Heaven or Hell
"When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left." (Matthew 25: 31-33)
It is not Heaven AND Hell, but heaven OR hell.
We are mixes of shadow and light, good and bad, goats and sheep.
Are you a goat going down to burn in hell or are you a sheep going up to sing joyously with the angels in heaven?
CS Lewis, the well-known Christian apologist, begins his book the Great Divorce which is about heaven and hell with a quote from a Scottish Congregational minister, George MacDonald: "No, there is no escape. There is no heaven with a little of hell in it—no place to retain this or that of the devil in our hearts or our pockets. Out Satan must go, every hair and feather."
CS Lewis makes the case of heaven as a place of justice, love and reunion with loved ones including our dogs, cats and pets. But HELL is a place where people become more and more isolated from one another, unwilling to help anyone and unwilling to accept an invitation into heaven.
The closer you become to God through right actions, right thoughts, compassion for the least of these, and fulfillment of your potential, the further you move away from hell into heaven. There is no yin and yang. As a sheep in the fold of Christ, you divorce hell and enter into heaven.
When I read this passage from the Gospel of Matthew about goats and sheep, I found myself thinking I'm probably a whole lot more like a willful goat than a passive sheep who quietly follows Jesus.
In the days when Hebrews were nomads who herded goats and sheep, both animals had importance for meat, milk, skins, and wool. At night goats were separated from the sheep and tied up so that they couldn't cause trouble with the sheep who were kept safely together in a pen.
Yet neither the goats nor the sheep know how they've earned their place with God, or NOT. The judgment, attributed to the Son of Man from the Gospel of Matthew when he comes into his glory, doesn’t sound like the Jesus I've learned about, the Jesus of miracles, lessons, kindness and healing.
This proclamation about the judgment of the nations was written by a Jewish man who lived in Antioch seventy years or so after the death of Christ. It was a time of Roman occupation after the destruction of the second Temple which must have been horrific, leaving only a portion of the Western wall standing. No doubt, this writer of the Gospel of Matthew was talking to his congregation of Christian Jews and former pagans, trying to keep them united. Perhaps for him the goats represented those cruel Roman occupiers. And perhaps he thought that those Jews who'd excluded his congregation from their synagogues also were goats, people who just didn't get it about Jesus and could not accept him as the Messiah.
Sometimes, though, tough love is necessary! But would Jesus really separate bad people from good people, self-centered goats from quiet caring sheep?
Remember the story about the ten lepers when Jesus was passing between Samaria and Galilee. He entered a village where he was met by ten lepers. They stood at a distance from him and lifted their voices, asking Jesus to have mercy on them. Jesus told them to go and show themselves to the priests. "And as they went, they were cleansed. Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice, and he fell on his face at Jesus' feet, giving him thanks. Now, he was a Samaritan. Then Jesus answered, "Were not ten cleansed? Where are the nine? Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?" and he said to him, "rise and go your way; your faith has made you well." (Luke 17: 11-19)
Jesus could have selected only that one man, the Samaritan, out of the ten to be healed, but he sent all of them to the priests to be cleansed of their disease.
Jesus exemplifies the need to care for the least of these, like that foreigner, a Samaritan man who would have been looked down upon by the Jews. This passage from Matthew about goats and sheep is a reminder of what people of faith ought to be doing. Any righteous Jew would care for widows and orphans and give gleanings from the harvest to the poor. And while Jesus does not personally, as far as we know, go into physical prisons he understands that people in prison are cut off from society and often left alone to cope with their feelings of anger, hopelessness, and despair.
In this parable about goats and sheep, it must have been a comfort to this flock of new Christians, former Jews and former pagans, that they are safe like sheep in the fold of Christ, and by following Christ they have earned a place in heaven on the honored right hand of God.
It is a reminder to all of us today to take stock of our own lives and our own actions as people of faith. It is up to us to take care of the least of these. Recently, a woman in Buffalo during the terrible freezing cold storm heard someone outside screaming. She ran out and saw a mentally ill white guy with his hands frozen to his tote bag. She was black. She brought the man into her house and used her hair dryer to unfreeze his hands. She’d called for emergency help, but they couldn’t get through the storm. So, she put aside her Christmas plans and she and her boyfriend cared for this man for three days until it was possible to get him to the hospital.
Remember, we are often the least of these but we are God’s beloved.
spiritual teacher Henri Nouwen (who I am paraphrasing slightly) says, "Listen to God's voice that says, “I have called you by name, from the very beginning. You are mine and I am yours. You are my Beloved, on you my favor rests. I have molded you in the depths of the earth and knitted you together in your mother’s womb. I have carved you in the palms of my hands and hidden you in the shadow of my embrace. I look at you with infinite tenderness and care for you with a care more intimate than that of a mother for her child. I have counted every hair on your head and guided you at every step. Wherever you go, I go with you, and wherever you rest, I keep watch. I will give you food that will satisfy all your hunger and drink that will quench all your thirst. I will not hide my face from you. You know me as your own as I know you as my own. You belong to me. I am your father, your mother, your brother, your sister, your lover and your spouse . . . yes, even your child . . . wherever you are I will be. Nothing will ever separate us. We are one.”  [see Mark 1:9–11].
Heaven or Hell is a choice. It will not be easy, but by becoming a follower of Christ, you are choosing heaven. It will be a process and not a done-deal. But you will be on the path to life-giving spiritual freedom.