The writer of Matthew’s gospel certainly loves a good drama, don’t they?! Or perhaps I should say a good melodrama. After all this is the writer whose resurrection story gives us the highest angel count, with earthquake for good measure, and whose birth narrative offers us those bringers of mysterious – and fairly useless – gifts from the East. If it were not for Matthew our Bible would be pretty much free of ‘weeping and gnashing of teeth’ and notions of eternal punishment in general. And sometimes, as we saw last week with the so-called parable of the talents, we need to be very careful indeed about who we think is the ruler, king or judge in their stories, and what we think their purpose is – and if God is being presented to us as a tyrannical ruler always question that, for God only ever loves beyond our capacity to imagine love.
So today we have the melodramatic story of the sheep and goats, the last judgment. A story that over the centuries has been used to control and intimidate and to put the ‘fear of God’ into the hearer. It has been very effective. Why? I believe it has worked because as human beings we like to be right; still more dangerously we like to be on the ‘right side’ of any argument, and we tend to be easily motivated by fear. In this picture we want to be ‘sheep’ and be able to ‘other’ those we don’t like or who disagree with us as ‘goats’. Yet that, of course, is nonsense. The story is told of the primary school teacher who asked their class ‘if all the good people were red and all the bad people were green, what colour would you be?’. One child promptly replied, ‘Miss, I’d be streaky’. The binary proposed by the parable does not accord with our lived experience as people who find ourselves sometimes feeding the poor and sometimes ignoring them; sometimes visiting those in prison and sometimes putting people in prison. The matter becomes even more complex when we consider that the parable applies not just to individuals and the choices they make, but also to whole communities and groups. On this basis, is Australia, for example, a sheep or a goat? Our record, just to begin, on incarcerating children, failure to welcome the poor and refugee, and catastrophic environmental destruction, is probably not well offset by our corporate acts of aid and generosity, important though these are. It is highly complex.
reckoning and wholemaking
There simply are no sheep who are not also goats. Yet that should not leave us hopeless. Nor should it deny our human instinct that in God’s economy, as Billy Bragg sang, ‘there will be a reckoning for the peddlars of hate.’ Judgment in that sense remains an important theological idea that helps us distinguish the things that don’t matter or are actively harmful from those which actually matter – feeding the hungry, giving a drink to the thirsty, visiting those who are sick or in prison, reaching out to the most vulnerable. Hopefully many of us here manage to do some of those helpful things at least some of the time. When we do, we experience a sense of inner rightness that brings us great joy. Some of us at Pitt Street Uniting Church were reflecting on this passage the other night and on time spent supporting refugee families, and how those times were precious precisely because of this inherent sense of rightness and of sharing in acts that were just and kind. When we do this, we share in what the Franciscan theologian Ilia Delio refers to as ‘whole making’: that is, creating a deeper unity in love. Challenging passages like today’s parable thus rightly express God’s call to see Christ in the outcast, to act justly and be assured of ultimate reckoning. Yet this is always only part of God’s ultimate work of reconciliation. As Ilia Delio puts it:
In Jesus, God comes to us from the future to be our future. Those who follow Jesus are to become wholemakers, uniting what is scattered, creating a deeper unity in love.
To understand this melodramatic parable more fully, is therefore to recognise that it is not prescriptive: that is, it is not attempting to prescribe what God might do now or at some future time. Rather it is descriptive of the general muddle in which we find ourselves and of the whole-making that is needed for things to be better: always recognising that it is only by the grace and gift of God that any of us manage to offer even a cup of clean water to another. It holds up a mirror to how we act and suggests that there are better ways: ways that do not involve us projecting our own sense of shame and inadequacy and hurt onto others; ways that are founded upon the three Rs of inclusion – recognition, respect, and relationality. Only when we recognise that we are all fundamentally the same ‘stuff’ and that we are all equally held by, and capable of holding, the love of God, do we being to relate authentically in life-giving ways.
reflecting on bowls
We are surrounded at Pitt Street at the moment by bowls of many shapes, sizes and colours. Each represents a day in which Mary and Elizabeth visited with each other and talked and spent time – a day when differences of understanding were aired and commonalities discovered. No doubt some days were easy, and some days were hard. Some days the sheep were grazing peacefully and others the goats butted heads. But every day, life was held and nurtured in the wombs of those two women. Every day the two of them were held together in the love and purpose of God. Every day there was a new light, a fresh nuance, a deeper understanding.
We too are like bowls - some more shapely or wholesome than others - but we belong together and recognising that leads us to respect and relationality. Some of the bowls around us have little cracks. In some the blend of colours is pleasing – others invite more pondering to reveal their true beauty – but everything belongs, the red, the green, the streaky; the generous, the greedy; the kind and the unkind; the lost and forgotten parts of ourselves we have never forgiven and project onto others – everything is part of God’s making and holding. It is truly beautiful to realise that we are never going to fall out of that greater bowl that is God’s love for us. And, as Richard Rohr says, ‘if God can receive me, who am I not to receive myself?’ For we can, of course, make this story a fundamentalist, or a woke, parable. We can make our own list of the excluded, depending on our politics and theology, but maybe this story is not about fighting ‘deplorables’, as Hilary Clinton once put it, as its about living together with all that is, in the spirit of God. For as Richard Rohr has also observed: ‘when we can see the image of God where we don’t want to see the image of God, then we see with eyes not our own’.
an invitation to prayer
Let me conclude by returning to my bowl and an invitation to prayer. This, of course, is my bowl, but, to enter more deeply into God’s love, you also might like to take one of your own. It does not have to be particularly special. It might simply be something like a breakfast bowl. You could however intentionally find or choose a bowl as a prayer bowl. You could also simply cup your hands like a bowl. Try it know if you like and try it out when you are troubled by the state of the world, or by yourself, or when you want to give thanks, and hold it. Firstly, let yourself know that you similarly held in God’s love, just as you are, with all that you hold, or do not hold, within you. You are loved just as you are. Then, secondly, hold that bowl as if you are holding yourself, and know that, as you are loved by God, so you too have the power to love yourself, just as you are, with all your strengths and failings, as a sheep and as a goat. And then, thirdly, in the Spirit of that love which holds you and which you too can share, take time to hold that bowl as if you are holding those people, places, and other things, which are also divided, or distressed: sheep and goats. Let the love by which you are held, and which flows in you, flow out to those people, places, and other things, which are divided and distressed, like sheep and goats. May that love bring justice and mercy, and may you, and I, and all of creation, find wholeness and make whole. In the name of our whole making God, Amen.
by Josephine Inkpin, with assistance from Penny Jones,
for Hope Church Maroubra, and for Pitt Street Uniting Church, Sunday 26 November 2023