Good Goats

Good Goats

November 23, 2014
Stina Pope

The sheep and the goats. The great judgment day.

This set of passages has been used with great effect over the centuries. It is a way of frightening people into supposed salvation. It drives me crazy!

It starts out with the premise that there will be a time, we do not know exactly when, but that is not the point. The point is, that there will be a time, when the good people are rewarded and the bad people are punished. That’s what we all want, isn’t it? We want our good deeds to be rewarded, and we want those people who are bad to be punished – welllll, maybe, and maybe not.

There is an inherent problem here, and that is that I’m not so sure I would be found in the “good” camp. The really important part of the passage is where Jesus makes clear what kind of behavior is good, and what kind of behavior is not good. We’ll come back to that. It’s the conclusion that does not follow with the rest of the teachings of Jesus. If I look at my life, I’m not going to say anything about your life, you can look for yourself, but if I just look carefully at my life, it is clear to me that there are times when I did not take care of my brothers and sisters in need, I did not go visit people in prison, and therefore I would not be judged as a sheep, I would be cast out into the darkness.

So what do we do with this passage?

One option is to simply throw it out. I do not think this is a good idea. There are any number of passages in the Bible which say things that I do not agree with, but I think they are important to wrestle with, rather than just say, no, I won’t deal with that at all.

A second option is to accept it at face value, and say that yes, there is an “end time” when everyone will be judged into good people and bad people and the bad people will be punished. I cannot agree with that either, because it does not fit with the overall message that Jesus preached.

One of the things we have to remember is that the Gospels were written a long time after Jesus was dead. Even though people’s memories were better in terms of recall than ours are today, there is the huge issue of “interest.” That is, each of the Gospel writers has a specific audience and a specific message for that audience. Each writer obviously did the editorial job of picking and choosing what it was he wanted to include, or not, in his Gospel. Furthermore, he then told the stories with an eye to how it fit his message.

So I said that the judgment day concept did not fit with the fundamental message of Jesus. Where do we find that, and why do I feel so confident about saying that? I go first to the story we know as the Prodigal Son, which really ought to be named after the father, because it is the father’s action that is stunning, not the son’s. In that story, we see ourselves all too easily in the son, we have been rude, taken what was not really ours to take, and spent it on easy living. In the end, we come crawling back with nothing to show for it, asking for any kind of mercy from someone who should not show us mercy. This is the image that Jesus gives us of God, which is about as far from the image of judge as is possible. And this is the image that is consistent with most of what we hear from the lips of Jesus.

So how do we deal with our passage for today? Here is what makes sense to me: Some of it was spoken by Jesus, and some of it is conclusions that made sense to those who wrote things down. There are other places where this is pretty obvious. In the parable of the seeds, for instance, Jesus gives the parable, which is open-ended. That is the parable where Jesus talks about the farmer throwing out seed, and some of it falls on good ground and some of it falls on ground that is rocky or has thorns, and obviously the good ground will bear a good yield. An early commentator came in and added an explanation, which is clearly a later addition. All of the Bible scholars agree that it is a later addition, but it was early enough that it was included in the final collection.

If we allow for that idea, then we can listen to the instruction by Jesus, that we should do good works because when we do good works, it is though we are feeding God, as though we are clothing God, as though we are visiting God in prison. That is reason enough, without the addition of judgment, without saying, and if you don’t do this, you’re going to hell.

The other issue with the concept of the judgment is that there are no really good people and no really bad people. OK, so maybe we can count Mother Teresa and a few others as the really good people, although she would not have said so, and we can count Hitler and a few others as the really bad people. But outside of those very few, most of us are on a continuum, maybe more good than bad, maybe more bad than good, but still mixed! So how does this judgment work with this “shades of gray?” The answer is, it doesn’t! As one of my favorite books on the subject says: We are all good goats! None of us is perfect, and none of us deserve to be brought into God’s house. And here’s the key. None of us deserve it, and we are brought in anyway.

When we go back to the Prodigal Son story, we see that we may fit into the prodigal’s story, or we may fit into the elder son’s story, but the bottom line is that the father wants everyone to come to the party. The only real question is whether we will choose to come to the party!

Here, the question of the elder son is really important. You may remember that the elder son is angry, because he has been “good” all this time, and now the younger son is getting a party – and his response is that he refuses to come. Here we see a reference to the Pharisees, who have been “good” religious people, working hard at doing what God commands, and they are furious with Jesus for saying that the tax collectors and prostitutes are going to be welcomed at the party. They end up, like the elder brother, refusing to come to the party that has been prepared for everyone, because there has not been a judgment as they expected, and they are angry.

I just finished a very powerful book on addiction, written by a medical doctor who works on skid row in Vancouver. There were two points he made in the book that seem relevant to this discussion. One is that he is very clear that many of us are addicts, including himself, but most of us, like him, are addicted to things that are socially acceptable, like workaholics, who are actually rewarded for their addiction. And here’s the thing: most of us are terrified of our dark face in the mirror that the addicts on the street represent, and so we vilify them, and turn against them with social programs that are proven to hurt instead of help them. It is clear that the “war on drugs” is a punitive and disastrous program that flies in the face of well-researched alternatives that actually help. But we are so terrified of this dark face of ours that we do not care. We insist that they are the “bad” ones that must change their behavior, and that we are therefore the “good” ones.

Jesus does not see them as bad, just as this doctor does not see them as bad, and therefore, they, like we, are simply good goats. They, like we, have made some bad choices. Perhaps they have made a few more bad choices than we have, but the doctor of this book insists that the choices are mostly not personal ones. That is, they are mostly not responsible for their bad choices. Can we say this? Do we really hold someone who is starving responsible for the “bad” choice of stealing food? The doctor asserts that we are at least as responsible for not making sure that there was enough of a social net to make sure that their mothers were not stressed to the max, which clearly leads to addictive personality in their children.

The bottom line in all of this is to recognize that while we may be more socially acceptable in our addictions, we are no “better” than they are in God’s eyes, because God has not labeled either them or us as good or bad. This is rather shocking, and we, like the Pharisees, want to run back to the social norms that label us as good and those others as bad. But this is not the message of Jesus, who speaks to us in parables of a God who loves outrageously, and a God who calls us to do the same, opening the circle ever wider.

So is there no judgment at all? Yes, perhaps, but it is all God’s, not ours. That is, we are not the ones who get to judge what is good or bad, at all. What we are called to do, again and again, is to repent, to turn from the way we have been going, and come back to the way of Jesus. We are to pay attention to what we are doing, and listen to the words of Jesus, have we been feeding the poor, clothing the naked, and visiting those in prison? Or have our actions been creating more poverty and more prisoners? I was thrilled when Prop 47 passed. I was thrilled that so many clergy spoke in favor of its passing. This is a move in the right direction. On this feast of Christ the King, as we prepare for the season of Advent, I wonder what we can do to open our hearts and minds to those that hurt around us, offering the love of God that has been given to us by such a generous God.