The last third of the 25th chapter of Matthew gives us the story of Jesus coming in glory to separate the “sheep,” who have done nothing but good deeds and are thus rewarded by getting to live forever in eternal bliss in Heaven and the “goats,” who haven’t been so good and, hence, face a much less attractive fate.
This is a text often used for the celebrating of “Christ the King” Sunday, the climactic observance of the liturgical Christian year. This festival marks the culmination of Jesus’ birth, death, resurrection, Messiahship, and ministry. Everything.
All solemnity aside, is there anything about the Matthew 25:31-46 text (and, perhaps even, “Christ the King Sunday”) that is supposed to be...funny ????
Let’s put on our comic lenses and see! Here are some observations:
1) Comedy, as I’ve said before, is the narrative terrain of low status characters. Of course, this text begins with Jesus arriving back on earth in most high-status fashion: “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him….” (v. 31)
Jesus could certainly stay that high and mighty! However, it would seem once his royal fanny hits the majestic throne, he becomes as a shepherd, and people become sheep and goats! Because many of us are so acclimated to accepting God as well as Jesus as our “Good Shepherd,” the shock value of this pastoral analogy has lost its force. Shepherds, in the eyes of those of “proper position” in the ancient world, were (still are?) dirty, smelly, illiterate nobodies.
And sheep and goats are also dirty and smelly and are…well…barnyard animals. Whether you’re good or bad, you’re still just a sheep or a goat!
This all could be a very charming revert back to low status, or it could be a very ridiculous and intentionally funny one!
It reminds me of Jed Clampett’s reaction to discovering he’s a millionaire….
From The Beverly Hillbillies pilot:
2) The criteria Jesus says wins you “sheep-ship” and, hence, blissful eternal life, are rather ridiculous as well. Of course, we’ve been acclimated, and for good reason, to find giving food to the hungry, drink to the thirsty, clothes to the naked, etc. not ridiculous at all but quite noble. However, it may have sounded totally weird for Jesus' original hearers to hear these tasks as the heavenly deal-makers and –breakers. After all, in Matthew’s gospel at least, Jesus has never before spoken of the importance of helping “the least of these,” and the temple culture has never-endingly reminded everyone God's favor is curried through strict obedience to purity laws.
This crazy King Jesus, acting like a lowly sheepherder, springing the rules of the game out of nowhere…it’s starting to sound once again like Groucho Marx singing out “The Laws of My Administration” from Duck Soup!
The content of Jesus’ royal rules is also quite foolish, yes? Dedicating your life wholly to serving the most needy is the fast track to nowhere, in the eyes of the world. Even today, listen to any politician running for office, even the ones who tout they are “liberal.” Their platform is nevertheless all about what the comfortable middle class (and Wall Street, which fattens middle class pensions) want and deserve; that’s of course what they say, because that's what wins you the votes needed to achieve honor and power. Only a loon (not even a sheep or goat) would hope to win on the claim he or she will do whatever it takes to lift up the poor.
3) The reaction of the sheep to Jesus’ claim that as they’ve cared for the least of these they’ve cared for Him is one of comic guilelessness. No one seems to be snooty or relieved or even happy about the news they've done what it takes to qualify for heavenly bliss. No one reacts “normally.” Instead, they’re befuddled, then seem to shrug their shoulders and fully accept all the crazy goings on as if that’s what’s normal.
It all reminds me of the world Green Acres creates. It’s a loopy universe where every zany thing makes complete sense to those who live there (except for Oliver Douglas, who is always frustrated by all the constant illogic and regularly refuses to participate).
Hot Water Soup, anyone??
What if Green Acres is the kind of world that Jesus, through his parable of sheep and goats, suggests his followers live in? It's not only a moral and kind world, it's also wacky, silly even, and certainly not what Jesus’ hearers have been encouraged to strive for, not even by Jesus himself. Not really. It’s as if Jesus is saying the people who will "get it" and do what it takes to please God and receive eternal life, are inherently wired to “get it” and win. They simply live in a completely different world than the rest -- like Lisa and Eb, who can’t wait for another bowl of delicious hot water soup.
But maybe it’s not a genetic anomaly Jesus is suggesting so much as a spiritual one. Back in Matthew 5, where Jesus says it’s as much a sin to think about sinning as it is to actually sin, he’s talking about the need for a radical transformation of the heart; letting God into that deepest most foundational of places and so He can create that anew. When that happens, then everything flowing out from there, from you, will be holy and effortless. No longer do you have to work at being good. You simply are. (Even though you now might look as goofy as a Ziffel.)
I hope you will wear your comic lenses this Thanksgiving and beyond, and that will make your celebration not only more joyful, but better in every way and for everybody. Who knows how you will find yourself serving the Christ. Or are you?