As we reflect on these texts and our own lives, we do well to move to each position in the story and see things from that vantage.
- Let’s give ourselves the benefit of the doubt for the moment and imagine that we are in fact the seep of MT 25, the sheep whom God seeks and blesses in Ezekiel 34. What do we notice?
- We cannot save ourselves or provide for ourselves. We are in need of the Good Shepherd’s intervention.
- We are lost. The folks in the best position in the story are lost. Being lost is scary and dangerous and confusing. Life is hard.
- Now imagine that we are the goats of MT25 and the bad sheep of Ezekiel 34 – the ones making things harder for others. What do we notice?
- Often, the negative consequences are a result of our meeting our own needs. We may not mean to be hurtful or harmful. We’re just trying to get water to drink and grass to eat. BUT, we do it unmindfully and in ways that disregard the needs of others downstream or who will follow after us. Meeting our needs is fine, let’s just be more attentive.
- Now, imagine for a moment that you are God, the Good Shepherd of Ezekiel 34, that you are Jesus, the righteous King and Judge of Matthew 25. What do you notice now?
- All the sheep and goats are yours. They are all your flocks.
- Some of your flocks get more than enough while others go lacking.
- Some whose job it is to care for others are too busy caring for themselves.
- Some are looking out for the needs of others, some are ignoring the needs of others.
Ezekiel prophesied that “David” would sit on the throne over Gods’ redeemed sheep. Matthew places Jesus squarely on that throne as the “Son of David” and the fulfillment of those promises.
This combination of texts is so tricky, particularly for professing Christians. We want to believe that we are those who “were lost but now are found, blind but now we see.” We want to interpret the text in a way that sheds favorable light on us and our relationship to God. Others may be in trouble, but we are good. We get to enter into God’s kingdom, while others may be destined for eternal judgment and fire.
The problem with this is that the texts won’t sit still. They keep moving around on us “like chasing after wind, or trying to hold oil in the hand.” As soon as you think you’ve got something pinned down, and you know where you stand, it comes whipping around and heads straight for you.
When the question is “Am I a sheep or a goat?” the answer is never either or, never one or the other. The answer is always both/and. We are sheep, God’s beloved who are lost and lovingly sought after. We are also in some settings the unfaithful leaders, the goats who lead others astray, who refuse to help when we can, who fail to live up to God’s righteous demands. We can’t put ourselves or anyone else squarely into one category or another. This may be why Jesus slyly spins the “love your neighbor hate your enemy” proverb around to “Love your neighbor, but don’t stop there. Love your enemy – anyone can love a neighbor.” (MT 5:43)
Taken together, these texts paint a picture in which God reaches into human history, and again at the end of history, to put things right. Relationships and circumstances may work against us, colluding with our own twisted ideas of what is good and right for us. We end up on the wrong side of self, other and God. We end up lost, by our own wandering and by the misdirection of others. God steps in to redeem and restore us. God seeks out the lost sheep. When we become “found sheep” then God enlists us to share the work of reaching and restoring, seeking and saving. Unfortunately, we are still oft times persuaded by our minds to behave selfishly and justify ourselves with religious platitudes.
This was perhaps the greatest sin of the Pharisees. They were devout, and also terribly wrong. They thought that loving God meant rejecting anyone who had anything about them that God would not approve. Which of course put them on the very list they were creating – those who are not perfect in God’s eyes and thus worthy of our scorn.
Instead we turn in a humble posture before God and one another, realizing that only in this posture can we stay right with God. As soon as we presume the judgment seat, we come under judgment.* As human beings, we have made a right mess of things. So it is, and so it ever more shall be. Even so, we are responsible to make an effort toward putting things right. God has reached out to us and calls us to our better selves. At our best ,we receive what God offers, which is the wisdom and strength in community to grow toward maturity, laying aside our exclusive self-interest and choosing instead a mutual interest that creates a place for all at God’s bounteous table of blessing.
*NOTE: This does not mean that we avoid discernment and accountability. Both are essential. When Jesus says, “Judge not, lest you be judged,” I think he is not actually telling us to avoid wise and discerning scrutiny of words and actions and circumstances. He is, however, warning us that with this scrutiny we bring ourselves under the same. It is a proverb stating the way things work, not an edict telling us how to behave. Perhaps the best illustration of this is found in Proverbs 26: “4 Do not answer a fool according to his folly, or you will be like him yourself. 5 Answer a fool according to his folly, or he will be wise in his own eyes.” In other words – Damned if you do. Damned if you don’t. But what choice do you have, really. Do what must be done, and recognize that you bring the same back on you.