Musings on Sheep and Goats,
Right and Left Handed and Judgment:
A Bible Study for July 24
by Rev. Lee Johnson
July 24, 2022
In July, you the reader, have selected the scripture. Someone wrote in and asked about Matthew 25.31-46: “Why does God divide things up between good and evil, as in sheep and goats? Who is to say a goat is evil?” Well, before going any further, let me add “right and left-handedness.” Have you ever noticed in the Bible it seems God favors the right hand? Generally, the Bible uses these distinctions in relationship to eternal judgment – where both the goat and left hand are damned to hell. It’s not the most comforting imagery, especially for someone who is left-handed. Perhaps that accounts for my third-grade teacher’s attempt to change my hand orientation, wanting to save me from a future of eternal damnation. You think I’m kidding? I’m not! Being left-handed can be trying, not to mention if you are left-handed and happen to like goats. Such metaphorical judgment begins in the Old Testament when the prophet Ezekiel makes a connection between sheep and goats. Then, Isaiah tells the Israelites God will uphold God’s people with the “right hand of righteousness.” What about the left? Well in Hebrew, the language of the Old Testament, “left-sidedness” means Prince of Demons. What do you think accounts for this need of division? I read the other day that in order to fully appreciate “salvation” you have to consider “damnation to hell.” Do you buy that?
Matthew 26 sets the sheep on the right, and the goats on the left, neatly combining the two metaphors. Once in place, the story becomes one of eternal life and eternal punishment. The dividing line between the two is determined by how well you cared for the hungry, thirsty stranger. Matthew presents the story as “the day of judgment.” After reading it, I’m not certain how well I am prepared to line up. I have yet to get the stranger thing right. The other three Gospels also foreshadow a day of judgment which in the early Christian Church was generally understood to coincide with the return of Jesus. Christians were to conduct themselves (remember the stranger?) in preparation for that moment which most believed to be “swiftly” approaching. Your conduct was to have an urgency to it. Maybe in eternal time it is “swiftly approaching.” But in human time, it seems God moves more slowly. Does that mean we can take our time, too? Have you ever been quick to judge someone, maybe too quick? Would you prefer a God who is swift to judge? Or, a God who takes a bit more time? What about grace? Swift or slow?
There is another story about judgment in Matthew that seems to say God moves more slowly than swiftly. An enemy, one night, stealthily sowed weeds into the “master’s” field. Fieldworkers came to the master asking if they should go into the field to separate the weeds from the wheat. The master says, “wait.” Instead, on the day of harvest, he will separate the two, binding the wheat for harvest. As for the weeds, they will be burned. In time, it will be up to the master to determine the difference between the wheat and weeds. In this story, such judgment is not held in our hands. It is for the master to decide. Have you ever misidentified a weed from a flower? Are some weeds worthy of saving? What about a wildflower? How comfortable are you in leaving judgment, especially of the eternal nature, in God’s hands? Back to swift or slow. Why do you think it takes God time to decide? Oh, how are you getting along with the stranger?
Ezekiel 34.17, Isaiah 4.8-10
John 5.25-29, Mark 13.28-37, Luke 11.31-31, Matthew 13.24-30, 25.31-46
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"O God, make me slow to judge and swift to give grace."