“The horizontal arms of the cross are the
two sides of every dilemma, the vertical line
is the third way, and the way through.”
The Gospel reading before us from this week’s lectionary is a famous one about sheep and goats from Matthew 25:31-46. It is a passage that has been used most often as a teaching illustration for the eternal separation of good from bad.
- The goats are the unbelievers
- The sheep are the believers
- The unbelievers go to hell
- The believers go to heaven
As a youngster, I liked the affirmation found in my assumed identity as one of the “good sheep.” While I pitied the eternal destiny of the “goats” around me, I have to admit there was a tinge of satisfaction in knowing that the “goat people” (those revelers in sin) were one day going to get what they had coming to them. I felt at home in the dualism found in the existence of a “TEAM US” vs. a “TEAM THEM”.
There is something very self-assuring about choosing a side and then “goatasizing” (scape-“goating”) those not on yours. In so doing, we sow seeds of violence and rivalry in our hearts and in the hearts of those we’ve identified as other.
What would it look like if we were able to come to our passage this week suspending the traditional manner in which some of us have entered this text? What if we were willing (as Christ often did) to dance a little, to take a breath and a step back for a more intentional look? Could it be that we’ll see something more profound that Christ is offering us here, rather than a simple statement on eternal destination?
Perhaps there is third way through, as opposed to the temptation to divide up the world so clearly into choices between two-sided moral dilemmas? The third way of Jesus moves us out of dualistic morality into the freedom of a whole new kind of relationality. Jesus locates himself among the goats of the world – those whom we tend to judge – and there among the disposed he invites us to learn to suspend our judgment. When read this way, Jesus is actually erasing the line between insiders and outsiders that divides the world neatly into sheep and goats.
At Street Psalms, we have a hunch that in many instances, the line between insiders and outsiders (us vs. them) is an invention of our own making. Often wielded like a sword of self-righteous judgment, it is far too common a tool of control forged from a worldview of scarcity.
Jesus isn’t simply telling us we’ll go to hell if we don’t visit prisoners. He’s telling us that there’s great peace found in encounter with and caring for the outcast, and that the greatest position of power is often found in engagement with those who, according to the parable, would be found on the left side with the goats.
Consider the missional implications of what Jesus is teaching here. Traditionally the church approaches mission with the idea that there are many unconverted people out there who need the Good News of Jesus Christ; therefore it is our responsibility to go to them for their benefit. This is certainly true, but what else might be happening as we go out there?
We discover Jesus….
The hungry, thirsty, and naked reveal to us the third way of Jesus that frees us from the very judgments we are so quick to make.
“Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”
Joel Van Dyke
Street Psalms Latin America
P.S. Please consider taking five minutes to meditate on the profound insight of Bryan Sirchio in his song “I See You,” written after an encounter with a little girl on the streets of Haiti.