Sheep and Goats

Published by Trevor Bechtel on

There is an old story about a long one lane road. An Amish farmer and his friend were driving their horse and buggy along the road when they met a car driven by a cantankerous English man. The English man got out of his car and yelled at the Amish farmer to back up. The farmer quietly replied, “I’d hate to think what would need to happen if you don’t back out instead” The English man stopped in his tracks, a little bit confused while considering what to do next.  After a pause he backed up his car and waited for the horse and buggy. The Amish farmer’s friend turns to the farmer surprised with his direct action. The farmer replied, “I wasn’t being direct. I would have hated to back out a horse and buggy on this road”

This story is often told to emphasize the creativity possible in non-violence. Those who expect the Amish farmer to simply give way are amused at the directness of the challenge, and those who are rooting for the farmer are impressed at how the situation is turned to the farmer’s advantage. The assumed meaning of the farmers words “I hate to think what would need to happen” in an ordinary discourse is a resort to violence, but in the farmer’s response they are shown to be something else. 

I think that judgement in the Bible is often like this, and in this sermon I want to explore some of the ways that this parable about the sheep and goats is both what we expect and not what we expect. 

As we planned worship in November having drawn our Gospel of Good Trouble series to a close we realized we would have just a few Sundays before Advent begins. With the Justice in the Criminal Legal System resolution and the First Fruits Sunday that left last Sunday and this Sunday before Advent begins next week with our four week long pageant. I encourage you to think what you have to contribute. You can look for Nelson Shantz’s email from a little while ago or talk to anyone on Worship Committee: Nelson, Tim Smith, John Powell, Emily and Javan Miner, and the pastors. 

Anyways for these two Sundays Hillary and I divided the weeks and when we turned to the lectionary, both got exactly what we wanted. Hillary got the beauty of a good revenge story and I got animals. In the context of the 2020 election I hope that you are also able to get some of what you need both in Hillary’s excellent turning of the story of Sisera and Jael towards how a healing community metabolizes the trauma of the last four years, and in what I have to offer about knowledge and judgement this morning. 

When I say that I got what I needed I am partly saying that I received license to browse YouTube guilt free for video of goats and sheep jumping and frolicking and doing yoga. But not just that. 

This parable of the sheep and the goats is a story that is deeply embedded in a particular context, that of first century Palestinian farming, and it is challenging in all the best ways to people who think that they have everything figured out. As someone who can trend in this direction I often need the opportunity to work through this kind of challenge.

Both the story in Matthew 25 and the one in Ezekiel 34 operate on at least three levels: natural, human and divine. This is a story about farming and shepherding animals. The shepherd’s separating the sheep from the goats is an ordinary practice in cold weather as goats need more warmth. Good shepherds care for their whole flock and guide them to good pasture. But this is also a story about nations of people. All of humanity is addressed but the story is meant to have its biggest impact on the reader’s own community. Nations operate like houses in Harry Potter, the group that you are sorted into by some combination of personality and action. We should hear this as, “I’m talking about both republicans and democrats, or progressives and centrists, or evangelicals and mainline Christians, but my focus is on Shalom Community Church,”. Finally, it’s a story about God’s relationship to God’s people with meaning for the whole of God’s order. In stories like this one we see powerfully that in God’s imagination the is one reality and everything is connected; farming and politics and salvation are all the same thing. There’s a beautiful sermon for another year about how farming and politics and salvation are all the same thing, but this is 2020 so I want to talk about judgement. 

In Matthew 25 the sheep and the goats are divided with the sheep going on God’s right hand and receiving the kin-dom God has prepared for them, and the goats going on his left and then into the everlasting fire. 

We know that the sheep and the goats are different, but what makes them different? 

It’s easy to read this passage as being about a biological difference. Sheep and Goats have a lot in common, but they are not the same. Sheep like to graze on the ground moving as a flock systematically and slowly eating grass and small plants; goats like to browse for leafs and twigs and vines at eye level or above moving around independently with agility and curiosity. So are sheep better than goats? Would the Matthew’s audience have thought that sheep are better than goats? 

Probably not. Palestinian farmers practices mixed herding because it made sense to do so; both sheep and goats were valued. And culturally sheep and goats did not have overdetermined meanings. Greek culture did associate one set of gods with rams; gods of power, and another set of gods with goats; gods of sexual promiscuity, creativity and fecundity, but those meanings would have been weak for Matthew’s audience. Both goats and sheep were valued in the Old Testament, and the goats and sheep are never opposed to each other in those texts. 

The passage Joe read for us, “I will judge between one sheep and another, between rams and goats” is actually a bad translation that reads this passage from Matthew back onto the Ezekiel’s prophecy. In Ezekiel the concern is with bad rulers, “Isn’t it enough for you to have been president for four years, that you must trample over the democracy ? Isn’t it enough that you have all the supreme court seats, that you must also muddy the constitution with your feet?” I might have updated that a bit. But notice that Ezekiel separates sheep from sheep in the first clause of v. 17 and then where many modern Bibles say between rams and goats we should read between rams and he-goats. The separation that Ezekiel envisions is not between one species and another but between different types of aggressive males. 

In fact the association of sheep with good action and goats with bad action might be meant to throw the reader off guard; to prepare them to think about their own action and whether it would be seen as good or bad. 

God separates the nations into two groups and judges them for their action. But neither group knows what they have done to merit God’s judgment, either positive or negative. The sheep respond, “When did we see you hungry and feed you, or see you thirsty and give you drink?” They don’t know what they have done well. They are in no way confident of their success or salvation. Likewise the goats, “When did we see you hungry or thirsty and not take care of you?” They are equally confused. 

It’s tempting to approach this passage by responding, “well you should have known better” We can easily see ourselves as the sheep, having done the right thing and stayed humble about it. Those other goats should have known better. But I think that the good news of this story for our time is that we can’t know whether what we have done is the right thing or not. We know a lot of the right things to do, because as followers of Jesus we have been trying to learn the lesson of stories like this one for 2000 years, but just as importantly we learn from stories like this one that we can’t ultimately know what the best thing to do is, or how right or ultimately confused we are. 

I had a somewhat humbling experience this week. The new auto insurance law in Michigan that decouples health insurance from auto insurance is based on research that my team at the University of Michigan did. I didn’t do any of it, but I’m proud of the accomplishment. I made the mistake of actually trying to talk to my car insurance company about my choices for next year this week. The more I talked to them, the more I realized that they were going to hide the actual costs of my policy from me until after I had committed to an option. I had the feeling that the policy changes that I was so proud of were actually making my life more difficult. I wasn’t sure if I would even save any money. Unintended consequences are a part of any policy shift and my team is going to need to keep track of how the new law is actually affecting people. But it was a lesson–and not one that I wanted to learn in my premium–that we don’t ultimately know what the best thing to do is. 

Earlier in his story, Ezekiel’s prophecies were shining examples of powerful rhetoric denouncing  the rulers of the nations. Some of those stories are appropriate for our time as well, as Hillary powerfully reminded us last week. I’m not saying that all political positions are equal or that we need to support recounts that are just going to waste money and elicit judicial rebukes. Some ideas can be simply and powerfully dismissed. But just as it’s not about biology, Matthew’s parable is not about ideas. The sheep and the goats are judged on their actions and charity towards others. 

And it’s not just that we need to be humble about our own initiatives and actions. We need to assume these things about other nations as well. I may be the goat, or the sheep, but my enemy may also be either goat or sheep. The point of using the goat and the sheep of this story may have been that the reader wouldn’t know which was better. Another powerful story about an Amish person has someone asking them, “Can I trust you” and receiving the response, “I don’t know, you’ll need to ask my neighbor”

This slipperiness applies first to us, to our actions, to our worship, to our forms of community. There are probably things we are doing wrong, and even in the things we hold most dearly, we need to recognize that before God’s judgement we will all be confused. 

But another part of God’s judgement is that it is God’s. The passage from Ezekiel details all the ways that God’s judgement is good. We want to have God as our judge because that is the kind of justice that cares for the injured, brings strength to the weak and watches over both the fat and the sleek. God’s judgment takes away our confidence in our own systems but it is not something to fear. We may not know where we stand and we may not know where our neighbor stands but we do know that God is just and that the judgement we receive is only going to help us enter a healing community that cares for all its members. Furthermore, our best thinking about separation in Mennonite contexts holds that separation, when it happens through shunning, the ban, a church split, or other disagreement; separation happens for the purpose of being able to come back together, with time and discernment able to heal wounds. 

The shape of punishment for the neglectful in God’s imagination is remediation towards a better attention to others. Even fire purifies, burning away what is evil, even when we don’t know what that is. 

Part of the beauty of preparing a worship service is watching how it fits itself together during the week. That happened this week when Joe Harvey posted the video we are about to watch of his son’s direction of a song by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor the black British composer with words that fit our desire to follow God.

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