Sunday, January 3, 2016

When I Heard the Learn’d Theologian

My previous post, "A Matter of Interpretation," alludes to the parable of the sheep and the goats at the end. A number of years ago I had occasion to write a sort of sermon on that parable after hearing someone else present an actual sermon on it. I think that episode is worth sharing now. -- Joel Marks

When I Heard the Learn’d Theologian

The Sheep and the Goats
 31 "When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.
 34 "Then the King will say to those on his right, 'Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.'
 37 "Then the righteous will answer him, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?'
 40 "The King will reply, 'I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.'
 41 "Then he will say to those on his left, 'Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.'
 44 "They also will answer, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?'
 45 "He will reply, 'I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.'
 46 "Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life."
Matthew 25 (New International Version),

When I heard this parable preached at a Lenten service, I was much gratified. What a beautiful testimony of ecumenism! There I was, a Jew by birth, an atheist by temperament, a Buddhist by conviction, listening to a passage from the New Testament to which I could nod in complete agreement. I did not for a moment take the story in any literal sense, but I also could not object if anybody else did. For the message was totally benign; and if I should one day wake up dead and witness the very spectacle with my own spiritual or physically reconstituted eyeballs, I would not be displeased.
            Imagine my surprise, then, when the lay preacher proceeded to parse the passage in a partisan way. He explained that the sheep were those who had accepted Jesus as Christ and the goats those who had not. I had to rub my mental eyeballs: Were we reading the same text? For I take it to be saying exactly the opposite, that even those who had not recognized “the King” in this life could be blessed.
It is true that all in the passage address the Son as “Lord,” but I imagine that would be the spontaneous form of address if you suddenly came upon a majestic figure seated on a heavenly throne. Sort of like being ushered before the person in the black robe seated behind a raised desk in a courtroom; we all know to address her as “Your Honor.”
The more significant point is that none of the people before him claimed to have “seen” him in their daily dealings down below. These are the people from “all the nations”; we may presume that includes Chinese, Indians, Iroquois, Israelites, you name it. There were no Christians when Jesus spoke, but throw them in too if you like since he was presumably talking about the End of Time. It does not change the import of the story one iota, for the question is whether the people, nominally Christian or not, were truly Christian in their treatment of other people.
What is it to be truly Christian? Analogous to my shock and disappointment upon hearing the lay speaker’s interpretation of this story is my continual amazement at how many Christians declare that the one and only litmus test is whether you believe that Jesus rose from the dead. That can certainly be given all sorts of symbolic meaning to inspire one’s life; but usually it is asserted literally. Christ is the One Way. If you don’t “get” that or “buy into” it hook line and sinker – virgin birth, walking on water, and all – then you aren’t a Christian. And if you do, you are.
Baloney. This very parable is the antidote to that way of thinking. What counts is the quality of your heart. Do you spontaneously and without thought of any reward, heavenly or otherwise, help the needy? If so, you are a Christian. If not, not. Indeed, what better “proof” could there be of the purity of one’s motive than precisely not to realize what eternal consequence may be awaiting you for the simple acts of feeding the hungry and clothing the naked?
The theological heart of this message can be found elsewhere in Matthew (22):

36 "Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?" 37 Jesus replied: " 'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.' 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments."

… and even more to the point in Galatians (5):

14 The entire law is summed up in a single command: "Love your neighbor as yourself."

This says nothing about obeisance to Christ as such. Indeed, it invites the atheist as well; for the crucial love in question is purely secular. The religious see such love as tantamount to love of God, but it need not be explicitly so. Is that not the most natural, plain reading of all of the passages of Scripture quoted above? Is that not the whole point of Jesus’s catholic teaching? Is it not the original defining feature of Christianity, namely, that it does not place emphasis on tribal loyalties and sectarian divides?
I have only one improvement to suggest on the parable, namely, that it explicitly include the most vulnerable and innocent population of all: other animals. Christianity has been notoriously lame about this (and despite its employment of animals in parables, stories, and metaphors – goats and sheep indeed!). This quotation from Milan Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being (Harper & Row, 1984) pretty much sums it up, I think:

"True human goodness, in all its purity and freedom, can come to the fore only when its recipient has no power. Mankind's true moral test, its fundamental test (which lies deeply buried from view), consists in its attitude towards those who are at its mercy: animals. And in this respect mankind has suffered a fundamental debacle, a debacle so fundamental that all others stem from it." (Part 7 ("Karenin's Smile”), Chapter 2, p. 289)

Let us all return to the Garden together. Amen.

P.S. I also see the parable of the sheep and the goats as implicit testimony to the idolatry of raising Jesus the human to Christ the god, indeed, God incarnate. Thus, the parable undercuts the mainstream interpretation of Christianity itself, and even brings the true Christianity into alignment with Buddhism (not to mention, Judaism and atheism). For this parable provides an exquisite way to understand one of Buddhism’s most characteristically paradoxical-seeming sayings: “When you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.”