This is another difficult parable to read and understand. It seems pretty straightforward what with good people who help others and bad people who don’t. Good people who help others get to go to heaven and bad people who don’t, well, don’t.
But as with any other parable that Jesus shares, that isn’t quite the point of the story.
Did you notice that both the sheep and the goats ask the same question? “‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?” The responses they get are very different, however. The sheep don’t know they’ve been present with the ‘least of these.’ As they served those who were hungry, homeless, naked, sick and in prison they didn’t see them as least kind of people. They were just part of who they were with.[audio http://www.buzzsprout.com/33052/256430-sheepish-and-goatish.mp3]
And the goats? They haven’t been engaged. They simply haven’t been present with the least of these. We’re all in danger of being goats. Churches aren’t even immune from it. A story came out on Wednesday, and it came out on several different sources – don’t believe everything you read or hear on the internet without doing some checking – that a church actually installed a sprinkler system to keep homeless people off its doorstep. I get how tempting that would be which is why I bring it up. Not to make fun of some other church but to highlight how close to us the danger is and how easy it is to fall into this trap. But how does that line up with our understanding of being the least of these? More importantly, how does that line up with Jesus’ teaching about the least of these?
So we have sheeps and goats. What about everyone else? I know a few people who serve others without ever thinking about it. They’re very sheep-like in their behavior. I know a few people who don’t serve anyone. Ever. That’s the sheep and the goats and that is pretty clear cut but what about me and just about everyone else?
That’s the thing about this parable. We want to divide into sheep and goats and likely identify with the sheep because the goats are mean people. The minute we do that we’re no longer sheep. When we see ourselves as sheep we’re no longer in the sheep group. Maybe not goats exactly but definitely not sheep. The sheep aren’t working toward anything. The sheep aren’t trying to be sheep. They just are sheep and are seen that way through the eyes of others.
As followers of Christ, we like to help people. That’s a good thing. But there are some dangers to that and it is easy to fall into the pitfalls of reaching out. We’re certainly called to reach out and help others but the place we do that from matters.
It is easy to take the position of privilege and dole out help here and there and feel pretty good about ourselves. If you’ve seen the movie or read the book, “The Help” I think the character of Hilly is a good example of this. She’s the screamingly racist woman who tries to make herself look and feel good by making a big deal out of raising money to feed poor starving children in Africa but not caring a whit for the people around her.
And the times we’ve been tempted to donate something because ‘it is better than what they’ve got now?’ Same kind of thing. I learned about this from my mom in 1980 after the Grand Island tornadoes. I was going through my closet digging out things to donate and when I had a pile of old shirts and jeans my mom made the point that we’re not giving much if we give away our junk. We should be giving our best. Thirty five years ago I still remember that.
It’s also easy to look at this parable and put ourselves in the deserving, sheep category and then worry about people we serve being deserving or undeserving because some people game the system. In every walk of life there are people who game the system. Lawyers do it. Doctors do it. Even pastors do it though most of us pastors aren’t asking 200,000 people for a $300 donation to finance our $65 million dollar jet. But it is only the poor we lump together in a guilt by association kind of situation.
Lutherans have to be very careful about this because in general we tend to be white, educated and affluent. It would take a book or two to explain why that is but in general this is pretty much the case, I think. And this leaves us susceptible to working very hard to be sheep instead of who we are being the kind of people who make a difference in the lives of others without even realizing we’re doing it.
That is the point of this parable. We can’t work toward being the sheep that Jesus talks about, we can only be the sheep by being who we are. And if who we are notices when we are helping someone else then we need to reread this parable. Again. And again.
Jesus makes this point directly in that he has been with the least all along. He isn’t some sort of cosmic superhero that swoops in to answer a need but is one who is part of those in need.
The best example of a sheep that I can come up with is this. Have you ever had someone that made a difference in your life that would be surprised to hear it? Someone who did something or said something that changed how you saw yourself or how you lived your life but had no idea that they’d done so? They are the sheep in your life.
What Jesus is calling us to do is to be the sheep for others. To make a difference for someone else, to change their life not by what we do but by who we are. Jesus is calling us to be transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit in such a way that Christ’s love is brought to life, not by what we do but by who we are.