There really should be a third option. How many of you get frustrated when things appear to be either one way or another, with no middle way, no third possibility, no gray areas, no wiggle room—either THIS or THAT? Remember those multiple-choice personality tests? Remember trying to figure out if you were more “A” or “B” and not having an option “C”?
We’ve been spending time in the Gospel of Matthew, and this passage reminds me of why I struggle with the gospel writer we know as Matthew so much. He is so, well, BINARY. In many of Matthew’s stories, you have two options: wise bridesmaids or foolish, righteous or unrighteous, sheep or goats, Heaven or Hell, eternal life or eternal punishment. Arrggh! Add to that the weeping and gnashing of teeth and the threats of outer darkness and I wonder if Matthew saw gradations in his life, ever.
Binary thinking tends to simplify things. As the philosopher David Stein writes, “Saying that binary thinking is problematic isn’t saying that binary thinking is necessarily ‘bad’…Sometimes it is good. Sometimes it is necessary. Let’s say I’m on a forest walk and a professional guide is showing me how to forage for berries and mushrooms. Understanding the nuances and intricacies of the localized fauna may be very interesting and topical, but I will be very happy for him to give me a thumbs down for ‘that might be poisonous’ or a thumbs up for ‘this will absolutely not kill you.’ Or, if I am crossing the street and I ask my friends if cars are coming, and he sees two busses, a van, and a truck –I do not want him to say ‘no’ on a technicality.”
So why does Matthew engage in binary thinking? Why does he seem to pit the sheep against the goats in Jesus’ parable?
A colleague from Riverside Church, Pastor Jim Keats shed some light on this passage for me this week. An agrarian parable, Matthew’s little story about sheep and goats would have been understood in a deeper way about how these animals behave, specifically how they eat and fight. Sheep flock together and are grazers. They pretty much eat whatever is in front of them. Nibble here, nibble there. They have a strong flocking instinct and don’t get along well when separated from their fellow sheep.
Goats are a bit more independent and curious. Goats are browsers—they seek out food sources, shrubs, twigs, and the like. They investigate things and sometimes, because of this, they can get into some trouble. They also stand on their hind legs to fight—and butt heads, so to speak. When sheep fight, they just barrel on thru which is why if a sheep were to charge a goat, the goat’s midsection would be vulnerable since goats rear up on hind legs. Shepherds would see this…differences in behavior in their various herds. Jesus’ audience would have related to this kind of sorting by behavior. Still, I imagine myself a bit more goatish these days…independence and thinking for oneself appeals to me. How about you?
In any case, tradition has pitted sheep against the goats over many centuries and we might instead ask why Matthew felt so much urgency that only a binary parable could make his point. What was that urgency about? Eternal life for Matthew is wrapped up with how well we see and treat others. We find eternal life when we can see Jesus in the hungry, the stranger, the thirsty, those lacking necessities, the imprisoned, and the ill. But not just seeing these persons as Jesus, but also *acting* on their behalf: feeding them, extending welcome, providing clothing and shelter, taking care of the sick, and visiting the imprisoned. So, it is not just seeing, but also doing. Accompanying. Companioning. Advocating. Befriending and walking alongside.
There is an urgency to Matthew’s judgement of the righteous and the less than righteous. There are no gradations in failing to act for Matthew because our lack of help, or our lack of outreach, or our lack of extending ourselves have very real, life or death consequences for the “very least” of these. Not extending ourselves on behalf of those in need is like failing to participate in Jesus’ transformation of this world. It is denying life to others. And ultimately, Matthew argues, one denies life to oneself. Salvation for Matthew lies in how we treat people, not in what we believe or disbelieve about a personal savior.
In commenting on this passage, Lindsay Armstrong compares Matthew’s parable to a kind of “wellness check.” How are we doing? She writes, “Distancing ourselves from others, allowing apathy to grow in us like a tumor, expecting that our actions have no real consequences, or relying too heavily on past love and care of others are critical concerns. The image of the Son of Man one day separating sheep and goats is a diagnostic tool designed to inspire faithfulness, root out self-centered living, and help each of us measure who and where we are as we grown in the likeness of Christ.”
“Okay,” we might venture, “but we are in a pandemic.” There’s lots of hurt all around us and even within some of us. Does that matter? Does it matter that some of us, whether goat or sheep or some other critter-like animal, are having a hard time just managing the day-to-day? Does it matter that we are likely more overwhelmed, fearful, and broke, rather than simply callous when we pass by the man asking for a handout without a mask? Does it matter that we are really concerned about high contagion rates and passing this virus to someone we love ? And that we’d really like everyone to stay in their pod so that we can just get through this thing together?
Perhaps it begins with reaching out to those closer to home. Perhaps it begins with understanding when, where, and why we choose to avert our gaze or intentionally choose not to involve ourselves. Perhaps it begins by figuring out the tension between worshipping Jesus and seeing the face of Christ in the people with whom we encounter every day—including our own families and circles of influence.
Joan Osbourne sings, “What if God was one of us?
Just a slob like one of us
Just a stranger on the bus
Tryin’ to make his way home?
If God had a face what would it look like?
And would you want to see if, seeing meant
That you would have to believe in things like heaven
And in Jesus and the saints, and all the prophets?”
What would we have to change about ourselves if we realized that God was just trying to make their way home but we really didn’t want God to approach us, ask for directions, or make a request because of where that might lead?
Covid doesn’t let us off the hook completely. There were plagues, violence, and threat of persecution (i.e. fear) in Jesus’ time too. Our goatish behavior towards each other can give us a punch of regret even now, as we consider times in which our inability to be compassionate or considerate or just kind sends ripple effects into the human ecosystem that is already so fragile, overwhelmed, and worn-out.
Our friend, Rev. Maren Tirabassi, recently wrote a piece on Matthew 25:31-46 that adds an additional layer of complexity to our reflection today in light of Covid. She writes:
Then the One in the story,
never intended for condemnation,
but to teach a new way of living,
said to those who give a bad name
to any of God’s creatures,
but especially the ones with dancing hooves
who love their own kids …
“I was a server with a hungry family,
and, because it was curbside,
you didn’t bother to tip.”
“I was thirsty for a phone call,
but you scolded me for not figuring
out Zoom and livestream
to take advantage of the church’s
“I was vulnerable as a naked child,
and you exercised
your (Satan-given) right
not to wear a mask.”
“I was a teacher
(you knew from your older child
who had hours of after-school help),
but suddenly I was the stranger
you publicly blamed
virtual school year.”
“I was in the hospital
and you unfriended me
because, you know, contact tracing.”
“Well, it wasn’t prison,
though it felt that way,
behind my plexiglass shield all day
scanning your purchases,
and you never even said, ‘hello.’”
The ones who were certainly human
said, “When did we see you …
hungry, thirsty, naked, a stranger, sick or in prison?”
And the Storyteller said, That’s the point.”
We who are learning each day anew how to navigate our recognition of Jesus in the people we see everyday—ordinary and unassuming—we might consider how binary and absolute we are in our judgments, taking the role of sovereign in our households, our country, and over those we deem inferior in ways too subtle to speak aloud. We might consider that we are all a bit of the goat and the sheep and leave the sorting to the One who is able to prick our conscience when we are quiet enough in the still of the night. Perhaps we might realize that our eternal life and eternal punishment are somehow inextricably tied to the fate of the least of these regardless of circumstance.
Our Thanksgiving tables may surely look different this year as we Zoom with relatives or have a smaller gathering than in years previous. Yet, even so, we may consider “the least of these” both present at our tables and absent. We can still speak of gratitude and humanity in ways that remind all of us that we are all still connected and stronger for that connection. We might even find ways –safe ways—to improve upon that connection. We can speak of eternal life as if what we do now and here are matters of consequence because they are. And finally, we can challenge ourselves to provide opportunities for seeing God at work in each other, and be thankful that we have the breath and the will to do so.
 David Stein, “The Problem with Binary Thinking,” Medium.com; December 22, 2018. https://medium.com/@hennepindave_75991/the-problem-with-binary-thinking-92bc4a138da1
 WHAT THE HELL? | The Word Made Fresh | Matthew 25:31-46
 Lindsay Armstrong in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 4. David Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011) 335.