As life has gone on I have found that it turns out that often what my Mum said was right — One of these sayings was that we are known by the company we keep. When I was growing up in Timaru, Aotearoa (NZ, I would often get taken into the rural areas by our Father. The rural areas where the closest living neighbours were often livestock. Out in the bush where our Father took us, it wasn’t hard to keep company that our parents would approve of, because we were spending most of our days around family.
Surprisingly in those early times of my life, even at school, the rules were pretty easy to figure out. The boys played with the other boys and the girls played with the girls, and the only bleeding over of those two groups was that the very athletic girls sometimes played games with the boys, if the boys were feeling conciliatory on the playground that day. It got a little more complicated, in high school for some when students from various schools came together as one class, and suddenly there was a little variety— just a little, though, maybe one hundred twenty students total at each level.
Even though I attended an all-male high school suddenly I could hang with the smart kids, or the arty kids, or the sporty kids, or the rough kids or what some called the no-hopers. And to my wonder and amazement, I was told that at the other High School old friends found it was suddenly okay to befriend the opposite sex. Although if I’m being honest, girls rarely came to the Boys High. I’ll also admit that the boys who got to hang with awkward, twelve to thirteen-year-old girls were those who came for specific things like Music and German language classes.
At the beginning of High School, one could say, is an exciting but sometimes excruciating time to figure out who we are. It is also a time much less when we find out who our friends are supposed to be. Yet, we haven’t quite figured out that the choices we make when we are adolescents need not rule the rest of our lives. Everything feels so weighty, as if our making one wrong choice would disrupt the course of our whole life. At least that is what I thought I had understood when I was twelve or thirteen years old.
At first read, our text from the final verses of Matthew 25 for this week seem to be about how to earn a place in heaven with Jesus, how to be judged favourably by the Shepherd King: be a sheep, not a goat. The original hearers of this sermon would have understood “sheep” and “goat” to be very specifically coded words with deeply ingrained cultural meaning.
Matthew reinforces this with the use of “left” and “right.” The right hand was the socially acceptable hand, used for eating and greeting. The left hand was used for unmentionable, private tasks, and was never used for public greeting. For all intents and purposes, everybody was a right-handed person, whether they wanted to be or not. To be on the left was a very bad thing, and everybody hearing this story would have understood that.
So really, it seems as if Jesus is simply saying, “Do the right thing.” The problem is that the sheep don’t really understand why they are sheep, and the goats don’t know what goat-like behaviour has left them in the predicament they are in. Since, in reality, sheep and goats grazed together and travelled together and acted as one herd until it was shearing time or sacrifice time; it is almost as though everybody ended up surprised when the sorting happened. It can’t really be as simple as that, can it? The secret here to being favourably judged can’t be just “Don’t do anything stupid.” Don’t we wish.
Are we humans called to act in this way or is that we are called to respond differently? Well, as Christians we are called to welcome the stranger, feed the hungry, give water to the thirsty, clothe the naked, and visit the sick and those in prison. Christians are called to speak out against the injustices and inequities that plague society. They are to work to ensure that the message of God’s love is not subsumed by the much louder, more forceful noises of the secular world. These actions are to be done out of love for God, love for each other and oneself as well as out of the spiritual centre that develops from spending time with God.