Commentary for November 20, 2011Click here for today’s readings
In honor of completing the first full year of our “Bubba Blog” — today the Bubbas are switching roles. Commentary by Dr. Bubba #1, aka Delmer and Sermon by Dr. Bubba #2, aka John (the Baptist).
First, a quote from N.T. Wright’s latest SIMPLY JESUS: A new vision of who he was, what he did, and why he matters.
I found it to be a thought provoking read leading into the Advent-Christmas-Epiphany-lent-Easter cycle.
“…God is now in charge, and he is in charge in and through Jesus. That is the vision that explains what Jesus did and said, what happened to Jesus, and what his followers subsequently did and said. And what happened to them too.
But here is the puzzle — the ultimate puzzle of Jesus. This puzzle boils down to two questions.
First, why would anyone say this of Jesus, who had not done the things people expected a victorious king to do? Why, indeed, did Jesus end up being crucified with the words “King of the Jews” above his head? And why would anyone, three minutes, three days, or three hundred years after that moment, ever dream of taking it seriously?
Second, what on earth might it mean today to speak of Jesus being “king” or being “in charge,” in view of the fact that so many things in the world give no hint of such a thing?
(SIMPLY JESUS, HarperOne, 2011, p. 55)
Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24
It’s CHRIST THE KING Sunday, so why are we reading about sheep and shepherds? As Wright often observes, the story of Jesus is dense with images and symbols from the life of the Hebrew people; images and symbols which weave in and out of one another. This text invokes the image of a shepherd because Israel’s king was supposed to be take care of the people the way a shepherd took care of the sheep. Interwoven with this is the image of David the shepherd boy as the model of kingship and the failure of subsequent kings to be good shepherds. In verses 20-24, Ezekiel shows us God taking over and making “David,” the true shepherd.
All this imagery was remembered and discussed by the early church as they meditated upon the meaning of what they had seen and heard in the life of Jesus.
“He is our God, and we are the people of his pasture, the sheep of his hand.” (vs.7, CEV) What if we acted like we really believed that? One day Katy Luther met Martin at the door in her funeral clothes. Surprised, Martin said, “Who died?” Katy said, “Well, I assumed God was dead, the way you’ve been moping around all depressed and defeated acting.” (Delmer version) How would our attitudes and actions change if every day we read and sang these first 7 verses of Psalm 95? “The LORD is a great God, a great king over all other gods.” (vs.3, CEV) I know if I could get that deep in my gut, I would certainly worry less, risk more and sleep better.
Obviously this text was chosen for REIGN OF CHRIST Sunday because of the wonderful, hymnic refrain of verses 20-24 that builds into a crescendo of praise and prophecy. Images of glory and power roll over top of one another. If you listen closely as it’s read out loud you can almost hear marching feet keeping time and the perfect singing of an angelic chorus soaring above the rooftops. And then, imagine these words being read for the first time to a huddled group of nobodies; foreigners, slaves and women, perhaps in a dingy room in a small house late at night, or down by the river in a cold and dewy dawn. One would have to have “the eyes of your heart enlightened,” (vs. 18, NRSV) to see Christ as King under such circumstances.
While the issue of judgment dominates most of our thinking about this parable, I have long been fascinated by a minor theme; the fact that neither the sheep nor the goats recognized the LORD in the face of the poor. Often-times we are encouraged to be good to the poor because a) in so doing we are serving Christ Himself, b) in so doing we are earning credit with the Father in Heaven or c) because Jesus liked and cared for poor and sick people we should like and serve them too. None of these positions respects the poor or considers them worthy of our attention in and of themselves, and none of them recognizes the fact that a person might have compassion for others without a self-interested benefit accruing. What if the point of the parable is that while the goats are uninterested in the plight of the poor, the sheep are disinterested in what others (including God) think about their care for the poor? “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.” (Mt. 5:8, NRSV)
by the Rev. Dr. John P. Fairless
My first trip through seminary was as a church music student at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. I was privileged to serve as what was known as a “Missions Apprentice” for our Home Mission Board – which meant that they paid me a small stipend to serve as the minister of music and youth at a brand new congregation in rural Oldham County. I learned a lot serving that church in the early 1980’s; I also met some fascinating people.
One of the people I met was songwriter Darrel Adams, who – in those days – was in the vanguard of the emerging “Contemporary Christian Music” movement. I liked Darrel’s stuff, though he never really hit the big time when it was all said and done. But it was one of his little impromptu ditties – a song just for fun – that has stuck with me through all of these years. One of the stanzas went like this:
“I don’t want to be a goat – nope!
I don’t want to be a goat – nope!
Live a life without hope? Nope!
I don’t want to be a goat.”
Curious how after 30 years that tune comes back into my mind when I consider the gospel reading for today. I must admit that all of this talk about sheep and goats is more than a little unsettling.
Most preachers – and most parishioners, I would imagine – aren’t that comfortable with the images of judgment and punishment contained here. We really don’t want to presume too much about our own place in the kingdom of God – much less anyone else’s!
It is much more comforting to stick with Ezekiel’s image of the “good shepherd” – seeking for his lost sheep, bringing them home from the darkness and the cold. Lying down in the soft pasture grass, eating richly, drinking sumptuously – now THAT’S the image of the kingdom we like!
[Well, there is that nasty business about fat sheep and lean sheep – but who really wants to be bothered about that?]
I suppose it’s all part and parcel of the sheep and shepherd image. Like most situations in life – and the Bible is always about real life – you have to take the good along with the bad. Apparently, you can’t count yourself among the sheep, living under the care of the shepherd, if you’re not willing to put up with a few head butts and flank jabs!
I’m not really an agrarian, pastoral type of person in the literal sense of the word. I did not grow up on a farm, though I was close enough to my grandfather’s farm to have experienced cows and pigs – but not sheep or goats.
So, I did what any self-respecting preacher looking for research material does – I went to the internet! What I discovered was that it was not that uncommon in biblical times for sheep and goats to be herded together. The two species share some common DNA and characteristics – though there are a number of differences, as well.
Both provided necessary items for the economy of the day: skins, meat, milk. In the case of sheep, they also provided wool – which was the main reason for separating the flock at shearing time.
Sheep to the right; goats to the left; it is the job of the shepherd to send each creature to its appropriate fate. It’s really as simple as that.
Not that the sheep are good and the goats are bad – they just are what they are!
Which is kind of the way it is with the Lord’s people, I suppose. Though I have never been much of a Calvinist (too much Arminian background in my theological line of descent) – when it comes to this passage, I see that Calvin kind of has a point!
A goat can no more produce wool than a sheep can stop it from growing in. To do otherwise is simply contrary to the nature of either.
Jesus says that the unrighteous person can no more produce the fruits of righteousness – actions like feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and those in prison – than those who belong to him can keep from doing so.
This gospel challenges our preconceived notions of how God does God’s work in the world…no matter which way we preconceive that God ought to do it!
We often make this story into a call for action, as if our choosing can somehow make us includable on the sheep list (especially if we have lived life somewhat goatishly!) We may even demonize those among us who, from our purported sheepish perspective, live goat-like lives of unconcern and callousness toward the needs of the “least of these.”
We may want to make both sheepishness and goatishness about our belief in Jesus (or lack thereof) – so we pin the eternal destiny of the soul on whether we have heard the gospel in its correct form, responded with the correct prayer, and lived our lives in the correct way.
Maybe, just maybe, we have all missed the point!
God has loved the world – passionately and completely – and in Jesus Christ has given every ounce of God’s self to us and for us. As God’s people, we are in turn to give ourselves away in the same kind of love: one loaf of bread, one cup of cold water, one pair of warm socks, one face-to-face encounter at a time.
We can do that, every time we see one of the least of these, and trust that when it’s sheep-sorting time in the kingdom of heaven – the Great Shepherd/King will know exactly which way to send us.