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11/15/2009 - Tom Head - St. Margaret's Day

posted May 21, 2010, 6:44 PM by Unknown user   [ updated May 21, 2010, 6:45 PM by Terry Brady ]
Let the words of my mouth, and the meditation of my heart, be acceptable in your sight, O LORD, my strength, and my redeemer. Amen.

There’s nothing like being asked to preach to give one a new appreciation for those of us like Caron and Sandy and Susan who do it often. This is the third time in the past ten years or so I’ve been asked to speak from this pulpit, and it doesn’t get easier or less intimidating.

I was heartened when I saw today’s gospel reading, the parable of the sheep and the goats, which seems almost to have been written for St. Margret’s and for St. Margaret’s Day. One of the things that we all love about St. Margaret’s is that our parish takes very seriously its obligation to care for those less fortunate than ourselves. Through Charlie’s Place alone, Tom Goss tells us in the Magpie this month, we have served 19, 673 meals this year to the hungry. We are organizing ourselves to provide Thanksgiving dinner for the families of 80 students at Marie Reed School. We are buying Christmas presents for 50 families at Mary’s Center. I think it’s safe to say that few parishes of our size can match us in the area of outreach.

This parable talks about a great separation of nations that will occur at the end of time. When that separation occurs, we like to think that our deeds of mercy and kindness will put us pretty firmly in the “sheep” category, on the right hand of the throne of the Son of Man. It seems pretty clear. Feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, give clothes to those who need them, visit the sick and those in prison, and we will take our place in the kingdom prepared for us since the foundation of the world. Fail to do these things, and we are cursed, spending eternity in the fire prepared for the devil and his angels.

But I soon realized that this parable is really not that simple, Jesus’ parables often defy easy explanation, and this one is possibly more complex than most. The sermons and commentaries on this parable seem to fall into two categories. The first group starts by staying that in order to understand this parable, we need to understand more about the role of sheep and goats in first-century Palestine. My own acquaintance with sheep and goats has been largely at the dinner table in the form of roasts, so I’ll pass on the opportunity to comment on the pastoral economy of Jesus’ time.

The second category of commentary seems to be devoted to saying that Jesus didn’t really mean what he appears to say here. This is a scripture passage that is particularly troubling for our evangelical brothers and sisters. It seems to imply—well, it doesn’t seem to imply, it states pretty baldly—that in the final analysis, we will be judged and rewarded on the basis of our good works. It’s not our faith or our church attendance or our beliefs that count. The idea of justification by faith alone is central to the entire Protestant reformation, and this passage stands as a troubling contradiction to that doctrine.

So let’s look at the text of the passage a little more closely. Because the passage is known as the parable of the sheep and the goats, we often fail to notice that there are three, not just two groups of people involved. There are the sheep, there are the goats, and there are those referred to as “the least of these, my brothers.” We are accustomed to thinking of the “least of these” as representing all of suffering humanity, but it’s possible, at least, that Jesus had a more specific group in mind.

Earlier in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus is told that his mother and brothers are outside, wanting to speak to him. Jesus replied: "Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?" Pointing to his disciples, he said, "Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother." Matthew 12:46-50

It’s possible in this parable, then, that the King is judging the nations not on the basis of their care for all of suffering humanity, but that the brothers referred to are the disciples—that the King is judging the nations on the basis of how they have treated his followers, not how they have treated everyone who suffers.
It is interesting too that the group referred to as “these my brothers” does not seem to be part of either the sheep or the goats. They are a separate group that does not seem to be subject to judgment. This would seem to me to lend credence to the idea that Jesus had a smaller group in mind here than all of suffering humanity.
So this remains a question about the parable: Are the nations going to be judged according to how they treated the poor and the hungry, or are they going to be judged according to how they treated Jesus’ followers? It’s difficult to say with any certainty.

Another interesting detail in this parable is that both the sheep and the goats seem genuinely surprised at the outcome of the judgment. It’s a little bit more understandable that the goats would be puzzled. They have lived their lives without exercising mercy, either because they didn’t know they were supposed to or because they just neglected to do it—they have left undone those things that they ought to have done. But the righteous are equally surprised. The righteous say: 'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?' They have done these good deeds without being aware that they will be judged by them. The good deeds done by the sheep seem not to have been done for the sake of doing good deeds. They seem to be a natural and indelible part of who the sheep are.
It’s hard, finally, to say what this parable means. Who are the nations? Who are the sheep? Who are the goats? Who are “the least of these my brothers”? What does it mean that the sheep and the goats do good deeds or fail to do good deeds without knowing it? Its meaning is certainly more complex than “Do good deeds and you’ll go to heaven.”

But, it seems to me, there are certain things we can say about this parable with fair amount of certainty. Like every other single story in the Bible, we must try, if we are to avoid proof-texting, to read it in the entire context of the gospel. It is certainly true that concern for the poor is one of the cornerstones of our faith. It’s a theme that runs consistently through the Bible. The passage from Isaiah that we heard this morning is a good example from the Hebrew Scriptures. I haven’t done this count myself, but I’ve read that one in sixteen verses in the Bible is about poverty. In the first three Gospels, the number is one of every nine verses. The question of sex, which parts of our church seem to be obsessed with, doesn’t get nearly as much attention. I think it’s safe to say that concern for the poor is a cornerstone of our faith.

I think another thing that it’s safe to say is that we can’t save up our good deeds with the intention of eventually buying our way into heaven. Our faith is not like a retirement account that we make contributions to with the expectation that we will eventually be able to live out our eternal lives in some celestial Sunshine Acres.
I saw an interesting review of a new book in last week’s New York Times Book Review. The book, by a political science professor at New York University named Bruce Bueno de Mesquita, is called The Predictioner’s Game, and the subtitle is Using the Logic of Brazen Self-Interest to See and Shape the Future. His theory is that it’s possible to predict the future by assuming that people will act in what they perceive to be their own self-interest. Mother Teresa went about doing good deeds. She did them because she expected an eternal reward in heaven. I’m quoting here: “It makes sense,” Bueno de Mesquita writes, “to pay the price of sacrifice for the short, finite time of a life span if the consequence is a reward that goes on for infinity in heaven. In fact, isn’t that exactly the explanation many of us give for the actions of suicide bombers, dying in their own prideful eyes as martyrs who will be rewarded for all eternity in heaven?” Mother Teresa—suicide bombers—morally equivalent because both are sacrificing themselves for the sake of spending eternity in heaven. It’s a ghastly perversion of our Christian faith.

One of the saints of our church is the late Verna Dozier, who spoke several times here at St. Margaret’s before her death in 2006. In her book The Dream of God, she quotes from T. S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral: The last temptation is the greatest treason: 
To do the right deed for the wrong reason. Jesus did good deeds, Miss Dozier points out. He fed the hungry, gave drink to the thirsty, healed the sick, but his motivation was compassion, identification with their suffering.
Perhaps the complexities of this parable are a way of keeping us from absolutizing good deeds, as Jesus refuses to absolutize them.

The sheep and the goats are asked no questions about what they believe. The only thing that counts is what they have done.

“The important question to ask,” Verna Dozier tells us, “is not ‘What do you believe?’ but ‘What difference does it make that you believe?’ Does the world come nearer to the dream of God because of what you believe?” Belief must lead to action
We remember St. Margaret today because of her good deeds and acts of mercy, but it is important to remember that Turgot, her biographer, treated her charity and her prayerfulness in the same chapter. One was part and parcel of the other:
“To prayer and fasting, she joined the gifts of mercy. For what could be more compassionate than her heart? What more gentle to the needy? Not only would she give her goods to the poor, but if she could, she would have freely given herself.”
Margaret had a selfless devotion to the faith and an integration of faith and life that most of us can only aspire to. Her good deeds were acts of worship, spiritual acts growing from the compassion that was part of her faith.

I am very proud to be a part of this community and its commitment to social justice. I think that when we next read the parable of the sheep and the goats, we can be certain that we are not among the goats—we do feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the needy. But are we among the sheep? I think we’re getting there, but that the condition of sheep-dom something we must continue to aspire to. My prayer for St. Margaret’s is that we will continue to grow into our role as sheep, that we become a flock with faith so deep and so consuming that our outreach will be an act of worship, that will be no need for separate pages on our web site that describe our worship and our outreach. They will be the same thing, growing out of our commitment to following the Good Shepherd.

It’s a difficult commitment, but, as the prophet Isaiah assures us, God will smile on our efforts:
if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday.

11 The LORD will guide you always; the Lord will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land 
and will strengthen your frame. You will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail.