Parables: the sheep & the goats

Mesa sheep goats

We concluded our Mesa series on Parables yesterday with a reflection on Jesus perhaps most evocative teaching - on the sheep and the goats. It was also our first gathering at our new location, Friends of the Children (65 NE Stanton).

All throughout this series, we've been carrying with us Frederick Buechner's helpful comment on this peculiar teaching style of Jesus: "Parables are a small story with a large point. Most of the ones Jesus told have a kind of sad fun about them."

A lot of folks don't quite realize that Jesus was teaching parabolically when he brought up this apocalyptic tale of judgement. We wrestled with this parable through the lens of Robert Farrar Capon, who's excellent book Kingdom, Grace, Judgement: Paradox, Outrage and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus is definitely must reading.

In the parable, the king separates people into camps of sheep and goats based on when they served him food or water, when they welcomed him when he was a stranger, when they clothed him when he was naked, when they visited him when he was in prison.

Of course, the people didn't know that they had such opportunities to serve their king. The king replied, essentially, you served me in such ways when you reached out in these ways to "the least of these." [read the whole parable, here: Matthew 25:31-46]

I think today we're like the sheep and the goats. We can't see the very thing we're invited to before our very eyes. So much conversation on what to believe while there is so much invitation to live out our belief. We're like the goats in that we want to know "what's exactly on the quiz" instead of just living action-in-dumb-trust like the sheep.

Here's Capon's take: "Do you finally see? Nobody knows anything. The righteous didn't know they were in relationship with the King when they ministered to the least of his brethren, any more than the cursed knew they were despising the King when they didn't so minister. Knowledge is not the basis of anybody's salvation or damnation. Action-in-dumb-trust is. And the reason for that is that salvation comes only by relationship with the Savior - by a relationship that, from his side, is already an accomplished eternal fact, and that therefore needs only to be accepted by faith, not known in any way. 'No man,' Luther said, 'can know or feel he is saved; he can only believe it.'"

Reflecting on what it might look like to be a sheep and a goat today.

And then sometimes we're simultaneously sheep AND goat. We're never perfect in our application, or our living out, this parable. 

Cue Nadia Bolz-Weber: … I just don’t think the economy of grace includes 2 separate classes of people, one who hunger and one who offer food. The fact is, we are all both sheep and goat. We are both bearers of the Gospel and receivers of it. We meet the needs of others and have our needs met. And the strangeness of the good news is that —like those who sat before the throne and said, Huh? When did we ever feed you Lord? — We never know when it is that we touch Jesus in all of this. All that we have is a promise, a promise that your needs are holy to God. A Promise that Jesus is present in the meeting of needs and that his kingdom is here. And that he’s a different kind of king who rules over a different kind of kingdom.  Because it looks more like being thirsty and having someone you don’t even like give you water more than it looks like polishing a crown. It looks like giving my three extra coats to the trinity of junkies on the corner than it looks like ermine trimmed robes. That is the surprising scandal of the Gospel; the surprising scandal of the Kingdom: It looks like the same crappy mess that bumps us out of our unconscious addiction to being good, so that you can look at Jesus as he approaches you on the street and says, "Man, you look like you could use a good meal."

It's not about getting saved. It's not about being good. It's about bumbling along doing the right thing even though you didn't know it would get you the accolades (and really, how cool is it to be a sheep, anyways?).

We have massive inequalities in our world. We have massive challenges in our nation, and our city. Where is the church when it comes to hunger? To hospitality? To those in prison?

Today we have many opportunities to serve the king, or if you will, to serve Jesus. Let's not ask dumb question but live out our faith in dumb trust. Let's get to it.