Sermon: Should Jesus have been a Goat-herd? Matthew 25: 31-36 Text and youtube
Many people will be familiar with the story of the kid in math class. Teacher asks “ If there are 20 sheep in a field and one gets out through the fence, how many are left? Boy answers “none”. Teacher says, “You don’t know your math”. The boy says, ”You don’t know your sheep”.
If we ask the same question about goats the answer would be – Well – it depends on how they feel. There might be 19 left or 0 or 6. Goats are much more independent than sheep.
I have raised both sheep and goats. They are very different animals. Sheep are followers and will mostly stay in a group. Goats on the other hand make their own decisions. I always thought they were similar to a dog in intelligence. I had goats who could climb ladders, open gates and turn on taps. If you have had goats you have looked out your window and seen them sleeping on your vehicle. They love to be up high. Some who have never had goats are saying “Well don’t let them on the vehicle” Those who have had goats are just laughing.
I have always had a concern about the emphasis on sheep in the bible. Jesus is often portrayed as a shepherd. He is portrayed as the “Lamb of God”
The lectionary, which is an international three year rotation of suggested scripture reading, is used by a majority of the churches. It suggests for this Sunday the passage which describes Jesus as a shepherd. I don’t always follow the lectionary (no surprise) so I chose a related one about the separation of sheep and goats.
The idea of Jesus as a shepherd raises some questions for me. The idea of the goats getting tossed out raises some concerns
First, Jesus was not a shepherd. He was a carpenter as far as we know. We see lots of pictures and sculptures of him carrying a lamb but I cannot recall an image of him carrying a saw. Why?
Part of the construct comes from the idea of the sacrificial lamb which was part of the Jewish religion. The Passover is the celebration of the Israelites escape from Egypt. They were to put the blood of an animal on their doorposts and the angel of death “Passed over” their homes. The Passover lamb, is the sacrifice that the Torah mandates them to ritually slaughter on the evening of Passover, and eat on the first night of the holiday with bitter herbs and matzo as a remembrance. Interestingly the Torah states that it also could be a goat.
Part of the idea also comes from passages such as the Psalm 23. “The Lord is my Shepherd”. It is a beautiful passage that has brought comfort to many over the years. The thought of Jesus as a compassionate shepherd is very powerful. There are about 30 passages in the Old Testament that refer to God as Shepherd and about 10 in the New Testament that extend that metaphor to Jesus.
As beautiful as it is, in reality Jesus rarely would have come in close contact with a sheep. Sheep were housed outside town. He worked in town. Shepherds were of a lower class while carpenters were probably like jewellers in today’s world. Wood was more difficult to come by and so it was more of an artisan or specialty practice. Houses were primarily built of stone.
The passage from the lectionary talks about Jesus being a gate to hold the sheep in. Is this good of bad?
On one hand it is wonderful. There is a concept of protection involved. There is comfort in being with others who are similar. There is reassurance in being protected from the outside world and guarded by someone you trust.
However every room has walls. Walls keep others out but also keep you in. Right now we are protected from the virus by staying apart, but at the same time we are losing some of our liberties. Should we be concerned?
Was the image of Jesus’ followers as sheep done on purpose?
Was the image of goats as bad, done on purpose?
The passage of scripture I chose, talks about how good and kind sheep are and they can spend eternal life in paradise, while the goats are bad and must be cast away. Yet if someone says “they followed like Sheep” it is not considered a compliment.
The church and the government of any country have always known it is easier to control people who are placid and contained than people who will question. A few years ago a bumper sticker came out that said “Question authority”. It was seen as a radical statement.
During the history of the church there has been a desire to have people follow without question. The bible was not easily available for 1600 years. The large bibles in pulpits were chained down and people were not allowed to look at them. Even recently people have told me that their priest, minister or pastor explained that they should believe without question.
I wonder if our history and our personal view would be different if the church had chosen to call Jesus a Goat-herd?
Names are important. At a funeral or wedding I always make sure that I have the right name. It makes a difference- trust me. Many times, a person’s legal name is not even similar to the name they go by. I knew a man who changed his name slightly with each new girlfriend. He did it so he could keep track. If one of them wrote him a note and didn’t sign it – he knew who it was from.
Names have meanings. In the Chinese culture relatives have different names depending on where they are in the family tree. So the older uncle would have a different title than a younger uncle. It is a sign of respect but it is also a sign of clarification. It might also be easier than our system where we say “Well that’s your mother’s second oldest uncle on her father’s side, who was actually his sister’s son from a previous marriage”.
So if we change the title of Jesus from Shepherd to Goat-herd. What effect does that have?
In every society there is an undercurrent of submission. People are to fit in. It makes it easier and there is tremendous pressure from many sources. Fashion is a powerful force to make everyone abide by certain rules. We were never to wear white after Labour Day. Every family was to have a house in the suburbs with a white picket fence and everyone was to have a legitimate job. The people who didn’t fit in, the artists, the rebels and the outcasts were often people who questioned and were questioned. Those were people who thought in different ways. They are people in today’s world who have a difficult time “fitting in”. They are often people who have depression and anxiety because they don’t feel accepted. They don’t fit the status-quo.
Did the church make a mistake by emphasizing the sheep over the goats?
There is a video making the rounds right now by TomFoolery called the Great Realisation, where a man reads in poetry form to his child about the great change that came to the world after the Coronavirus because we were forced to reassess our values and needs.
After this Virus there will tremendous pressure to return to the “normal”. There will be pressure to buy and spend. There will be pressure to continue the rat-race and there will be pressure for us to follow like sheep.
But maybe it is time to question; – to ask, if the sheepfold we are in is the right one.
This is not a sermon to discredit the sheep or the sheep fold. We need comfort and security right now. But maybe we need to look and see where the goats are. How many are left in the field?
I believe that God cares for the sheep and made Jesus a shepherd but I also believe that God cares for the goats and Jesus is a goat-herd.
Maybe following Jesus in the new world will be very different.
God we come to you. As people who are often consumed by fear. We are overcome by obstacles tht we think are walls.
We lose faith
We lose hope
We lose our vision of who you are.
As the sun finally breaks through the fog
As the face of a friend finally breaks through the crowd
We ask for your care and compassion
But God we also ask for your challenge and encouragement
Provoke us to venture out
Out of our secure fold and help us to make a difference in the world
Help us to challenge the hatred and evil
With love and kindness
Help us to uplift the human race
We know you walk with us in our fear and in venture
We pray for those close to us
We repeat together the Lord’s Prayer
Our Father who art in heaven
Hallowed by thy name
Thy kingdom come,
thy will be done in earth as it is in heaven
Give us this day our daily bread
and forgive us our trespasses
as we forgive those who trespass against us
lead us not into temptation
but deliver us from evil
for thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory
forever and ever
Good Friday April 10, 2020
Scripture: Mark 15: 33-40
This sermon may be disconcerting for some as it confronts some statements of faith that are entrenched in our society. (Disclaimer – lol) My intention is to bring hope.
Good Friday is a very important day for me. It demonstrates the power of real commitment of Jesus. It demonstrates the power of love.
We often hear the words that “Jesus died for our sins,” especially on Good Friday. It is found in hymns, poems and art. I do not believe that statement to be true. I believe that Jesus died because he loved us. He loved the human race.
Years ago I published an article in the United Church Observer with a title “Jesus didn’t die for our sins – he died because of them” The editor said she had never got so much hate mail about anything in her life. I will copy from that article (Which I found out recently that it is being used in theology colleges, but I am not sure how. LOL)
I cannot believe that Jesus was sent by his father (God) to be cruelly tortured and become a blood sacrifice, to pay back a debt that Adam and Eve owed to the same God. If anyone in our society killed their own child for any reason we would have difficulty with that person. There is an exception, which people sometimes quote. It is a story about a railroad worker who sees his son on the tracks with a train coming. He has a choice to divert the train off the track, kill the people and save his son or let the train run over his son and save the people. This story has been used to say that God killed his son to save the people. The problem with that is that the railroad worker didn’t send his son out to the tracks. If a parent set up any situation to have their child killed, we would charge them with murder. I have difficulty worshipping a god who would orchestrate the death of a child.
The theology that this idea comes from goes back to the Creation Stories. The two creation stories have major differences (like the order of creation) and incongruences, (like who created the wives for Adam and Eve’s sons?) but both end with a story where the first couple get tempted by a talking snake. Because they are weak and fall for the deception of a speaking reptile, they eat from the tree of knowledge (there is no mention of an apple) and God gets angry.
God then condemns the human race to pain and death. God then holds onto this grudge for thousands of years until Jesus comes along. Even though in the Old Testament God tells his people he no longer wants blood sacrifices (Psalm 51:16) and especially human sacrifice, ( God prevents Abraham from killing Isaac his son) Apparently with Jesus, God changes views and demands a human blood sacrifice.
It may seem that I am being harsh on this theology but I believe it has done tremendous damage to our understanding of God and the way we treat each other. It also does much damage to Jesus’ commitment if he is merely a pawn in a cosmic argument.
There are other difficulties with this theology. The first is that because Jesus “died for your sins” you must now accept him as your saviour or you will spend an eternity is some type of fiery torture chamber. (Dante basically came up with this idea). The problem is that billions of people don’t qualify. What about the people who lived before Jesus? What about the people who never had exposure to Christianity? What about people who are too young or don’t have the mental capacity to understand the concept? Are all these people condemned through no fault of their own? We are told that everyone is a child of God but it seems that some are outcast simply because of where, when or how they came into this world.
Some churches have come up with bandage solutions to this while others merely state that if you aren’t with us you are condemned. It leads to a lot of judgementalism and prejudice.
Another concern is the type of image that this portrays of God? Jesus says to us that we should forgive 70 times 7, which is another way of saying always. Apparently God cannot forgive. God’s bottom line is not forgiveness and love but rather violence and revenge. If you don’t agree with God then all hell breaks loose – literally. We have been raised with the statement “God is love” yet this theology denies it.
That has repercussions in our social dynamics. The bottom line in our world is violence. After all if God’s bottom line is violence then ours will be too. By saying that God needs a blood sacrifice to right the wrongs, we are stating that love and forgiveness are not the most powerful forces.
During this pandemic I have heard people state that this is God’s punishment, for many different “social sins”. Strangely it turns out that it is never punishment for something they agree with.
A few years ago when we had the tsunami, I heard from some that it was the punishment for those people who were not Christian. I asked about a cathedral in the 1800’s that had been demolished by a tsunami while the people were in Christian worship. The answer was that they were not the right kind of Christians. It’s very handy if you worship a god who is going to punish everyone you disagree with.
We don’t need God to punish us when we do bad things. We can do a fine job of that ourselves. When we abuse our bodies, they will break down. When we abuse the earth, it will be destroyed. If we lie and cheat in our relationships, they will end. That is not God punishing us but rather the repercussions of our actions.
I believe that Jesus laid down his life of his own accord. Matthew 26: 52-54 He says “Do you not know I could call and my father would send legions of angels to protect me.” As he approached that time he prayed “My Father, If it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want” As with any person facing a dire and fearful moment, he wanted a different solution. He realised that given the world in which he lived there was no other solution. He had reached the point of no return. If he backed down now, all he had preached and done would be lost. If you stand up for something you truly believe in, you know there is a point of no return.
So why did this theology develop? It developed because it was safe for the institutions of power. When you look at the life of Jesus, you realise he was a rebel. He fought against authority whenever he felt it was wrong. He challenged the church and the government. He challenged the wealthy and the status quo. He challenged power. That became a problem after the church became the most powerful force in the world. The only way to maintain “Christianity” and power was to move Jesus’ focus into the next life. In reality Jesus rarely speaks of life after death. His directives were all about helping people now; feeding, caring, sharing, forgiving, and loving.
If we believe God to be a judge who would kill his own son – for the sins of some couple, then it is very difficult to turn to that God on Good Friday or on any day when we have been struggling. How can we turn to a god who would inflict pain and death, whether it is this pandemic or some personal grief?
If we realize that Jesus died because he truly loved and wanted, the human race to live in freedom; if we realize that he died because he really believes that love is more powerful than anything else; not to pay back some cosmic debt, then we realize that the Spirit of God walks with us through all our good and bad. God was not satisfied by the death of his son, God was saddened.
I believe that the God of love is always with us and encourages us to live fully.
God, on this day we recognize and remember the love that Jesus has for us. As we walk through difficult times, we recall his commitment to make our lives better, even at the cost of his own.
As we feel isolated, we feel his loneliness on the cross,
As we feel hurt, we become familiar with his pain,
As we feel useless, we understand his feeling of failure,
As we feel cheated of opportunities, we realize he was only 33.
As we cry out in anguish, we hear his fear of being forsaken.
Yet God, we know your Spirit walks with us. We know you share our pain. We know there is a resurrection. Christ rose and we will too.
Sermon on Pilgrimage for April 5