Appointing Ourselves Shepherd

Yesterday’s Gospel is one we are all familiar with, the judgment passage in Chapter 25 of St. Matthew’s Gospel, where Jesus talks about the separation of the “sheep” and “goats” at judgment. Rev. Neil Willard began his sermon at St. Stephen’s Episcopal yesterday morning by confessing that he doesn’t like this passage very much, which certainly caught my attention, as it is a passage I mention not infrequently in talks I give. But as I listened to him speak, the reason for his reaction resonated.

I think Neil is quite right that it is all too easy for us, when we hear this story, to feel both self-satisfied and judgmental. Everyone, he suggested, can listen to that passage and come up with a good reason why they are the sheep. And in his sermon, he gave some good examples of how liberal Christians, conservative Christians, Victorian Christians, and Christians of any other stripe would read the passage in a way that would convince them that they were on the right side of the divide. He also suggested, again, I suspect, quite rightly, that they would each feel a bit of satisfaction (perhaps glee is more like it) that the “goats” would get what they deserved.

That helps explain Neil’s negative reaction to the passage. While the passage may not exactly invite us to put ourselves in the role of shepherd, it often has that effect. We too easily grab that shepherd’s staff out of Jesus’ hand and set ourselves up as the judge of who is in and who is out, a judgment that invariably puts us in and others out.

The truth is, as Neil suggested, we all have some goat in us as well as sheep and we are all in need of God’s grace. He ended his sermon with a beautiful image, that I will hold with me. Referencing the Gospel passage where Jesus is accused of being friends with tax collectors and sinners (a comforting image to those of us who see ourselves clearly), Neil imagined himself standing before God on the day of judgment, head bowed in anguish at ways he felt he had failed to measure up. And in that moment, he said he imagined Jesus putting his arm around him saying, “This one’s with me.”

When we listen to this passage, it is good to remember both that we can’t separate the sheep and the goats (that is God’s task) and that we all need God’s grace. And, like Neil, I live with the desire to feel Jesus’ arms around my shoulders, telling his Father, “This one’s with me.”