Sheep and goats: beyond the parable

The first goat I ever met as an individual, got to know as a person, as it were, lived in an urban back garden in Oxford, England. He did not, however, necessarily stay there. One evening, doing the dishes after a housewarming dinner at my boyfriend’s new digs, I looked up and out of the kitchen window to see a salt-and-pepper goat idly snacking on the laundry hanging from the clothes line. “Gareth,” I called through to the living room. “There’s a goat in your garden.”
The goat had a collar (and a name, which i’ve forgotten), so we put a string on it and took it through the house to the front, intending to go door to door until we found its home. As it happened, we didn’t have far to go. We knocked at the next door neighbour. “Is this your goat?” we asked. It was. After that, it was an ordinary occurrence to find the goat in Gareth’s garden, eating laundry, and we would just heave it back over the fence. There was a brown goat lived there, too, but it didn’t come over as often, which was a good thing, because it was grumpy and had a tendency to bite.
I’ve never met an individual sheep in the same way, even though, growing up in Wales, there were sheep around practically every corner, except in the centre of town and on the trains. But the sheep hang around in flocks, for the most part, and huddle together going “baa” if you try to go and introduce yourself to them.
Science says that sheep know one another as individuals; a sheep given a test to remember the door behind which a treat is hidden finds the correct answer by recognizing the face of the individual sheep associated with the snack.
Sheep know one another as persons, but to the casual observer, their strength is in their communal nature and flock mentality.
Which plays really will into the parable of the sheep and the goats.
Goats are no respecters of property, boundaries, or rules of civil engagement. They bite, they eat the clothes of others, they run away from home without leaving a note, they kick, and they do so despite repeated entreaties not to. They simply do not care about anyone but themselves.
Sheep, on the other hand, are all about encircling the lambs, protecting the weak and vulnerable. They recognize one another’s faces, and they expect good from one another. They belong closely to one another. They love one another in a deeply woolly way.
Goats are cute and appealing, in a rakish, roguish way; and sheep are good. For spontaneity, perhaps, goats have the advantage, but a sheep is more reliable.
All are God’s creatures, and all beloved. But for fellow feeling and community, the sheep are the ones to follow. They are much more likely safely to enter the fold than to jump the fence into outer darkness.

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Year A Proper 28: the rewrite

At first glance, it’s an easy one. The master distributes wealth, gifts, talents. The recipients either put them to work and harvest their reward, or bury them, ignore them, and finally hand them back covered with dirt and none the shinier for it. The shrewd investors are rewarded; the mattress hoarder is punished. Use your God-given talents or wail and gnash your teeth: the choice is yours.

Easy. But weeping and gnashing of teeth do not make for much of a gospel message.

There are a couple of problems with this kind of allegorical reading. First of all, the third slave tells his master, “You are a harsh man who reaps where he does not sow”: hardly the image of an all-creating, loving, all-encompassing God without whom nothing is sown, to whom all harvest is owed, who sustains all life. Either the slave is wrong, and misunderstands his master’s business; or he is right, in which case the master can hardly be identified with God; and either way he is pretty foolish.

At our Bible Study Tuesday, Elaine helpfully pointed out that if the slave is correct and the master is a jerk, his servant had to be out of his mind to tell it to him face to face. And then throw his muddy, dirty talent back at him. He was just looking for trouble!

And that is one interpretation of the parable: that the third slave was looking for trouble, insulting and maligning his master, challenging the one who had control over his livelihood, his life, his destiny, like a rebellious child. And like a rebellious child, he was put in time-out, where there was weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth, which sounds remarkably like some of the toddler tantrums we all have witnessed from time to time. And the good children got ice cream for dinner.

Which sounds like a good, old-fashioned moralistic nursery tale: but not like much of a gospel message.

Of course, if the third slave was right, and the master’s money was already dirty before he put it in the ground: extorted money; drug money; mob money; ill-gotten gains; well then the third slave becomes a hero. He is the only one brave enough to stand up to the man and give it right back to him, man to man: “I was afraid, but not any more. I will say it straight: You are a bad man, and you don’t deserve my interest.” The first two slaves are the fools, duped into doing the master’s dirty work for him, and the third is the whistleblower, the honest worker, the hero. Who gets thrown into the outer darkness to weep and wail and gnash his teeth for his pains.

We know it can happen. But does it make a gospel message?

Here’s the thing: it could be that Jesus is telling a story not about the kingdom of God but the way we live now. It could be that Jesus is saying, look at how things are working out in real life. Those who have plenty get more, and those who have little lose it because they don’t have the economic power to bargain their way out of debt, to pay the people who could advise them wisely, to buy comprehensive insurance against losing the little that they own. And the millionaire master, who can afford to liquidate large, massive sums of money for his servants to play with while he is away on business; he says, tough luck. There is not a whole lot of compassion in this picture; not a great deal of grace.

It could be that Jesus was holding up a mirror to a society that put its faith in money, in power bought and sold. He is parlaying the message of the prophet into a story, a tale about the complacent ones who say, “It doesn’t matter how I earn my money or use or abuse my power: it’s all mine, it’s all on me, and God will do neither good nor evil; God doesn’t even notice.”

The great and terrible day of the Lord is near, says the prophet, says Jesus: God will take notice. Neither their silver nor their gold will deliver them on the day of wrath, the dies ire, the great and terrible day of the Lord.

In fact, the only thing that saves them, that saves us, is grace. Stuck in the parable of this world, we are trapped either in servitude, in pandering to a mean master, in disgrace and punishment and despair, or in the moral morass of the despotic millionaire. No one in that parable comes off well.

But we heard just a couple of weeks ago how the meek will inherit the earth. The one-talent, fearful, timid slave, as meek as milk, will inherit the earth. God will raise up the lowly and cast down the haughty from their heights. No more rich getting richer at the expense of the poor; the manifesto of the Magnificat, the message of the Gospel turns the story on its head. The third slave gets his fairy tale ending, and the others? Well, that’s for God to decide.

But a God whose property, thank goodness, is always to have mercy.

That, to me, sounds more like a gospel message.

And there is more good news. We just rewrote the story. Which means, we can rewrite the story.

What if last week’s bridesmaids, instead of dividing into two groups and splitting the party, halving the joy: what if they had shared their lamps and all gone in together? What if the first two slaves had taken the third under their wings and taught him their investing strategies? What if he had asked them for help? What if all three had pooled their resources and bought themselves out of indentured servitude altogether: the money in the story is about fifteen years’ wages, times one, times two, times five? Surely they could have done more together than apart. And their master could obviously spare the change.

We have the power, the authority, if we have the will, to rewrite the story. If we rewrote our story, perhaps we could throw off the narrative of the widening gap between rich and poor, and work together for the dignity and security of all people. We could write a parable of economic justice. We could help the meek into their earthly inheritance.

Of course, it’s all speculation. Jesus didn’t give us too many answers. He did tell a lot of stories. The story that he told the most was that the kingdom of God was at hand, that God’s will for God’s people will be, is to be fulfilled; the will of a gracious God whose kingdom is peace, whose property is mercy, whose will for all people is salvation.

Which brings us full circle. If we read this parable as a story rather than as a threat; if we go back to reading it as a parable of the kingdom of God, it becomes a place wherein largesse is distributed in amounts beyond our dreams, and those who go out and share it, share the grace, share the gospel, find that it is returned to them measure for measure. And those who hoard it to themselves discover that that is not grace at all, and they live to regret it. Will they learn their lesson and be restored? That’s a story for another day.

If we read the parable as a story rather than as a threat.

Because, in the end, if the stories of Jesus that we read do not give that gospel message of God’s love for all of God’s children; if they don’t provoke in us a need to love God and to take loving care of one another, don’t you think, we might just be missing the point?

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A word of caution:
Armistice: broken open
by poets of war.

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Year A Proper 27: Remembrance Day

The moral of the story that Jesus tells, the point of the parable is not “blink and you’ll miss it.” The kingdom of heaven is not a one-off, opportunity of a lifetime, miss it and you miss out, you should have gone before you came, too late now, blink and you’ll miss it special offer.

They were afraid that they’d missed it. That was the worry of the Thessalonians; that their loved ones had died too soon, fallen asleep, missed the great and terrible Day of the Lord, their justification and their joy. Even Paul thought that the second coming would happen in his lifetime. This was just the beginning of their understanding that this was just the beginning.

The point of the parable is not to shut the foolish bridesmaids out. That flies in the face of the story of Jesus, who welcomed prostitutes, tax collectors, ate with Pharisees and lepers, embraced Judas Iscariot and fed all of the foolish crowds who not only forgot to bring flasks of oil but something as basic as food for the journey. Jesus was not about exclusion, or locked doors. “Knock, and the door will be opened to you,” he told them; so this parable was about something else. And I think that it was about just that concern that bedeviled the Thessalonians: that this kingdom of heaven, this kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven, was taking, is taking longer than anyone expected.

Keep awake, therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour, and it may take awhile. But the bridegroom will come. He will come.

Ninety-six years ago on Tuesday, the treaty was signed which was to end the war that was to be the war to end all wars: so this should have been the end of war and the beginning of peace on earth. A century after the start of the Great War, we know that it was not an end, but only a beginning to modern warfare.

A century later, we have refined war to the point where the smallest atom creates the biggest fear, and remote detonations remove the danger of a crisis of conscience from the field of battle. At the same time, the sharp stroke of a simple blade severs our sense of civilization. We have come so far, and moved on so little from a century ago, when war was supposed to be ended by all-out war.

It seems that the kingdom of heaven, this kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven, is taking longer than anyone expected. A little longer before our swords are melted down for shovels, our spears for pruning hooks. A generation or two more before our nuclear weapons are recycled for clean energy, our drones reduced to traffic eyes in the sky.

“But we do not want you to be uninformed, to grieve as other do who have no hope.” Because we do not know the day nor the hour, but we do know that at the end of the story, the bridegroom comes, and a new day begins.

People have died for good and just cause, and others died for ill, and many died who shouldn’t have, and others survived and lived to tell the tale, or not, to their families, the grateful ones. More will die before war is done, but we are not to live as those without hope, but be awake to the signs of the kingdom, keep awake and keep the faith, so that we don’t drift away, lose hope, fall asleep.

A century ago, a war began which would kill over 16 million people. Four years later, ninety-six years ago on Tuesday, at the eleventh hour on the eleventh day of the eleventh month, it stopped. It was supposed to be the war to end all wars, but we let the pull of peace lull us back to sleep.

Keep awake, therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour. We are in this for the long haul, we who await this kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven.

All of the bridesmaids in the story fall asleep – both the foolish and the wise – and yet the one instruction Jesus gives at the end of the story is, “keep awake.”

The wisest of us falters; the foolish fall soundly. Each of us is exhorted to keep awake and keep in mind what it is we are waiting for, working for: God’s kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven.

It always takes longer than we expect. The Thessalonians were just beginning to understand that the life of Jesus, the Resurrection, the Ascension were just the beginning. But they were, after all, a beginning.

Jesus told his disciples, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am with them.” Maybe the notion of a Second Coming is a misnomer: Jesus visits with us each and every day. How many times have you felt his presence, known that he has returned just when you needed him the most? The Incarnation was just the beginning of his life with us, among us, within us.

The key is to keep awake, to stay alert and vigilant, to keep the eyes of our hearts open for the signs all around us of the kingdom. The signs are all around us, in times of deepest joy, when a wedding happens, when a child is born, when the sun sets over the horizon or the moon shines full. The signs are with us in the times of deepest trial, in the dark night when the air is chill and the trenches are filled with fear, and at the eleventh hour men put pen to paper and hope to write war away forever. That hope is our sign; for we do not want you to grieve, says the apostle, as those who have no hope.

We see him coming in the hands of a child reaching out for the Bread of Life, knowing in a way deeper than words that God is with her. We see him reaching for the elderly veteran whose memories scramble for words, but for whom the words that Jesus taught us fall freely from his lips.

We see him coming in prayers answered, and in prayers held out in hope, day after day, knowing that we may be a long time waiting. If we stay awake, we will see him, we will know that he is coming.

It is no coincidence that we get into November, the eleventh month, and start looking toward Advent and our lectionary readings suddenly take on an urgent tinge: keep awake, for you do not know that day or the hour of the great and terrible Day of the Lord. We are looking toward Advent, which looks toward the Feast of the Incarnation, the birth into our world of Jesus, the Christ-child, God Incarnate, God with us. We are remembering, as the darkness falls, that light is coming, has come, continues to stream into the world, this world that God has made and loves and keeps awake and alive.

The kingdom of heaven is not a once in a lifetime, blink and you miss it, miss out opportunity. It is the gift of God growing in us, growing in our world, more slowly, perhaps, than we might expect, more deeply than we might recognize, but visible if we keep our eyes open, our hope alive, if we keep awake to the signs of the kingdom around us and within us.

Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.

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from the bible challenge blog

God forgive us our
daily apostasies: the
taking of your name in vain,
faking faith, defrauding love;
the times we fail to
call on you at all;
the many ways in which
our worship turns in upon
ourselves, our souls, our bodies.
Turn us, tell us,
compel us for we
will not follow willingly
for long.

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Is this how it was
for Adam and Eve:
old as time and
young as their memories;
innocence easily beguiled,
carrying still the
remnants of chaos,
shaken off to water the tree?
And see
who answers their
tapping on the ground.

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It is often said, but bears repeating, that we have a tendency to tame Jesus’ parables. Familiarity breeds, if not contempt, at least complacency. When we stop hearing them as stories, and instead hear only the interpretation and allegorization and reenactment and sheer boredom that we lay over them, we miss the essence of story, the essential ingredient of sheer absurdity, that Jesus brings to his idiosyncratic teaching.

Consider this Sunday’s parable: wise and foolish bridesmaids, all of whom drift off to sleep, some of whom stay with their lamps lit for the bridegroom, some of whom get anxious about their oil levels, leave, and miss the party. What if he had told it like this:

The kingdom of heaven will be like this: Two friends were watching Match of the Day on tv. At half time, the score was nil-nil, and they were both getting a little restless. During the break, they milled around, mumbling and moaning and stretching. One went to the loo. The other got a beer from the fridge in the next room. “Get me one,” said the one. “Get your own,” said the other, “the game’s about to restart.” So they both sat down, and fifteen minutes into the second half, the second friend said, “It’s no good, I’ve got to go,” and went into the bathroom. As soon as he turned the lock in the door, a cheer went up from the one on the sofa, who was jumping up and down on the furniture fit to break the springs – the one and only, winning goal of the match slipped past the keeper by a tantalizing hair, and thudded into the back of the net. By the time the friend returned, the replay was over and the match had resumed, but no more goals were scored: he had missed it.

There are many interpretations you may make of this parable: beer is bad for you (should have shared it with the friend); you should have gone before you sat down; the international rules of football (soccer to some) need to be changed to accommodate our desire for instant gratification in the form of more frequent goals; people with small bladders shouldn’t watch live sports events;

- they make about as much sense as the many interpretations that claim that the parable that Jesus told was a warning that the kingdom of heaven would be a blink-and-you-miss-it event, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to join the party, or be shut out forever.

The only instruction that Jesus gives out of this parable is to keep awake. But all of the bridesmaids fell asleep: the wise and the foolish.

Jesus, who promises at the end of this gospel, “I am with you always, to the end of the age,” is not, I think, about to hedge that promise with, “But you should have gone before you came.”

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