The Goats Were the Ones Counting Their Good Deeds
We're as stubborn as goats when it comes to mishearing Jesus's final parable
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The lectionary Gospel passage for this coming Christ the King Sunday is Jesus’s parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25:31-45.
It’s a parable that is as misused and abused as it is familiar.
“I’m not a Christian,” the man at the law firm party recently said to me, putting up his hands like a suspect getting nabbed red-handed, “but I do try to live a good life and to be good and to help people when I can. When you scrape off all the other stuff, isn’t that what Christianity’s really all about—the golden rule?”
And I thought: “Wow, that’s really deep. Did you come up with that all on your own or is that the fruit of years of philosophical searching? Damn, I should write that down: It’s really all about doing good for others. I don’t want to forget it. I might be able to use that in a sermon someday.”
Instead I said: “Yep, that’s Church—everything you learned in Kindergarten repeated Sunday after Sunday after Sunday after Sunday after Sunday and then you die.”
And he looked at me like he felt sad for me, giving my life to something so boring. So I raised my beer to him and said: “But sometimes we get to argue about sex.”
If you want proof that deep-down we want the comfort of merits and demerits rather than the indiscriminate acceptance of Easter, if you want evidence that in the end we prefer the Golden Rule instead of the Gospel, you need look no further than the fact that Matthew 25 is every Mainline Christian’s favorite parable.
The parable of the sheep and the goats is Jesus’ final parable.
And, sure, this final parable sounds like it’s finally the end of Jesus’ preaching on bottomless, unconditional, no-matter-what-you-do-I-do-for-you grace.
The closer he gets to his passion; it sounds like the prodigal father has run out of fatted calves and now is going to reward the rewardable.
It sounds like Jesus has pivoted from gift to grades, from mercy for sinners to merit pay, from free undeserved pardon to punishment.
Grace is God’s unmerited favor.
Grace is God’s one-way love.
Grace is the melody the New Testament returns to over and over again:
“By grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of good deeds you do—so that no one may boast about what they’ve earned.”
There seems to be a lot of earning and deserving going on here with the sheep and the goats. As a Shepherd, this King doles out punishments and rewards based not on our faith but on our deeds alone.
The sheep fed the hungry. The sheep gave water to the thirsty. The sheep welcomed the stranger. The sheep clothed the naked. The sheep cared for the sick. The sheep visited the prisoner.
The sheep did all the things you need not believe in the Good Shepherd to believe are good things.
Nevertheless, the Good Shepherd rewards them for the doings they did.
And the goats did not do those deeds.
And they are punished precisely for not doing them—we think.
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