Sunday, November 20, 2011

The Parable of the Sheep and the Goats

In her book, The Rapture Exposed, Barbara Rossing provides a helpful analogy for understanding the nature of biblical prophecy.  Prophetic utterances, such as those in today’s readings from Ezekiel and Matthew, can be compared to Charles Dickens’ beloved classic, A Christmas Carol.  We all know the story: how Ebenezer Scrooge is visited by three ghosts, who reveal to him the relationship between his past and present life, and the future he will experience if he continues on his current path of self-centered disregard for others. 

Now, if prophecy means accurately predicting the future, then the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come got it wrong.  Scrooge repented and dramatically changed the direction of his life, as well as the lives of Bob Cratchit, Tiny Tim, and all the others.   Scrooge “woke up” to the reality of his existence and its implications for others, and chose to give life to those who had previously been victims of his selfish greed. 

The purpose of prophecy, then, is not to predict the future, but rather to illuminate the present.  It serves as a mirror in which we can truly see and judge ourselves here and now.  Prophecy is not the revelation of an unchangeable fate.  It is the gift of awareness that allows us to make choices about our lives, and to discern how well they conform to God’s dream for the world.

Like Dickens’ classic, biblical prophecy makes use of ghostly figures – mythological language rich in metaphor that vividly reveals the mysterious depths of meaning in our world.  These mythological narratives are not literally true.  They are “more true” than that, giving expression to life’s meaning and value in ways not readily discerned or described by prosaic, rational discourse. 

So when we read the parable of the sheep and the goats, it is important to let go of our tendency to understand it as a literal description of a future event.  That would be wide of the mark.  In fact, we would do better to allow the parable to “read us,” to bring to light the reality of our lives.  The parable is not a factual description of a future Judgment Day, but rather the revelation of the criteria by which we are to judge ourselves, today and every day. 

In this sense, the parable of the sheep and goats is a wonderful gift, for it helps us to know the best way to live, how to be life giving in our choices and actions.  What, on the face of it, appears as a threatening apocalyptic vision, actually undoes our fear-filled ways of imagining the world from the inside, out.  It uses the language of our violent world to subvert that very violence, and to recall us to our divine origin and destiny.

The first thing to notice about the parable is who is being judged.  It is the nations, ta ethne – the peoples of the world, who are being judged.  “This parable is about how communities have treated their victims.  It does not so much refer to individual judgment as it does to corporate judgment.”[1] 

This is important to underscore at the very beginning, because we tend to think of our life as an individual, self-made project.  But the Gospel again and again calls us to examine our life’s meaning in terms of the kind of communities with which we identify and the values they embody.  The biblical view of “salvation” is not only the promise of a blessed afterlife, but also the promise of a certain quality of life shaped by the nexus of interdependent relationships that constitute our identity.  We are saved together, or not at all. 

The question is not so much, “Am I a good person?” as it is, “Are we building the beloved community?”  That is to say, my personal “goodness” is a function of the kind of community we are creating together.   Which is another way of saying that the criterion for judgment is the extent to which preoccupation with my status, my reputation, my security takes a back seat to the common good.  This is true humility: being so concerned with our collective well being that self-centeredness drains away; not because I am worthless or unimportant, but rather because the meaning and value of my life can only be discovered in community.

In this parable, however, the common good is understood in a certain way.  As James Alison points out, “the judgment is defined not in terms of belonging to this or that group, or believing this or that dogma.  The judgment is presented in terms of the human relationships towards victims.  Those who hunger, thirst, are naked, sick, or imprisoned.  Those who have understood, whether or not they know anything about Jesus, are those who have seen their way out of the self-deception of the world which is blind to its victims, and have reached out to help them.”[2]

How we respond to victims in our community is a daily choice that provides the basis for judging every level of our collective life.  The parable is an invitation to adopt a spiritual and ethical posture that opens us to recognize the needs of the vulnerable, the broken, the disposable people of our world, and to respond with compassion.  The truth of the myth has to be lived.  It is not a proposition to be believed, but rather a program of action that transforms lives and communities.

This is illustrated beautifully by the response of Fr. John Lasseigne to the home foreclosure crisis in his community.  Fr. John is the pastor of Mary Immaculate Church in Pacoima, a working class city in the San Fernando Valley whose 60,000 residents are 90% Latino.  When he arrived there in 2008, he quickly began to encounter family after family who came to him privately in great grief and bewilderment because they were losing their home. 

Fr. John began to wonder if these were just isolated cases.  One in nine homes there were in default; we are talking about thousands of foreclosures devastating an entire community.  What was going on?

Now, it just so happened that Fr. John graduated from law school before becoming a priest, and he knew how to read contracts.  He delved into the fine print of hundreds of mortgage agreements, and discovered that “the financial entrapment that was part of this was unbelievable.”  Many of his parishioners are working immigrants with little education and language barriers, who did not understand what the banks were selling them.  They were lured into risky subprime mortgages and over-priced homes.  It only took a job layoff or a dramatic medical expense to throw the family into foreclosure – and homelessness. 

Teaming up with ONE-LA, a community organizing group, and Neighborhood Legal Services of Los Angeles County, Fr. John lobbied congressmen, city councilmen and bank executives for laws, community redevelopment funds, and loan reduction agreements.  The result was a pilot program to write-down mortgages for 30 homeowners.  The bank makes more money than it would by selling the foreclosed home, the city preserves its property tax base and avoids further stress on inadequate social services, and families keep their homes. 

Such action – collective commitment to the common good – slowly, patiently builds toward the realization of the kingdom of God.  It seems to me that the Occupy Wall Street movement, however much one may disagree with this or that tactic, has basically recovered the deeply biblical idea that collective greed and unjust inequality tears at the fabric of the common good, and renders the victims of injustice invisible.  At its best this Movement, like the parable, is about how communities have treated their victims, and so asks us to consider what kind of community we want to be.

Yet, I am mindful of Wendell Berry’s warning that movements too readily lapse into self-righteousness and self-betrayal.[3]  The parable of the goats and sheep also works to subvert a too-easy assumption that our movement is the sheep while those other guys are the goats.  As a mythic mirror reflecting reality as-it-is-now to us, the parable has a disturbing realism about it.  If we look deeply into it’s meaning, we see that it reminds us that we quickly forget by whom we are judged.

It is Jesus the Victim who is our judge, the victim raised up by God; but Jesus is vindicated by God as the Forgiving Victim.  His resurrection always takes the form of forgiveness.  It is the end of victimization, whereas the Judge as King of the parable re-inscribes victimization on a cosmic and eternal level.  There is a terrible irony in our celebration of Christ as King – if by Kingship we mean one whose presence with us takes the form of condemnation.   As soon as we forget by whom we are judged, we become goats ourselves and perpetuate the cycle of violent exclusion that undermines the common good.

Each time we make a new scapegoat, a new victim to condemn and cast out – whether activists or bankers – we reveal the extent to which we are not sheep at all.  The true sheep at the cosmic judgment will plead mercy for the goats – all of them.  And so it must be for us in the judgment that shapes our daily lives.  Fr. John Lasseigne is a model for us because he seeks to bring the activists and the bankers and the politicians together at the same table, refusing to consign anyone to outer darkness.  That is the hard work of reconciliation that secures the common good. 

This doesn’t mean we must forego accountability to one another, or responsibility for our actions and their consequences.  It does mean that, if it is our making of victims that judges us, it is only the Forgiving Victim who can set us free to receive the kingdom of God in the midst of our divisions.  The true sheep pray, and pray fervently, for the salvation of the goats on the Last Day and everyday. 

[2] James Alison, Knowing Jesus, pp. 42-45.
[3] Wendell Berry, “In Distrust of Movements” at

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