One of the mysteries of life is why no one wants to sit down front in church. Everywhere else– at the theater or the sports arena or a rock concert–front row seats go for top dollar, but church folks come early to get those great back pew seats. Explanation: in the old days the front pew was called “the sinners pew.” Maybe good theology to put those who most need the sermon directly under the preacher’s watchful eye–but not good marketing to sell those front row seats.
In a similar vein, this week’s Gospel lesson from Matthew 25 about Jesus separating the sheep from the goats may explain why in some churches more people sit on the right side of the sanctuary than the left. In the parable those on Jesus’ right get praised and have their tickets punched for heaven, while those on the left go the other way. And the reason is simple—those on the right have treated the hungry, lonely, naked, sick, and prisoners with compassion while those on the left have not. And Jesus says in the most famous line from this parable, “what you did to the least of these who are members of my family, you did to me” (verses 40 and 45).
Matthew 25 is one of the lectionary texts for November 20, the last Sunday before Advent begins. It is the Sunday in the church calendar known as Christ the King or Reign of Christ Sunday. Since the church liturgical year begins with Advent (the four Sundays prior to Christmas), Christ the King Sunday is the last Sunday of the Christian year, and is a time when the Scripture lessons focus on the end time and judgment for how we have lived our lives. It’s the bad news before we turn to the good news of the birth and incarnation of Christ at Christmas. The Hebrew Scripture for this Sunday is from Ezekiel 34:11-24 and contains a very similar passage about the fate of good and bad sheep.
Among the challenging questions these passages raise are these: What kind of king is it who judges our lives? And what kind of critters are we who come to be judged? It’s pretty easy to tell the difference between an actual sheep and a goat. It’s not so easy to identify saints and sinners. Case in point—a week ago Penn State football coach Joe Paterno was a much revered and respected iconic hero. Some have said he was one of the most influential people in the state of Pennsylvania. But in a few short 24-hour news cycles the whole world learned Joe Pa is a flawed and fallible human being like everyone else.
There’s a marvelous contemporary parable attributed to Rabbi Haim, a traveling preacher which addresses that question:
“I once ascended to the firmaments. I first went to see Hell and the sight was horrifying. Row after row of tables were laden with platters of sumptuous food, yet the people seated around the tables were pale and emaciated, moaning in hunger. As I came closer, I understood their predicament. Every person held a full spoon, but both arms were splinted with wooden slats so he could not bend either elbow to bring the food to his mouth. It broke my heart to hear the tortured groans of these poor people as they held their food so near but could not consume it.
Next I went to visit Heaven. I was surprised to see the same setting I had witnessed in Hell–row after row of long tables laden with food. But in contrast to Hell, the people here in Heaven were sitting contentedly talking with each other, obviously sated from their sumptuous meal.
As I came closer, I was amazed to discover that here, too, each person had his arms splinted on wooden slats that prevented him from bending his elbows. How, then, did they manage to eat? As I watched, a man picked up his spoon and dug it into the dish before him. Then he stretched across the table and fed the person across from him! The recipient of this kindness thanked him and returned the favor by leaning across the table to feed his benefactor.
I suddenly understood. Heaven and Hell offer the same circumstances and conditions. The critical difference is in the way the people treat each other. I ran back to Hell to share this solution with the poor souls trapped there. I whispered in the ear of one starving man, ‘You do not have to go hungry. Use your spoon to feed your neighbor, and he will surely return the favor and feed you.’ ‘You expect me to feed the detestable man sitting across the table?’ said the man angrily. ‘I would rather starve than give him the pleasure of eating!’
I then understood God’s wisdom in choosing who is worthy to go to Heaven and who deserves to go to Hell.”
Saints and sinners look a lot alike. We not pure-bred sheep or goats, but a mixed breed, and that’s why the difficult task of passing eternal judgment should be left to God and not done by fallible human beings. [Check out Jesus’ quotes: “Judge not that you be not judged” (Matt. 7:1) and “If any of you are without sin, let him/her cast the first stone” (John 8:7).]
This parable makes me wonder what Jesus will do with me. Some days I’m the sweetest most lovable, patient, compassionate person in the world. The next day I may throw away an appeal for a worthwhile charity without even opening the envelope. I’ll see someone in need and hurry by on the other side because I’m too busy and my agenda is much more important than yours. And those who have caught my immature, competitive act at a basketball game or on the golf course know that God is definitely not done working on me yet. I hope Jesus catches me on one of my good days because I’m not a full-blooded sheep or goat. I’m a half breed or what Ronald Luckey once called a “Geep.”
And I’m not alone. I have a dear friend who is the most compassionate pacifist I know; but I remember a conversation we once had about an 84 year-old woman who had been raped and tortured. There was not one ounce of compassion in how my friend would have treated that rapist if he could have gotten his hands on him. Or take the lovable actor Andy Griffith. I once read he had dreams of beating up on dear old Barney Fife.
What will Jesus do with all of us Geep? Ronald Luckey says our judge will give us hell. God will show us all of God’s children who have been abused, who are starving and suffering, and we will feel the pain God has always felt. We will feel regret and remorse as God parades by us all the missed opportunities we’ve had to serve others—all those times we were too busy to help or to care, too scared to get involved, too torn by conflicting loyalties. We will see in vivid Technicolor all those times we were too selfish or stupid to figure out how to reach across the table and feed each other.
And we will have to stand there and take our medicine. I have always been afraid that when my time’s up and my life flashes before my eyes it will be boring. But boring will be so much better than regrets and remorse. So much better than having Jesus show me all the times I failed—failed my moral and ethical responsibility to do justice and mercy. He will make me listen to all my lame excuses. “But Jesus, if I’d known it was you; of course, I’d have visited and clothed and fed you.” And with a tear in his eye, Jesus will say, “Just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me” (vs. 45).
But then another word will come, quiet, grace-filled, one we don’t deserve. Luckey says the King will look at you and me and say:
- “You who had full cupboards are the truly hungry; I will feed you.”
- “You who are well-dressed are the truly naked; I will clothe you.”
- “You who had lavish access to all the good things, you are truly in prison; I will set you free.”
The King will lift us up and give us back our lives. We are judged on the basis of our deeds, but sentenced on the basis of Grace by a friend and savior who says, “Father forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing” (Luke 23:24). We Geep are judged but loved by the lamb who takes away the sins of the world because we are not special. We are not better or worse sinners than anyone else, and if we repent and ask, none of us are exempt from forgiveness or from needing it.
God will show us how meager our offerings and services have been. God will show us the times we turned our backs on those in need and show us the ravaged earth we are leaving for our grandchildren. God will give us that kind of hell because God cares that much. But then if we are humbled and sincerely confess our sins of commission and omission, God will offer us back our lives.
God will say, “I love you still. Go, do what you failed to do yesterday. Reach out with your broken arms and feed those other broken souls across town or across class and racial boundaries, across political, ideological and religious divides. Feed each other. For I am still hungry and naked and in prison and a stranger, and what you do to the least of these, you do to me.”