as planned.

3. But if Bert cleans up his act and convinces Jesus of the sincerity of his I-wanna-get-saved prayer, then Jesus will try to stop G-O-D from burning Bert.

I have one question: In what sense is this Good News?

First, it’s certainly not good news about God. The tract portrays him non-relationally. He’s an automaton bound by rules. He doesn’t love first. He doesn’t love last. He’s absent from you and cannot reverse your sentence unless you invoke the Jesus clause. His first impulse toward you is fire-torture. Good News about God in this tract? There is none.

Second, what about the relationship between Jesus and his Father? In this tract there is none. They are at crossed purposes. They are bound together by rules, not love. It’s God’s job to broil you. It’s Jesus’ job to stop God. Your job is to convince Jesus to stop God. If you don’t, he won’t. Good news? Hardly.

Third, what about Jesus? No good news there either. Jesus not only doesn’t have a relationship with his heavenly Father in this tract, he doesn’t have a relationship with you or anyone else either. Jesus is a mere legal loophole. He’s a provision. If you invoke the Jesus clause, Jesus is legally bound to try to stop God from microwaving you as planned. It’s legal, decisional, and contractual, but not relational. Is that Good News? No way.

Enough said. If you love laws, rules, verdicts, sentencing, punishment, and no loving relationships whatsoever, you’re going to love this tract. If you’d like a copy, you may order it at:

Fellowship Tract League (A non-relational tract is produced by a “Fellowship”? How ironic.)
P.O. Box 164, Lebanon, OH 45036

They are not for sale. Request © Tract 134

If you love the gospel, however, you might like this quote from author Wayne Jacobson:

“When you realize sin doesn’t make you worthless it just makes you lost, you will know God’s compassion for people caught in sin, not contempt for them.”

For more evangelical bad behavior:
Hell House
The Prosperity Gospel: God In a Box
Katrina - The Wrath of God?
The Christian Ambush: A True Story

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Is Your Eye Evil?

The kingdom of heaven, Jesus said in Matthew 20, is like a vineyard owner who hired harvesters at first light for the usual day’s pay, in Greek a denarius. At 9 a.m. he hired some more and promised to pay them “what’s fair.” At noon he hired some more and promised to pay what’s fair. He did the same at 3 p.m. At 5 p.m., just one hour before sunset, he hired some more promising “what’s fair.”

At the end of the day, all the harvesters lined up in order of how long they worked, and the owner began with the 5 p.m.. pickers. He gave them a whole denarius, a whole day’s pay. Down the line there was excitement. Why? Because it appeared that the owner had decided to pay a denarius an hour (rather than a day)! If the one-hour workers got a full day’s pay, then surely the guys who put in twelve hours will get twelve denarii! That’s only fair!

But the owner paid everybody one dinarius no matter how many hours they’d worked. So the twelve-hour workers registered an official complaint. Do you know what they said? You guessed it: “It’s not fair!”

But in response to the complaint the owner shot back, saying something very interesting. This is a quote:

'Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? 14 Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. 15 Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?' (Matthew 20:13-15)

In Greek the final question, “Or are you envious because I am generous,” reads literally, “Or is your eye evil because I am good.” The “evil eye” is blindly offended by the owner’s generosity. A scorekeeping eye cannot handle universal grace. The twelve-hour workers are judging the owner as unfair because they are monitoring everybody else. That’s equivalent to sinners judging God as unfair for forgiving everyone the same, is it not? In Luke’s parable of the two prodigal sons and Matthew’s parable of the vineyard workers, isn’t the ending about the same thing?:

Being offended by God’s universal atoning grace.

So there you have it. There’s your choice. Your crisis. Today is your judgment (krisis) day. Matthew’s vineyard parable is a brilliant parable of God’s universal generosity. Are you celebrating or sulking? Partying or pouting?


This parable is comparable to the prodigal parable in Luke 15. Both have an “It’s not fair” moment at the end. (See Two Prodigals and Their Strange Father.) Theses two parables inspired me to write A Country Fried Parable.

This Matthew parable is a “kingdom of heaven” parable, as are many of Jesus’ parables told in Matthew. By “kingdom of heaven” parable, I mean Jesus begins the parable with the phrase, “The kingdom of heaven is like . . .”

In preparing to write my book, Heaven for Skeptics, I read many books, including the current bestselling books about biblical heaven. What shocked me was that in these books, not one of them dealt with Jesus’ parables of the kingdom. They all but ignored them. To me this is bizarre, given that I see the “kingdom of heaven” parables as our best source of information on what Jesus means by “heaven.”

I didn’t ignore them in my book. (The above exposition is a modified excerpt from Heaven for Skeptics, copyright 2009 by Bert Gary for FaithWalk Publishing.)

For more on Jesus' parables see my blogs The Absurd Parable of the Unforgiving SlaveThe God Who GamblesParable of the Vine and BranchesThe Crooked ManagerThe Friend at MidnightHeaven Is Like a Crazy FarmerHe Speaks Of . . .Salted With FireTalking Sheep and GoatsIs Your Eye Evil?Two Prodigals and Their Strange FatherThe Lazarus Parable Is Not About the Afterlife,and Jesus Used Parables Like a Sieve.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

A Strange Father and His Two Prodigal Sons

Luke 15:1-3, 11-32

The Parable You Thought You Knew

The so-called “Parable of the Prodigal Son,” more than all other parables, tells us about judgment and the reality of heaven and hell. Are you surprised? I was when I first saw it.

One prodigal left home

We know a lot about the younger son. First, he was younger, obviously, which means that he gets half as much as his oldest brother gets when their father dies. Second, he asked for his portion of the inheritance in advance of his father’s death.

Kenneth Bailey

What you may not know is that according to biblical scholar and anthropologist Ken Bailey, there is no other example in Middle Eastern culture—past or present, Arab or Jewish culture—of a son asking a father for his inheritance before the father’s death. There’s a reason for that. It’s too shocking to consider. No son in Middle Eastern culture would ever, under any circumstances, ask this. Such an insult in their patriarchal culture in unimaginable. Any boy who did that would be attacked and killed by the villagers, if not by the father himself. The younger son’s question means, “Dad, I can’t wait till you’re dead. Give me my money.” Or, “Give me my money and drop dead, Old Man.” This is unthinkable. Surely a scoundrel such as this cannot actually exist!

Jesus got their attention by beginning with a description of a son who did something despicable beyond belief. But that’s not the most shocking part. The most shocking part is that the father of this scoundrel gave him what he asked for! Something is wrong with this father, the villagers would have concluded. He must be touched in the head. How can he just absorb the highest insult a son can hurl at a father and then turn around and give that boy the inheritance? This is not possible. It’s beyond comprehension. What incomparable shame has come upon this poor broken family!

The younger son went to a land of foreigners (non-Jews) and spent the money as fast as he could. But it wasn’t just money he was careless with. He showed no respect for his father or his family or their name. Living with Gentiles, he showed no respect for his religion, his race, or his God. He can never go back, Jesus’ listeners would have concluded. Never. If he dares to return, he’ll likely be stoned to death before he can reach the village gates.

Things got so bad for the youngest son that he asked a Gentile for a job, a shameless inexcusable act for a first century Jew. As it so happened, this particular Gentile had a cruel sense of humor. He gave our young Jewish fellow a job as a swine herder. No self-respecting Jewish boy would herd pigs. For Moses said a pig is unclean to Israel.

7 The pig, for even though it has divided hoofs and is cleft-footed, it does not chew the cud; it is unclean for you. (Leviticus 11:7)

But this was obviously no self-respecting Jewish boy. He took the job. But when a famine set in, and no one fed him, he even considered digging in the dust for what the pigs ate. That was when he hit rock bottom. He got up and headed home.

He never really respected his father. He didn’t consider him a father at all or he would have stayed and been a loyal loving son. So since he didn’t see himself as a son, and his father surely no longer saw him as a son (or so he thought), the younger boy devised a plan. I will go to him with the following proposal:

  1. Father (I’ll be sure and call him “Father” to show respect.), I messed up in
    front of you and God and everybody.
  2. I’m not worthy to be called your son (Forget for now that I never really acted like one in the first place).
  3. Let me be a hired hand around the farm (Thank God, the Old Man doesn’t own pigs!).
Worst apology ever. Not an apology at all, really. He’s not sorry. He’s just trying to get out of the mess someway, somehow. He probably figures that if his dad was stupid enough to give him the money before, that maybe he’ll be stupid enough to give him a job. He certainly didn’t want to be a son before, or he never would have treated his dad as he did. And he doesn’t want to be a son now really. Just hire me, he says. Maybe this self-salvation scheme (perhaps to pay his father back some of the money he squandered) is the only thing that occurs to him. It never seems to have occurred to him that his father might actually want a relationship with his son, that his father might actually love him, that he might have already forgiven him.

The father must have kept one eye on the horizon at all times, looking for his son to return. Why? To kill him? No. But perhaps he’s concerned that the villagers might try to kill his son. Perhaps the father intends to get there first. He’s even willing to humiliate himself (again) by running in public to greet (protect?) his son. No mature man in that culture ran in public. It was shameful to run. Degrading.

But when he saw the scoundrel a long way off, the father girded up his loins and sprinted. Before the boy could explain his plan, he saw his father running toward him. He no doubt looked for a stone or a sword in his father’s hand. None. He looked for anger on his face. None. He stood there dumbfounded as his father did the unthinkable. Sons were to kiss their father in that culture, not the other way around. The father humbled himself, kissing and hugging his own son as if he were royalty.

Nevertheless, the son’s speech began as planned:

  1. Father, I messed up in front of you and God and everybody.
  2. I’m not worthy to be your son.
But he left off #3. He doesn’t ask his father for a job. Interesting. Did the father interrupt him before he could share the employment proposal? Or in the face of utterly shameless love, did the prodigal just drop #3 and say, Dad, I messed up, I’m not worthy to be your son, period?

The father is not listening to a word the boy’s saying anyway! The father is uninterested in repentant attitudes and words, as if that was why he ran and loved him. His love isn’t bought, not even with good apologies and sincere groveling. He loved and forgave that boy before the boy could say or do a blessed thing.

But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. (Romans 5:8)

All the boy ever had to do was come home. Why? Because his sonship was never based on the good or bad that he’d done. His sonship is eternally based on his relationship to his father which from the father’s side never went away.

The boy turned his back on sonship, but the father never turned his back on his son.

From here on out, we hear no more from the younger son. He’s silent. But even so, the actions are all for him, and they are extravagant expressions of the father’s love. The father’s finest robe. The father’s family ring. The father’s own sandals. All lavished on the prodigal. He silently receives. The fatted calf is killed for that boy as if he were the king himself come for a wedding feast. The party begins at their home. Barbeque. Wine. Song. Dancing. Laughter. All of this for the son who least deserved such affection in the whole wide world.

Do you think this father is cool or crazy? Would you have attended this party? How do you think the older brother is going to feel when he comes home from a hard day’s work in the field to find that his father is throwing a hoedown for his supposed brother? Well, as for questions one and two, I’ll let you decide. As to question three, let’s look and see.

One prodigal stayed

The older son asks one of the boys in the courtyard: What in the world is going on? My brother came home? My father is throwing a party for him? That’s not fair!

He parked himself in the courtyard and refused to go in. In that culture, this is a public slap in his father’s face. The loyal duty of the oldest son at a party is to act as host for the father. Greet everyone. Fill glasses. Re-supply food. When his father heard that his older son was refusing to come in, he went out to him. No doubt the guests expected the father to scold and beat such a disrespectful son, but again, this father isn’t normal. Again he disgraces himself by going out to the son. (Fathers don’t go after sons in that culture. Sons go after fathers.) And then the greater shock. This father begs this brat to come in and join the party. Begs him! Now that is utter humiliation. This father has no dignity left now, and it’s happening in front of the whole town. It’s disgraceful. (And beautiful.)

“Listen here,” the eldest begins, neglecting to use the title of respect that his dad deserved: “Father.” Even when the youngest son asked for his share of the inheritance, at least he had the decency to address him as “Father.” (Sorry about the cartoon art. It's hard to find a decent image of the unpopular older son.)

The younger of them said to his father, 'Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.' (Luke 15:12)

He may have meant it sarcastically, but at least he said it. “Father.” But not the oldest boy, no. He doesn’t dignify the man with the title “Father” because as we are about to see, the oldest no more than the youngest considered this man to be his father. His speech, like his brother’s planned speech, is in three statements:

  1. “Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you (But not as a son. Remember his younger brother’s plan to become a hired hand. Neither of them wanted to be a son.), and I have never disobeyed your command (Like a good slave.).
  2. “Yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. (Here’s the key. We’ll get back to it in a second.)....
  3. “But when this son of yours (He’s not my brother.) came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes (Nice touch! It adds a little color to the charges, don’t you think?), you killed the fatted calf for him!” (It’s not fair! It’s not fair! It’s not fair! It’s not fair! It’s not fair!)
What a whiner! The father should tear up his backside. But, again, this is not a normal father. He is willing to humiliate himself to regain his sons. Both of them. So he lovingly smashes the eldest son’s complaint to bits.

. . . the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.’ (Luke 15:31)

This is the father’s gentle way of reminding this scorekeeping knucklehead that back in verse 12 he divided his property between them both!

So he divided his property between them. (emphasis mine) (Luke 15:12)

Do you see it? He gave the younger boy cash (or the boy sold the assets for cash) and the rest of the father’s belongings were given to the older boy. And he took his portion of the inheritance too. And by law the eldest gets twice as much as the younger. He’s got double what his brother got!

The father is right in what he said to his eldest boy. Truly everything the father owned belongs to the eldest son, and has been his since the day his younger brother left; and it’s twice as much as his brother left with.

I love how I heard Robert Capon put it one time: “Look here, Oscar. All my goats are yours. I gave them to you back in verse 12. If you didn’t kill one to party with your friends, it’s not my fault.” (Something like that.)

Another job of the eldest son is to mediate disputes between members of the family, including disputes involving the father. Once again, rather than doing his duty, this eldest son stood by saying nothing to break up this nasty scene between his younger brother and his dad. He should have said, “Hey, now Brother, there’s no call for that. Apologize to Father right now. He deserves your respect.” But the older son did no such thing. Instead he stood by silently. And silently he took the inheritance, too, thus insulting his father every bit as sorely as his little brother did. They’re both prodigals. One prodigal left home. One prodigal stayed.

This elder boy may have stayed home and worked hard, but he did not consider himself a son, and he did not believe that his father really gave him the farm. He slaved away for it like it wasn’t already his. He is living with a father that he doesn’t even know. He doesn’t trust him at all. They have no relationship. But it’s one-sided, this feeling. The father’s feelings never changed. He loves his sons. He really did absorb the insult of his boys wishing he were dead. He really did give them both their inheritance. And he never hated them. He never held it against them. Again and again he humiliated himself in hope that he might have sons, real sons who know their father, and love their father, and trust their father.

Moreover, he seems to believe that humiliation is the only thing that will change their minds. So he debases himself repeatedly. This crazy father would probably have allowed himself to be beaten or even crucified if it meant regaining his sons! Have you ever seen any father like this?

The father’s final words to his eldest son are these:

“. . . we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.” (Luke 15:32)

Jesus leaves the pharisees and scribes with a decision

That’s the end. Jesus leaves us hanging. Did the older brother go in and celebrate his brother’s return? Or did he sit down at the door and start chanting, “It’s not fair!”

I believe that Jesus didn’t finish the parable because some of his listeners were wayward rejects and others were upstanding Pharisees and scribes. Luke gives this as the setting for the telling of the parable:

Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. 2 And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, "This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them." (Luke 15:1-2)

The tax collectors and sinners that Jesus has found and welcomed are similar to the younger son, aren’t they? And the elder boy is like the grumbling Pharisees and scribes. These “righteous ones” are offended that the popular traveling rabbi and healer would eat with known reprobates rather than with them. They are insulted.

Is not Jesus with his parable asking the Pharisees and scribes to come and sit at table with the reprobates and celebrate that these lost ones have come home? The end of the parable then is not Jesus’ to tell. He’s going to let the Pharisees and scribes’ decision—to sit down or to leave—end the parable for him! Their own judgment will determine what the elder son did! He’s letting them end the parable with their lives.

Luke leaves us with a decision

Moreover, Luke doesn’t tell us what the Pharisees and scribes did. He is playing the same hand Jesus did. We the readers must finish the parable. Will we celebrate the homecoming of the unworthy, or will we boycott in protest of such unfairness?

To me no parable gives a clearer picture of heaven and hell than Luke’s parable of a forgiving father. Two prodigal sons respond very differently to his forgiving grace.

So celebrate or sulk! Jesus and Luke have stuck you with making that decision. How can we put it concisely? How can we describe this moment of judgment/krisis, this choice between heaven and hell in simplest terms?

A friend of mine, Janice McFall, put it like this: “You can either party or pout!” I think that works nicely.

For more on Jesus' parables see my blogs The Absurd Parable of the Unforgiving SlaveThe God Who GamblesParable of the Vine and BranchesThe Crooked ManagerThe Friend at MidnightHeaven Is Like a Crazy FarmerHe Speaks Of . . .Salted With FireTalking Sheep and GoatsIs Your Eye Evil?Two Prodigals and Their Strange FatherThe Lazarus Parable Is Not About the Afterlife,and Jesus Used Parables Like a Sieve.