Of Sheep, Goats, WWJD, and Jimmy Carter

In all actuality, we don’t know for sure. We do know what the author of the Gospel According to Matthew wrote. And we know what the other synoptic authors Mark and Luke wrote, and we have the Gospel of John. We also know their sources and approximately when the gospels were recorded. We know that they recorded many of the same events in different words, chronology and for differing theological purposes.

The gospel lesson from Matthew for the last Sunday of the Christian year, Christ the King Sunday, November 24, 2002, features the great judgment, the later half of the twenty-fifth chapter. Forty or so years after the historical event, Matthew records the words as the last of Jesus’ discourses on the Realm of God before Jesus’ suffering, death, and resurrection. We know that from that distance, exact quotation is very, very difficult. Ever play the telephone game? We can’t quote accurately what we just heard. Try it after all those years.

We also know that as the centuries passed and as the gospel spread through Europe, interpretation of the texts was westernized. People in the West looked at the Semitic text through the eyes of Greek rational thought, through logic and reason. We took the Semitic world’s common literary forms of speech and gave them a literal interpretation. We converted the poetry into prose, so to speak. In the West’s eyes, Matthew describes a final judgment of the dire of consequences for the “unrighteous” goats as opposed to paradise for the “righteous” sheep in a time beyond this life–eternity being a logical extension of time after death. The task is to get through the West’s incrustations of literalism to Matthew’s record of Jesus’ sayings–and what Jesus may have meant by those sayings.

WMJHM–What Might Jesus Have Meant?

While the attempt to get to the original words of Jesus might prove futile, we might understand Matthew’s interpretation of Jesus’ meaning by exploring the continuity in thought and imagery in this passage, in other kingdom sayings, and in Jesus’ other comments on God as self-sacrificial Parent. In other judgment parables of the kingdom recorded by Matthew, such as the Wedding Feast (which is actually two distinct parables merged by Matthew) and the Ten Bridesmaids, Jesus was not above using Mediterranean scare tactics. It is as if he is shouting, “Hey, wake up! This is important!” Such language actually is used in Mark 13, Matthew’s source, where Mark records, “Beware, keep alert” (vs. 33) and “And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake” (vs. 37). For their ungratefulness, the wedding guests were murdered by the king, the man wearing the wrong clothes was summarily banished to utter darkness (just because he wore the wrong clothes, clothes which he hadn’t had time to change), and the unprepared bridesmaids were locked out of the wedding banquet, presumably to sit endlessly in the cold darkness of the forest.

Jesus spoke metaphorically, picturesquely, vividly, as Middle Eastern people did and still do. Call it Semitic exaggeration. It is a great teaching technique. Jesus spoke of the blindness, dullness, unawareness of those who miss what the Realm of God is all about. It has been suggested that the metaphor “utter darkness” means “half awake” or drowsy. The point is that the thought of God, if one allegorizes the king in the Wedding Banquet parable, as a murderer, directly conflicts with Jesus’ revelation of God as Abba, or benevolent parent who loves all children.

Allegorizing or literalizing the sayings and aphorisms of Jesus is dangerous business.

What might that last judgment message mean? We might take a glance at the context of the Greek word for eternal in this passage. In vs. 46, eternal modifies both punishment and life. When aiwnios (from aiwn or aeon or age), the Greek for eternal, modifies the word for punishment, as in verse 46, the reference is to this aeon or age or, simply, temporal time (Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Kittle, ed., vol. 1, 209). The same applies to verse 41 where the imagery is of an eternal fire. Interestingly, the King James Version comes closer to catching the thought than does the New Revised Standard Version. The NRSV simply translates aiwnion (adjectival) as eternal for fire, punishment, and life. Aiwnion is translated “everlasting” in the KJV when it modifies punishment or fire. But even the KJV does not go far enough in showing that the reference is to this age, to temporal time, which does indeed have a beginning and an end. Paradoxically, the punishment would be everlasting in this age.

However, in the KJV, that same word aiwnion is translated “eternal” when referring to zoe, or the kind of life one has in God. When the word aiwnios refers to the realm of God, it refers not to temporal human time, but to an aeon or age of God (Kittle, vol. 1, 206-09). The reference is to a quality of existence that is experienced here and now in the midst of time and space but whose source and duration extends beyond time and space. The Realm of God is the experience of eternity now–not in its fullness, to be sure, which is yet to be, but in sufficient measure to know what it is. Indeed, it is like love, particularly unconditional love. We are aware of it, we experience it, but it isn’t seen, and it certainly isn’t limited to time or space. The temporal age (and the everlastingness limited to it) passes away. The eternal age remains.

If this concurs with the themes running through the kingdom parables, Jesus was metaphorically pulling the leg of the listeners in a most serious way. The goats burn in their temporal life: they suffer the punishment of experiencing life only in this temporal age without benefit of knowing life in the age of God. In short, they doomed themselves to go through life stupefied, unaware of the zoe, the life that is God’s realm. Jesus suggested that the “unrighteous” goats weren’t living in the Kingdom of God; they were not enjoying eternal living in the presence of God. They were–like those in other parables, in the metaphor of “outside”–in “utter darkness.” The “righteous” sheep live already in the Realm of God, and they experienced eternal bliss amid the temporal now. The quality of the eternal is the quality of experiencing God, of inhabiting God’s realm. The “righteous” sheep experience “life eternal” because they dwell in the kingdom of God.

WMHBIFJ — What Might Have Been Important for Jesus?

My hunch is that the important part of this narrative is not judgment or punishment (that was to get the listeners’ attention). Rather, the emphasis falls on human action that leads in one direction or the other–charitable acts versus the absence of charitable acts. Jesus, the Son of Man (humanity), represents all the children of humanity. What Jesus is, humanity is, and as such, humanity is deserving of whatever it is Jesus deserves. Jesus identified with the downtrodden. Therefore care for the downtrodden is care for Jesus. From the perspective of the resurrection, which is Matthew’s perspective, this Son of Man is king and lord. Matthew is saying that if you love this king and lord but don’t care for the ones the king identified with as the Son of Man, you don’t love the king. Though he may never have identified himself as king or lord, Jesus does identify with suffering humanity and urges his listeners to care for them. Doing so, and doing so without calculation, brings its own reward: the joy that comes from living as Jesus lived–in God’s Realm.

Not doing so also brings its own punishment. Interestingly, the goats knew Jesus and called him Lord. They were believers. Jesus is also quoted as saying, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven” (Matthew 7:21). The “unrighteous” believing goats never thought of caring for the downtrodden and never identified them with Jesus, thereby missing the identity of Jesus and missing life in God’s realm. Instead of life in that realm, they live the dull, shadowy nonexistence of selfishness and self-preoccupation. Their punishment is living with their egos as god.

WWJD — What Would Jimmy Do?

Recently, former president Jimmy Carter and his wife Rosalyn spoke to a large group of distinguished professionals and academics (carried on C-span). They described the work of the Carter Foundation and Rosalyn Carter’s work in promoting the understanding of mental illness. On a worldwide basis, the Carters undertake extensive work to help the poor, the starving, the underprivileged, the downtrodden, vulnerable children, and those incarcerated unjustly. They also labor to promote international understanding to avert war and promote peace. The couple was always respectful of each other, never interrupting when the other was speaking. Nor did they once draw attention to themselves. It was always the work. Responding to questions from the audience, they answered with humility and a sense of humor. One person, a social worker who struggles with maintaining motivation in light of daunting tasks, asked the Carters what kept them going, what sustained them. It was then, only after being asked, that President Carter at the request of his wife, answered the question. It was a humble and forthright answer, and it was the deepest, most moving witness to the Christian faith that I have ever heard.

WDJS — What Did Jimmy Say?

To paraphrase (playing my own Matthew to Jimmy’s Jesus), I heard Mr. Carter shift the focus away from himself to simply state that, one, he believed in a God of love and, two, that if he is to follow Jesus in revealing that loving God, then he strives for peace, mercy, and justice for those who have been denied those things. He said that, in the end (now, there’s a theological concept), what you wear, how much money you have in the bank, how big your house is, and how many cars reside in the garage don’t matter. The important things are what you can’t see, like love, sacrifice, and compassion.

What matters is loving others. Mr. Carter was simply repeating what St. Paul wrote:

“. . .the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments. . .are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’ ” (Romans 13: 8-9), and even more emphatically, “The entire law is summed up in a single command, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself'” (Galatians 5:14). Love is self-sacrificial action. That’s what counts for Jesus and Paul.

After a moment of silence, the audience (a secular not a religious gathering) erupted in thunderous applause and gave the Carters a standing ovation. You could see that Jimmy and Rosalyn Carter were people at peace and spiritually fulfilled. Carter himself seemed to have a sort of radiance about him, an aura even. He knew well what it is like to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, tend to the sick, visit the prisoners. Obviously, it has its own reward. He seemed like a person who has walked with God in the Realm, eternally, now.

We live in a world of wars and rumors of wars, of greed, gluttony, and all the other deadly sins. I think living, individually and collectively, limited only to that experience has its own punishment.

The parable is universal. All the nations of the world were gathered before the Son of Man, Matthew tells us. All nations, all people, all religions: sheep and goats, light and dark, awake and asleep, alert and drowsy, kingdom dwellers and those who dwell “you know where”–now.

Robert E. Dahl is a specialized interim minister in the Reformed Church in America. He lives in Holland, Michigan.