When I was about 18 years of age, I was a part of a team of young people who would travel to country churches outside Brisbane and lead their evening worship service. Wed be welcomed with country hospitality and then lead the service with music, songs and preaching. As an up-and-coming preacher, I often had the opportunity to do the sermon. I remember on one occasion, that still makes me cringe when I think about it, I preached at Gatton Baptist Church about 100 kms west of Brisbane. I chose the safe and predicable story of the Prodigal Son for my sermon.
I was about half way into the sermon when I began to get into my stride and the story was at the point where the younger son was coming to his senses and realized that he would do better to be a servant in his fathers house than work in the pig sty. "Can you imagine", I said, "What it would be like to spend your day with the stink of pigs?" I became more inspired and more animated as I gave my interpretation of working day after day in a pig sty. After the service and my preaching, which I felt went very well, one of the young women from the Gatton youth group came up to me and said, "I dont think you should have said that stuff about the pigs." Still in my townie naïveté I asked, "Why?" "Because", she said, "Theyre all pig farmers."
Oh dear, I still have a chill that goes up my spine when I think of that experience. It did make me aware that we city dwellers think that pork comes from a supermarket, but the farmer the pig farmer knows the whole process and in fact it actually belongs to him or her not to me.
The Agrarian Society
As I reflected on that Sunday service over the years I learned several valuable lessons:
Parables and the Modern World
This morning we have another agrarian parable another story that uses images that may be foreign to many of us. However, we need to bring the same interpretive tools to the task. The story of the separation of the sheep and goats is a parable. The narrative takes what is common to the people of the day and uses it to explore a vaster reality than the farming society of the day in which these people lived.
When we read or hear these parables we think we know what they mean. Unfortunately if familiarity doesnt breed contempt, it does create a yawn, because many of us have heard it so often and we think we know what the outcome is. But also we can literalize a story like this and with the layers of our religious culture of judgement and morality placed upon the story, we come up with a favoured interpretation.
When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.
Theres a clue in this passage that should stop us and make us think. When the Son of Man .. This is set in a kind of judgement room, not so much a courthouse but the place a king would occupy. But it is not the Son of God that judges but the Son of Man This is a king who comes from underneath. One who has experienced the vicissitudes of being human. And he comes in his glory and sits on his throne . And the only throne that the Son of Man ever had was a Cross . This is royalty of a very different kind.
Paraded before this lowly king who knows human sufferings are the sheep and the goats. We might say the good and the bad; the righteous and the unrighteous; the holy and the unholy. It was common in the ancient world to run sheep and goats together. In fact, they were at one time a single species but breeding and evolution, perhaps over thousands of years, developed in them differing traits and genetic distinctions. But in this ancient culture a goat was given particular moral characteristics that tended to be negative. While the sheep were imaged as following the way of the God of Israel.
Perhaps the strongest way we use the image of the goat today is to find a person or a group of people who we treat as the scapegoat. The philosopher Rene Girard has written extensively about the way Western/Christian society seeks a scapegoat so that we dont have to face our own inadequacy or moral ineptitude. So that we can keep ourselves pure and undefiled! Of course this is not just a Christian issue; it happens all around the world. It is in fact part of the human condition. Blame and denunciation is used often so that we can take the moral high ground and not accept responsibility for our actions and behaviours.
But I dont think it is as clear as that. It is not that we are good and that others are bad. Somehow or other each of us is both sheep and goat.
Then the King will say to those on his right, Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.
The sheep, that inner sense of care and compassion in each of us, is surprised that we had shown love and empathy without even realizing who we had shown it to.
Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you? The King will reply, Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.
But we are not, as individuals, all goodness and kindness. We can be at best careless and at worst cruel, malicious and pitiless. I think I have seen too much nastiness in myself to be judgmental of others. And yet I do hear the call to a better life and a better way of being in the world.
On Friday evening I watched a DVD. It was called Defiance. It told the true story of a group of 1200 Jews who lived for over 2 years in the forests of Belorussia, now called Belarus. It is a landlocked country surrounded by Russia, Latvia, Poland, Lithuania and the Ukraine. Within that Jewish community in the forest in 1942, they had to deal with all the issues that the larger "evil" culture around them was struggling with: envy, revenge, anger, violence and indifference, just to name a few. They looked for scapegoats so that they would not have to face their own inner inconsistencies. They were at times compassionate and at other times inconsistent and brutal. The line between the sheep and the goat was not as clear as first thought.
It is too easy and simplistic to do as some have done and see this parable as a justification of my worthiness and a condemnation of others unworthiness. It is a parable and therefore it speaks not to some future day. It is meant for the here and now. Does it differentiate between the good that a person can do and the evil or bad they may pursue? Yes it does! But the line does not run between you and me; or my culture and another culture; or your religion and my religion. The line runs down the centre of me and down the centre of you.
Perhaps one of the most striking aspects of the DVD I saw last Friday was the ease with which good people were able to do dreadful and evil things. While I agree with the 18th Century philosopher Edmund Burke that "the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing", I am realistic enough to know that even good men and women are capable of evil acts. It is a decision we must make, each day in each act, to treat those we encounter as the "Son of Man" or as just another needy human being.