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This parable is utterly laughable in its ability to get my brain twisted into knots, and as I try to sift and sort through all the threads within this parable, I find myself tangled up again.
I slowly pick at one knot, gently pulling at the ‘eternal fire’ language and begin to wonder if it really is all about doing good works to stay out of hell. Whatever hell might be.
And I’m not sure what to do with that…
So, I move onto another knot. Maybe I’ll be more successful with this one. Surely, Jesus’ words, “Truly I tell you, just as you do it to one of the least of these, you do it to me,” are easy to unravel. Jesus clearly seems to be saying that I’ll find God in the poor, imprisoned, homeless, and needy. I begin to feel hopeful that I can unhitch this lump. After all, isn’t this a chance for people to be Jesus in this world? What gift! What good news! Expect that I cannot begin to tell you the number of times I’ve looked down.
And, I start to feel like I must be an old, scraggly goat.
I begin to chastise myself: You’re making this too complicated. Maybe it’s as easy as the cursed goats are the really bad people in the world, and the blessed sheep are the good people in the world. Those thoughts really ensnarl me though, because they simply do not stand up in the light of compassion with the rest of Jesus’ teachings. Over and over again, Jesus avoids depicting badness as an obstacle the kingdom, just as carefully as he steers clear of making goodness an entrance requirement.
So, why would He start now?
My questions confuse and bind me, while tender grace keeps me slowly working the knots. Sifting, sorting; looking and wondering.
What is in here that I don’t see?
What is it that keeps tripping me up?
And, so I begin to think about Jesus, which seems like a good place to start. Jesus doesn’t have a problem with evil. I mean, he doesn’t like it, but it’s not something that he’s afraid of. Maybe, I should back up a bit, because as I mentioned, this parable is like pulling threads and massaging knots.
It all started with the Space X launch this week.
Bet you didn’t see that one coming…
See, I heard that a plush Baby Yoda was accompanying the space crew into orbit and one of Yoda’s functions was to let them know when they reached zero gravity. Once Baby Yoda began to float, the crew would know they had entered lower gravity.
Anyway, Yoda made me think of Jesus. Not in a Star Wars-y kind of way, but in a gravitational pull kind of way. When Jesus, on the cross, declares that all will be drawn to Him, I think that means ALL. Like everyone – bad, good; sinner, saint; criminal, do-gooder; sheep, goat. Jesus himself is the ultimate gravitational force in the universe.
Nothing, not even evil, is exempted from it.
Hell, evil, hatred, disregard, apathy – all of it – has no choice but to be pulled into Jesus. It there it remains, hidden, subsumed, redeemed, in the spear wound which scars Jesus’ side.
Now, here is the thing…
We all know that despite the cross; despite the resurrection; and despite the fact that Jesus does draw all to him, evil still exists. Evil, in this present age, is not so much banished, as it is provided for.
Which is not the same as accepted or tolerated.
Jesus is smart! He takes the problem of evil into account as He resurrects the world.
I say all of this to basically say: Evil is only separated from the good in so much as Jesus will not let wickedness stand in the way of the kingdom.
Therefore, if we accept that Christ separates himself from no one and that ultimately, even hell itself will be caught up in the beauty and wonder of God, then… does this parable even matter? What is it even trying to say?
Well, as I said, I kept tugging at little snippets, which would unravel more thoughts (and also tie me in more knots), but the scrap that snagged me was this: Neither the sheep, nor the goats thought they had seen Jesus hungry or sick or naked or in prison.
None of them were even aware they had been in the presence of Jesus. They both miss out on the divine light and holy essence of God completely.
I mean, what does that mean?
The goats appear to be planning to sue Jesus since, if they had known they were supposed to look for God in the smelly people living under the bridge, they surely would have. Or, at least, they would’ve sent a servant to check it out.
The sheep, who also never saw Jesus, just saw people who needed to be fed, protected, visited, or respected. They just saw people and treated them like people. It never occurred to them to them that they should be looking for God. And if it did, it might have colored or marred their intentions.
The sheep just saw people.
Can we think about that very slowly?
They saw people as people.
They saw their worth; their pain; their beauty.
They saw them as individuals.
Not a charity to be helped; not a political or social agenda; not tax deduction.
Not sheep. Not goats.
Which seems so simple.
To be seen for who you are.
Not what you become.
Not what you didn’t become.
But, seen for who you are.
I think that’s beautiful.
And, I find myself left holding handfuls of threads that have all come undone as I’ve sifted and sorted through the parable. And I feel a strange relief.
Because I can’t help but realize that that’s how Jesus sees me.
Sees us for who we are, which is simultaneously uncomfortable and freeing.
In Christ we are accepted, celebrated, known,