When I was 12 years old, I wanted a goat in the worst way. I had spent time in the livestock barns at the Dutchess County Fair that summer and goats had quickly become my favorite animals there, especially the kids. I found them so cute, comical, friendly and intelligent. Long story short, when I returned home I begged my parents to let me fence in the backyard and get a goat, which they did not agree to. Though I was disappointed at the time, I am now quite sure that was the best decision they could have made, for everyone concerned!
As I was reading the lessons for this week, with all the talk about sheep and goats, I thought about that early affinity I had for goats. I wondered especially this week about why Jesus seems to be partial to sheep over goats in our Gospel. So I did a little research about the differences between them.
Wikipedia has this to say about goats:
“Goats are extremely curious and intelligent. They are also very coordinated and widely known for their ability to climb and hold their balance in the most precarious places. Due to their agility and inquisitiveness, they are notorious for escaping their pens by testing fences and enclosures …Due to their high intelligence, once a goat has discovered a weakness in the fence, it will exploit it repeatedly, and other goats will observe and quickly learn the same method. Goats will explore anything new or unfamiliar in their surroundings. They do so primarily with their lip and tongue which are adapted for seizing and grasping. This is why they investigate items such as buttons, camera cases or clothing (and many other things besides) by nibbling at them, occasionally even eating them. ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Goat#Behavior)
What is not to love about that? Unless of course you are the shepherd who is trying to keep the group of goats – known as a tribe of a trip of goats – together, or trying to keep them from eating things that could be deadly to them. Being a goat herd is nothing like being a shepherd apparently. Goats tend to want to go their own individual ways whereas sheep have a very strong clumping instinct especially in moments of danger or tension, and need very little encouragement to flock together.
Now many of us think of sheep as extremely dull animals with lower than average intelligence. But recent scientific research in Great Britain seems to show that evaluation of sheep to be a myth. An article this week in the London Daily Telegraph quotes a professor of neuroscience at the University of Cambridge as saying sheep have been greatly undervalued for their intelligence. Professor Jenny Morton says,
“Sheep have a reputation for being extremely dim and their flock behaviour backs that up as they are very silly animals when in a group – if there is a hole they will fall into it, if there is something to knock over, then they will knock it over.”
But the article goes on to tell how Professor Morton put a flock of seven normal Welsh Mountain sheep through a series of tests to examine their learning ability and found that they tested at the same level of intelligence as many monkeys, showing abilities in face and voice recognition, long term memory and even some capacities to plan ahead. (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/science/science-news/8335465/Sheep-are-far-smarter-than-previously-thought.html )
One succinct statement I read about the differences between sheep and goats:
“Sheep and goats tend to behave differently. Goats are naturally curious and independent, while sheep tend to be more distant and aloof.”
So, this week when I put all that information about sheep and goats into my still concussed brain alongside the images of sheep and goats from our scripture lessons for this Last Sunday of the church year, I did come away with what I think are some useful thoughts about what all of this means for us, gathered in here as the flock of Christ this morning.
First, I think I figured out why Jesus chose to describe the two groups being separated out by the End Time King as sheep and goats. The goats are calculating and the sheep are unaware. The goats are followers of God who nonetheless ignore the needs of the neighbor, while the sheep follow and are oblivious to how they are living out the call of God. Those traits seem to loosely line up with what I learned about the behavior of sheep and goats; goats preferring to go it on their own, and sheep preferring to stick together. Now we need to be clear I think that Jesus here is not condemning the goat like spirit of independence outright, nor is he saying the sheep like unawareness of flocking is the ultimate state of being. Rather he is focused on how those traits lead his followers to act toward the vulnerable and most powerless among them – those who are hungry, thirsty, strangers, sick or in prison. Clearly This End Time King who has also been their Good Shepherd is emphasizing here – as he has in so many other places in the Gospels- that care of those in need to take primacy in the community of his followers. And he goes on to say this is not just so his followers will be seen to be doing good, but also so that they will be closer to him. It is, he says, in the most vulnerable whom they seek to serve in his name that they will come face to face with Him. His second incarnation so to speak.
So where are we my friends? Are we with the sheep or the goats? Most likely we are somewhere in the middle – a hybrid of the two, most of us. And that is good, because sheep like qualities do not fit every bill. The community of faith needs independence of thought and spirit also. But when it comes to meeting Christ in those in need, we need to train ourselves to let our inner sheep come to the front. We need to lean into the instinct to flock together – to cultivate gathering with those who are defenseless as our knee-jerk reaction.
Of course it is simple to say all of this, but life as we live it; one frame at a time is messy and complicated. Inundated as we are with images or need from around our globe and requests for help filling our mailboxes, inboxes, Facebook news feeds and twitter accounts, how are we to know where to start, and what our limits should be in order to meet and serve our End time King?
For myself I find it essential to remember that the End time King who will meet me in the final day is the same Good Shepherd who is constantly with me each moment of every day. So the first thing I need to do each day is seek my Shepherd’s guidance; to ask for the quietness of mind to be lead to take the actions my Shepherd needs me to take to serve other sheep in his name and to come to know him more fully. I have come to recognize that this is a very different stance than just jumping out of bed and going willy- nilly into the day believing like a headstrong goat that my plans trump everyone else’s needs, or like a freaked out sheep that I have to meet every need of every sister or brother sheep. Seeking morning guidance does not have to be long and complicated, but I need it, even – no correct that – especially when I think I know what I should be doing. Quietly and calmly asking God to guide me in the morning – is a discipline that keeps me humble and helps me remember that I and not God, I am not the Good Shepherd; at best I have been entrusted with being one of the lead sheep.
The same is true for each of us – None of us is too special not to care about the others, and at the same time we are not expected to do it all. We are called to take time at the outset of each day to seek that guidance and direction from our Good Shepherd, and then to check in as often as we can throughout the day. So that at the end of the day we know him better, he knows us better and his good ends are served even if our plans have had to be let go of.
And when we can string a few of those days together, we find that we begin getting the feel of it in our bones, and it becomes easier to discern his voice above the din of all the others in our heads, and we develop holy habits that lead us to become less aware of the exercising of the discipline and more aware of the joy of his presence with us which this Gospel seems to promise will be ours forever as one day at a time we follow his lead, serving in his name and for the sake of his love. Amen+
Grace to you, and peace, from God our creator and our Lord and Savior Christ Jesus. Amen.
Thank you for a wonderful St. Paul’s Church Fair! It’s always good to see so many people crowding into St. Paul’s to rejoice in the great deals – in your generosity and abundance. And it’s good to see our community putting our hearts, minds, souls, and strength together into this wonderful project.
Jesus said, “For the kingdom of heaven is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money.
After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, `Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.’ His master said to him, `Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, `Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.’ His master said to him, `Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’
Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, `Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ But his master replied, `You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ ” — Matthew 25:14-30 NRSV
Today’s Gospel reading tells the story of our fair’s stuff – the merchandise we sell. Jesus offered us a good metaphor for our work in the fair. One person donated five books. Somebody else bought them. She put some money into our church treasury and joyfully took those books home to read them. So, like the five talents of the parable, those books’ value has more than doubled.
Another person donated two warm sweaters. They went to a family from Haverhill who were recently burned out of their apartment. So those sweaters have more than doubled their value, like the two talents.
And then, there’s that outgrown child’s coat, buried in the back of a closet someplace, that didn’t make it to the fair. Sometime soon it will go into the trash.
I once saw a machine that shreds trash for the incinerator. Since then when I hear the Gospel words “wailing and gnashing of teeth” I think of that noisy violent machine. It doesn’t care whether the thing thrown into it is a warm coat or a dirty paper plate. It reduces everything to nothing but fuel for the incinerator. That’s the fate of the old coat – to be no longer a coat.
This analogy to our fair is one way, and a perfectly good way, to read this parable. Jesus entrusts various assets to each of us. He gives us all kinds of assets: Time, Relationships, Health, Wealth. I’m sure you can think of other kinds of God-given assets.
What kind of gifts do you understand that God has given you? … Wisdom. Wondering. Grace (forgiveness).
What makes those gifts worth something? Sharing them, giving them to other people, receiving them from other people. Hidden in the back of your closet, they’re worthless. Flowing, moving, they build up God’s beloved community. The lesson of the parable is that Jesus yearns for us to use, not hoard, our assets.
The kingdom of heaven is as if we give away, and gratefully receive from each other the gifts we’ve been given. Gifts shared have limitless value. Gifts hoarded are worthless. That’s true, that’s all good, and the St. Paul’s fair is a wonderful way for us to put that generosity into action.
But still there’s something deeply troubling about this parable. First of all, in biblical times the value of a “talent” was epic – some say it was a skilled laborer’s wages for a thousand days. In our terms the parable would say “a million dollars,” not a “book” or a “coat.” The material stakes are very high.
For another thing, the treatment of the third servant is harsh. The master doesn’t symbolically shred the buried talent – the hoarded million dollars – into worthless rubbish. It’s the fearful servant who’s the worthless rubbish, not just the hoarded wealth.
That’s hard to hear for us. It tempts us to believe we’re worthless hopeless rubbish if we’re afraid to take risks. It tempts us to believe that we’re better than the fearful servant. You and I would never bury the treasure entrusted to us, would we? That’s for the other people. Right? Not really. If we’re honest with ourselves we admit that we’ve done that many times. Ouch.
It’s even worse. When we hear this it tempts us to think we can purchase the love of God by doubling God’s money, by being shrewd stewards of God’s abundance. It makes us want to buy our entrance into the joy of the master. But we know that God’s love is greater than our ability to buy it. The psalmist said it:
Our eyes look to the Lord our God, until he show us his mercy.
So, let us be very careful about reading this parable through a modern commercial stock-market or hedge-fund lens. Double our money, earn God’s love? No. Reading it that way will confuse us about where our treasure lies and cause us put our hearts in the wrong place.
To see the transformative power of this parable, let’s look at it in another way. Jesus’s – and Matthew’s — first audience lived under the yoke of the Roman imperial occupation.
Jesus taught this parable in the shadow of the cross, shortly before his death. Matthew’s readers lived in the immediate aftermath of the Roman destruction of Jerusalem. The occupying army just took whatever they wanted from those people. They would have been very wise to believe this about their masters, even if they didn’t often say it out loud:
Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid.
It would have been pointless and dangerous for a first-century slave to take risks for his master. Pointless, because if the slave succeeded, the master would just grab the proceeds. Dangerous, because if the slave failed, the master would punish the slave brutally. So the third slave was, by their conventional wisdom, the one who did the right thing.
There’s a book called Why Nations Failwritten a couple of years ago by James Robinson and Daron Acemoğlu, economists who teach at Harvard and MIT. They studied some present-day and historic civilizations. Throughout the history they studied, ordinary people in extractive cultures serving masters who “gather where they do not scatter seed” struggle with imagination. They have trouble imagining taking risks and being generous. They’re uncomfortable receiving transformative generosity and they don’t know how to dream of giving it.
For example, El Salvador has had an extractive economy since the time of the conquistadors. Our partners at Foundation Cristosal see these struggles in the people they work with. In the village of El Carmen they have problems with their water supply. But it doesn’t make sense for Cristosal just to pay a mechanic to go and repair their pumping station. Instead, the people living there, as they learn to imagine living with enough clean water, also can imagine learning to maintain their own pumps. They are gaining a vision like the first two slaves in our parable, who claimed the wealth they were given and put it to good use. They’re creating a community water company to ensure that they can care for their own needs.
To grasp just how transformative today’s parable is, let’s try to hear it as a way to overturn conventional wisdom to show what the realm of God is really like. To use St. Paul’s words, suppose the master in the parable was of the night or of darkness. In that case, when he returned he simply would have grabbed the wealth back from his slaves. He might have punished the ones who took risks. Enter into the joy of your master? No. No. The smart slave would have been the fearful slave.
But, in the realm of God, the master trusts the slaves, and rejoices when that trust is returned. The one who doesn’t trust the master already lives in darkness. For the people of Jerusalem this parable overturned conventional wisdom in an astounding way. And it does that for our world today.
The realm of God starts with this radical truth: God trusts you and me, and rejoices when we return God’s trust. Let us hope and pray that we, together with the people of El Carmen, and all the peoples of the world, can return the trust of God. The greatest asset we have is trust. That flowing river of trust is justice, and that ever-flowing stream of joy is righteousness – the justice and righteousness of God’s realm realized in Jerusalem, in El Carmen, right here, and everywhere. Trust God, for God trusts you. Amen.