Maundy Thursday Reflection: Sheep and Goats and Which One You Are Going to Be

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I grew up having the cross described to me.  They started explaining it when I was two and it continued throughout my youth.  I eventually landed in a private Christian high school where we talked almost exclusively about it and then I went on to College and Seminary where I got degrees in it.

So I know a lot about this cross.  I know all about how it saves us.  It also forgives us.  It secures God’s presence for us.  It promises us an eternity of bliss.  It is both God’s love and the satisfaction of God’s wrath.

Yet it is also so much more than we will ever be able to comprehend.  There are depths to this cross which we may never reach until the New Jerusalem.

With that said, one thing we never talked about regarding this cross is that it itself is an act of judgment.

I was taught it is the exact opposite.  It is a delay of judgment, some sort of satisfaction that delays God’s wrath for a couple millenia until it boils all up inside God again and pours over to destroy us all, well all who are not saved by the blood.  God just can’t help but pour it out all again but at least Jesus delayed it.  Shallow readings of Revelation have certainly fed this view, that God’s wrath is not satisfied, only delayed.

I have come to disagree with all that.  I believe the cross itself is an act of wrath, an act of judgment.  Paul’s letters make this plain.  The most obvious place is Colossians 2:15 which describes the cross as humiliating, a mockery of the rulers and authorities.  He made a public spectacle of them and triumphed over them.  To put it simply, the powers and authorities were judged, weighed and found wanting that day when Jesus died.

This thinking of the cross is perhaps why Jesus’ last teachings before the crucifixion have to do with judgment.  The very last one, recorded in Matthew 25:31-26, is the most blatant.  It is a passage which us good Christians know really well.  It has to do with sheep and goats and heaven and hell.  Anybody who grew up singing Sunday School songs know which one they want to be.

It might be a stretch to call this a parable and yet the metaphors have resonated for millennia and it is a very popular passage from Jesus’ teaching.  Because of its popularity it is so tempting to explain away its bluntness and thus minimize its importance.  But the parable is blunt, obvious and demands a verdict.

Simply put, Jesus teaches that at the last judgment the sheep, those who fed the hungry and clothed the naked, will be welcomed into eternity.  The goats, those who ignored the hungry and despised the naked, will be thrown into hell. There is no other way of reading it.  This is what Jesus said will happen.

And right after he said it, the motions of crucifixion are put in place.  The rulers conspire.  Judas betrays.  Jesus breaks bread and drinks wine.  The guards arrest.  The disciples flee.  The governors judge.  Peter denies.  The soldiers beat.  The cross is carried and the nails are hammered.  The crowd mocks while Jesus breathes his last.

Right after teaching us about the sheep and the goats, Jesus becomes yet one more sheep who is terrorized, tortured and killed by yet more goats.  This is the way things always are and the way they always were.  Goats win.  Sheep lose.  Compassion is stupid.  Tyranny is awesome.  Generosity is foolish.  Selfishness is brilliant.  The strong and the mighty always survive.  The sheep always die.

Yet Jesus, our compassionate sheep, our lover of the poor, our feeder of the hungry, our tailor of the naked, our water for the thirsty rises from the dead!

Jesus’ death and resurrection proves that in the end the sheep do win!  In the end the goats do lose!  In such a way the cross absolutely judges the goats.  It strips them naked and makes a public mockery of them.  Those goats could kill a sheep but they couldn’t keep the sheep dead!  In fact, he rose with power to save those who by faith and the grace of God enter into sheepishness.  The rulers and authorities, the goats, become such a joke after the cross.

So this Maundy Thursday, as this weekend really begins, the question remains, who is welcome at your Eucharist table tonight?  What hungry and thirsty people are you inviting in?  What are their names?  What are their stories?  Who are the sheep?  Are you among them?

If you can’t answer those questions, the cross tomorrow night may find you judged, measured and wanting.

Holy Wednesday Reflection: Bags of Gold and Virgins Who May or May Not End Up Being You

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“It is finished.”  That is one of the more confusing things Jesus said from the cross.  If only we knew what “it” was or is or will be.  Does “it” refer to his life or to our sins or to Jesus’ mission or to the reign of evil or all of the above?  If only we knew what “finished” meant.  Is it “finished” in the way my car was finished when its engine caps cracked or is it finished in the way I finish a dresser top or is it finished the way I cross a “finish” line.

Unlike some of the other things Jesus said from the cross, we don’t have much Biblical context to help us out on this.  Unlike some of the other popular ones, it isn’t a line from one of the Psalms.  The word “finish” is too common in both Testaments and in the Greco-Roman world for any word study to be of much help.  However, the actual Greek word refers to a paying off of debts so there is some help there.

Putting all the confusion aside, the statement is still quite profound.  After all, it is not uncommon, especially in Evangelical Protestant Circles, to look at the cross as a beginning and a wonderful one at that.  The crucifixion happened in the Spring and so Easter has always been celebrated during this wonderful time of the year when everything begins, or rather springs, anew.  This event is about newness, not finished-ness.  It is about beginnings, not endings.

Yet here on the cross Jesus declares an end, a last day if you will.  And it has not been uncommon in 2,000 years of church history to refer to the time after the cross as the “end times.”  “End times” as it was originally used did not refer to destructive times or collapsing times or apocalyptic times.  Instead the word “end” is the Greek word “telos” which refers to something reaching its goal or being fulfilled.  After the cross, we live in times of fulfillment, the times when creation has reached its purpose.  After the cross we stand on the “finish line.”

Therefore, it may not be surprising that Matthew, Mark and Luke record for us that Jesus taught about the “end times” during his last week.  The days before the crucifixion, Jesus told stories and taught parables about the end times, the finishing times.

Matthew 25 records two such parables for us.  The first is about virgins waiting for a bridegroom.  Five forgot to bring oil and so were out buying more when the bridegroom showed, missing him entirely.  The others had enough oil and got to join the wedding party.  The second parable is about investors.  Some of them took the bags of gold the master gave and invested it wisely, doubling their share.  One of them foolishly buried his bag, refusing to invest it for fear of losing it.  He was punished most severely.

At first glance these parables don’t really belong in Holy Week.  In fact, we have another season of the church year where they are taught, namely Advent, which commemorates Christ’s first coming and Christ’s second coming.  The church, through the lectionary, has us read these in December to remind us to be ready for Jesus’ second coming.

Yet in their original context they were some of Jesus’ last teachings before taking up the cross and finishing “it,” whatever “it” was.

Therefore, maybe what we need to hear in these parables during this week is not judgment or warning but promise.  To be sure, the parables were told for judgment, particularly against the religious elite of Jesus’ time.  But we now live in “finished” times.  We now live in the time when the master’s presence is with us through the Holy Spirit.  We confess that God is here, walking and dwelling among us.  But the Holy Spirit is merely a deposit which means God is not yet fully here.  We live at the beginning of the “end times” but still with a deposit, a promise, a guarantee of our inheritance.

Therefore, those of us who have spent this week and the entirety of our lives fasting, praying, longing, studying and, most importantly, loving need to hear the assurance from these parables.  Unlike those who fall asleep or do not prepare, our oil will not run out before the groom’s coming.  Unlike those who have buried their gold in the ground, our bags of righteousness will multiply.  Our faithfulness and our readiness to do good will not go unnoticed.  In fact, the one who notices and rewards them is all ready at the door!

Therefore, I think I can say with confidence, keep on keeping on.  For like the wise investors and the smart virgins, the cross has guaranteed our reward.