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.