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Joy, Misery, or Both?

This blog, the first of weekly ones I hope to write, is drawn from the Sunday lectionary for November 26. It is a reflection about sheep and goats:

31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 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. 33 He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. 34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ 40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’ 41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’ 44 “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’ 45 “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.' 46 “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.” (Mathew 25: 31-46 NIV)

I am always disturbed by this scripture about Jesus separating the sheep from the goats. I feel sorry for the goats who represent people who had no idea that they were lacking in empathy, compassion, generosity, and care for anyone else. They are cursed to burn in eternal fire. The sheep too have no idea that their unconscious compassion, empathy, and care of others is a blessing from God that will give them eternal life.

I’m probably part sheep and part goat. I sometimes give a homeless person a few bucks, but I have been warned not to do so because here in Ashland there are plenty of services to help them, and I am probably enabling poor behavior. So my sheep-like caring is in fact goatish. And though my gift is done out of compassion and a wish to help, it is also done because it makes me feel good.

I heard an interesting radio segment today about the Big Joy project. It’s a study that demonstrates that people who do micro-acts of joy experience greater well-being in many ways. Over 80,000 people have participated in this scientific study. Apparently, you fill out a simple questionnaire and then are given daily acts of kindness to help someone. Then you fill out another questionnaire about how it made you feel, how your relationships improved and more.

I have not participated, but this scientific study made me realize those sheep, the folks who actively and unconsciously go about trying to help others, are already experiencing the joy of eternal life. And those who have no heart for others are already condemned to misery here and now.

NADIA BOLZ-WEBER says in her sermon on sheep and goats: "I find it fascinating that the list I was provided for what Christians should do –never seemed to include feeding the hungry, caring for the sick, and welcoming the stranger. Which is why I love our Gospel text for today, the story of Jesus sitting as judge over everyone and deciding who was righteous based on their social justice agenda – I mean obviously that means that Jesus shares my opinions about social policy and that like me, Jesus also hates mean-spirited, greedy, people who don’t care about the poor. All of which feels amazing … until I really think about it. Because the righteous shine of the times I have given to the poor and fed the hungry and welcomed the stranger wears off pretty quickly as soon as I recall all the times I have failed to care for those in need, all the times I’ve chosen while stopped at a red light, to look at my iphone rather than look into the eyes of the hungry person needing help just 3 feet from my passenger’s side window." Read her sermon online.


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