Nobody’s Favorite Parable

by Michael Usey

It’s Ascension Sunday, the most curious of all feasts on the church calendar –a celebration of the day Jesus left us, the day Jesus started to work from home. Once I preached on Ascension Sunday at College Park a sermon respectfully entitled, “Hey, I Can See My House from Here.”  I’m not sure that, in the midst of this Rona mess, we need another reminder of Jesus’ absence.  However, according to today’s text, Jesus is indeed with us every day in real and concrete ways that are not always easy to see. 

The parable of the sheep and the goats is nobody’s favorite story. There are lots of paintings of the waiting father embracing the prodigal son and the good samaritan helping the dude in the ditch, but there aren’t any pictures of the goats being damned on the walls of children’s Sunday school classes. Growing up, I was in church every Sunday that I didn’t pretend to have a cold, and I don’t remember ever hearing a sermon on this story. If there are hymns on this parable, nobody sings them. In Bible studies, this is one of those passages where the teacher ends up saying, “Okay, we agree that Jesus didn’t mean what he said, but then what did he mean?” Most of the time we just skip this part—and with good reason.

To make sure we reckon with the weight of this story, we have to put it in context. In Matthew’s Gospel, this is Jesus’ last bit of teaching – the next verse after this story concludes begins Matthew’s account of the Last Supper. Matthew has given us all kinds of memorable and crucial teaching from Jesus. But this is the story he chooses to end on.

The story of the Sheep and the Goats puts a peculiar twist on the genre. It is typically apocalyptic in portraying a cosmic scene of Final Judgement. History has ended and fates will be decided. However, instead of individuals, Matthew portrays entire nations being brought to the judgement. (The word ethnei means “nation”; it’s the root of the English word “ethnic”). And how are they judged? On their treatment of “the least of these members of my family.” (Greek: “the least of these my brothers”). God identifies with someone who is hungry, thirsty, a stranger, naked, sick or imprisoned. And the nations are judged on their treatment of this suffering someone with whom God identifies. According to this story, on the last day God will sort us into two groups, with sheep on the right and goats on the left, depending on how we have behaved in our lifetime. Sheep were certainly more valuable in Jesus’ time, but since this story is from Matthew’s gospel, it really doesn’t matter what image he uses: wheat & tares, good seed & bad, wise maidens & foolish ones. Matthew uses all of those–and he’s the only gospel writer who uses any of them–because he’s keen on making his point.  Namely, that relationship with God is not a matter of having faith, but rather of doing faith.

Matthew gives me a pain in my backside.  Life is never as clear cut as he makes it out to be; I cannot sort things out the way he does. He seems so sure about what is right and what is wrong–about who is blessed and who is cursed–that I get anxious about getting on God’s good side, so that, when my turn comes, I will be sent to the right and find myself not among the doomed goats, but among the favored sheep.  So when I hear a story like this one, I check  my list.  I carefully review it and note that I need one hungry person, one thirsty, one stranger, one nudie, one sickie, and one in the slammer, so that I can supply food, drink, a welcome, clothes, a hospital call, and a prison visit.  Apocalypse checklist satisfied.  Absurd, right?

But (as it always happens) when I try to make law out of gospel, there’s a problem.  Both groups were totally baffled by the verdicts they received. The sheep did not know what they had done anything right, any more than the goats knew they had done anything wrong.  Which suggests that God’s judgment will take us by surprise, sheep and goats alike.  We can study for the exam all we like, but only God knows what’s on the final.

One thing is sure: you can’t win this truth like a scavenger hunt, checking off one hungry person, one thirsty, one naked, one in prison.   You cannot use people that way.  The goats are not condemned for doing bad things, remember, but for doing nothing.  They bore the hungry, the stranger, the prisoner no malice; they simply did not see any relationship between their own lives and the lives of the least.  There is a relationship, and that is both the good news and bad news today and on the last day, when we will all stand before Christ and find out who we are.  There is a relationship between us and those hurting, and it’s up to each of us to decide what we will or will not do about it.

As apocalyptic literature, this story offers a compelling answer to the question of suffering. It takes the suffering of the present moment and reimagines it as an opportunity to get on the right side of history.  James Forbes, former pastor at Riverside Church, said once, “Nobody gets into heaven without a letter of reference from the poor.”

This story is disturbing because it’s about how God sees us. Religious people try to boil down the wonderful biblical theme of salvation, wholeness and healing, into a simple formula—four spiritual laws or five steps to be saved. This is as close as Jesus ever comes to summarizing what salvation means, but no one ever puts this on their church’s web site under the heading, “How to Become a Christian.” According to Jesus, those who don’t care for the poor have missed the gospel. Regardless of what’s said at eleven o’clock on Sunday morning in most churches, people who neglect the needy aren’t God’s people. How could Jesus have been any clearer?

This story is disturbing, because we are calorie counters in a hungry world. Have you noticed that our meals have been getting bigger? As recently as five years ago, a 10-inch plate was standard in restaurants. Today the standard is 12 inches and some chains were experimenting with a 15-inch model before the Rona. It wasn’t that long ago that 20 ounces of soda seemed thirst quenching enough. Then 7-11 introduced the 32-ounce Big Gulp. They followed that with the 44-ounce Super Big Gulp and the 64-ounce Double Gulp. (I confess I have bought each of these at one time or another.) The human bladder, meanwhile, has a capacity of about 13 ounces. Do the math on that one. America’s obesity rate is three times that of European countries, even though we eat many of the same foods. Americans eat more—even as much of the world starves.

The story of the sheep and the goats is disturbing, because most of us haven’t done much. We try not to think about hunger because the problem seems overwhelming. The statistics are mind-boggling. The United Nations estimates 25,000 people still die of hunger daily. That means more than 9.1 million people die of hunger every year. That’s over 1,000 an hour, 17 each minute. (The Rona is killing about 4,500 a day worldwide.)  James and I had a discussion recently about all the people in third-world countries, such as many in Africa, who cannot social distance, but must work every day extremely hard just to get that day’s food and water. The statistics are so overpowering that the victims become statistics. It’s easy to forget that hunger is suffered one missed meal at a time, one person at a time.

The numbers are sobering, but the faces are far worse. The faces of hunger are the faces of children. Three quarters of those who starve are under the age of 12. Hungry children have eyes that are dulled by insufficient protein. The lack of nutrition means that their mental development is permanently impaired. Many will never be able to think for themselves. Their stomachs are bloated. Their arms and legs are spindly. Their hair is thin. They have no energy. And every one of them has a name—a six-year-old named John, a nine-year-old named Angela.  Wed night during our bible study on this passage, I saw one of our teachers start to cry as we talked about Guilford County students who every teacher knows are likely going hungry right now.  “I am one of those teachers,” she said through tears, “that has a drawer full of food for my hungry students, and now I cannot reach out to them.”

The resident of a slum in Brazil, Iracema da Silva, said, “Sometimes I think, if I die, I won’t have to see my children suffering as they are. So often I see them crying, hungry, and there I am, without a cent to buy them bread. I think, God, I can’t face it! I don’t want to look any more.” The faces of hunger are the faces of mothers. Fathers often walk away from children they can’t feed. Mothers are less likely to leave. These poor, sad, lonely, frightened, frail, sick women suffer not only their own suffering, but also that of their children. These are the words of a mother in the Philippines, Mrs. Alarin: “I feel so sad when my children cry at night because they have no food. I’m so worried about the future of my children. I want them to go to school, but how can I afford it? I’m sick most of the time, but I can’t go to the doctor because each visit costs too much and the medicine is extra. What can I do?” Hunger is a hundred million mothers weeping, because they cannot feed their children.

The faces of hunger are old. They are wrinkled, tired, and miserable. Their eyes are sunken. Their sight is dim. Their cheekbones protrude. Their teeth are gone because, in their poverty, they know nothing of dental care. Against all odds, they have managed to grow old; and now they have fallen on such hard times that many hope for some sudden fatal disease that will release them from their misery. It’s hard to see the faces of hunger.

Our lack of concern is embarrassing. We lose sleep over problems at work, difficulties at school, family troubles, over this terrible virus that has our country upside down, but few of us lose sleep over children starving. We tell ourselves there’s nothing we can do about it, but we know that isn’t true. The problem isn’t a lack of food. If the world’s present food supply were distributed equally, there would be enough for everyone to have more than 3000 calories a day. The major cause of hunger is the apathy of those who have more than they need.

We’re capable of more concern than we let ourselves feel. More than that, we’re capable of the compassion that would lead us to action. Sojourners pastor Jim Wallis describes the step between concern and compassion in this way: “Being concerned is seeing something awful happening to somebody and feeling, ‘Hey, that’s really too bad.’ Having compassion is seeing the same thing and saying, ‘I just can’t let that happen to my brother, my sister.’”

We can’t solve the problem of world hunger, but we can make a crucial difference. Mother Teresa was asked how she kept from being overwhelmed by the multitudes of needy people. She replied, “I love them one at a time.” You and I can make a difference for one or two or three.

We can give more generously than we have. We can ask whether we care enough for these people we’ll never meet, these children of God, to give up some measure of our own comfort to save their lives. No one following the example of Christ can be content to have too much while others have too little. The rich must live more simply so that the poor can simply live.

A middle-aged couple earns good money and yet chooses to live simply. They go without status symbols and luxuries, so that they can give money to feed the hungry. They live a trimmed-down life. Every month the mother gathers the children around the checkbook. For each check that she writes to whomever it might be, to whatever cause, she tells them a story: “This is why these people need the money more than we need it.” And so these children actually know where the family money is going and that it isn’t there in the bank account for them to buy a new toy. The parents themselves choose not to always have new, better, more things. Their children are mature, alive, and joyful. The mother’s check-writing process is Christian education at its best. She’s saying, “This is what love means.”

Our contributions won’t tip the scales of injustice, but we can place our stubborn ounces on the right side of the balance. A Swahili proverb has it, “Drop by drop, the bucket fills.” And our one drop will make a difference —for us, too. It sounds paradoxical, but the more we care for the hurting, the more passionately we’ll love life. Giving is celebrating life at its fullest.  We do this not because we have to, as my UNCG trainer says, but because we get to.  We serve the Good Shepherd, who is also, I suspect, the Good Goatherd.

Sometimes it’s hard to tell what God wants. This is NOT one of those times. This is judgment day, because we’re deciding whose side we’re on.

[This sermon incorporates parts of writings by Barbara Brown Taylor and Brett Younger.]