Keeping the sheep, cooking the goats

Matthew 25:31-46

We finally reach the end of this chapter – the part of the story that I personally find both deep resonance and deep question.  It is the scene of judgment at the end of time, when the king is arbitrating between the sheep and the goats.  The sheep get it.  They have lived into the ideals of Kingdom hospitality and justice.  They have built shalom in their communities and among their neighbors.  Yes!  Even though they may not have understood that it was Christ they were serving, they understood the Kingdom and wanted to be a part of it. I think, this is what we’re doing!  Hands on, with the ‘least of Christ’s brothers and sisters.’  This is the part that I get and get behind.

But those goats!  Those poor goats have not understood.  They want to honor Christ but don’t understand that the way they do that is by honoring the divine in each of his children.  But I have so many questions…well, I have one question: Is this really what it seems?  Does Christ the king and judge really shut out those poor goats to be cooked for all time?  It is difficult to figure this out, or maybe it’s that we just plain don’t want to hear it.  Either so much has been lost in the translation of time and language or it just plain doesn’t fit with our understanding of what God is and what God wants for humanity…isn’t God just and merciful?  What’s so bad about goats that they end up cooked and what or where is the oven?

The bible talks about sheep a lot – and so we begin to understand the importance of sheep and the goodness of the shepherd, even though we don’t, in our urban lives, have any hands-on experiential understanding of the animals.  When sheep are described it is as precious – innocent and in need of protection.  This is the only place in Matthew and one of the only places in the Gospels that goats are even referred to…What’s wrong with goats.

Well, as it happens, it seems this is a translation thing.  It’s easy to make a clean distinction in English, sheep on one hand/goats on the other.  Different animals.  But in the original language, the word that’s translated ‘sheep’ (prosata) has something of a more broad meaning, especially in the Greek translation of the Hebrew scripture (the Septuagint).  It’s more like, small livestock (including goats!) or flock.  And the word translated ‘goat’ (eriphon) is a really specific type of animal: young male goats that are culled from the flock and used for either food or sacrifice – the goat that gets cooked.  These would be animals that are not fruitful – they don’t yet produce offspring and they don’t produce milk.  So Jesus was setting aside a few young goats eriphon from the flock of small livestock prosata.

But it still comes back around the question about being left out.  There are still a few goats that get cooked while the sheep are kept safe by Jesus’ side.  When I took this text to Junior High last week we were talking about whether there was a way to simulate the experience in the congregation – could one of us, playing the king decide among the congregation who are the goats and who are the sheep?  Someone suggested that the sheep could go off to somewhere where there is candy, and the goats could go to a non-candy land.  But, in their imaginations, the object lesson had a postscript: everyone would get candy eventually.  That way, no-one would feel bad or left out.

I love that our children are living in the confidence that they are loved and accepted and welcomed.  I love that they are not living in the fear of punishment or pain, as I know some of my own peers did, if they don’t follow the right formulas or do just the right things.   It is also a commendable and beautiful sentiment – the way that the kids didn’t want anyone to be excluded from what is good.  But in Jesus’ story it sure seems like not everyone gets the candy.  Those goats are going to have great teeth, because the candy is not for them.  There’s no getting around the fact that those goats are left out.  I think some of us have backed so far up away from the possibility of punishment and separation – away from ‘hell’ – that we’re afraid to look Jesus in the face and ask, ‘what did you mean by that?’ I am.  I am afraid of that. But I have been trying to ask the question anyway.

This past spring, Rob Bell, who is familiar to some in this congregation from his series of videos called the Nooma series, wrote a book called Love Wins; a book about heaven, hell and the fate of every person that ever lived.  It stirred up a bunch of controversy among evangelicals because, his opponents posited, he was proposing the opposite: everyone gets ‘in.’  His message is, they said, ‘Everyone really does get the candy and no-one gets cooked.’  That’s not quite true.  But, what he does is raise questions about the validity of traditional interpretations about what ‘eternal punishment’ is and who goes there.  Some of what follows is from my reading from him, as well as elsewhere.

First some context about the place to where these goats might be banished.  As I mentioned last week, Jesus makes pronouncements about separation and banishment throughout the gospel.  Here, when talking to the wayward goats he uses two: “you that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire.” and “these will go away into eternal punishment.” Jesus doesn’t mention hell here by name but these resonate with those other instances.

So, last week I suggested that Jesus may have been talking about the very real kind of situation between a master and his servants. I now suggest that the ‘outer darkness,’ the ‘eternal fire,’ the place where there is ‘weeping and gnashing of teeth’ was a real place.  Outside the gates of Jerusalem was the Valley of Hinam.  It was the city’s garbage dump and was populated by big-teethed rats and other wild animals fighting over scraps of food.  And there was  a fire was constantly burning there to control the waste.  The valley of Hinam, Gehenna, the word that we translate into English as ‘Hell’ – an actually place that Jesus’ listeners would have been quite familiar with.

But hell isn’t only a place that was real then.  Hell is equal powerful and present on earth now.   Even now, goats are getting cooked, so to speak.  About five years ago This American Life, the NPR radio program, did an episode called Heretics.  The whole show was dedicated to a Christian preacher and evangelist named Carlton Pearson.  He was a student and prodigy of Oral Roberts, of the fundamentalist Christian university of that name.  Pearson founded a mega church in Oklahoma, he often preached or was a guest with the likes of Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell.  He was a superstar in that sphere.  And then he stopped believing in hell.

Pearson recalls on the radio, how he was watching on television the Hutus and Tutsis returning from Rwanda to Uganda, seeing the devastation, the malnutrition, mothers with no milk for their nursing babies.  He was watching this with his own healthy, chubby baby daughter on his lap and he remembered thinking, “I don’t know how you can call yourself a loving, sovereign God and allow these people to suffer this way and just suck them right into Hell,” because Carlton Pearson had been taught that because they didn’t know the gospel message, those people were going to hell.  But he heard  a voice say back to him, “So that’s what you think we’re doing?”  Pearson argued back about what he’d be taught.  He didn’t want to take on the guilt of not having dropped everything to save those people.  And he heard that voice again, “You can’t save this world. That’s what we did. Do you think we’re sucking them into Hell? Can’t you see they’re already there? That’s Hell. You keep creating and inventing that for yourselves. I’m taking them into My presence.”

And Pearson thought to himself,

“Well, I’ll be. That’s weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth. That’s where the pain comes from. We do that to each other, and we do it to ourselves. Then I saw emergency rooms. I saw divorce court. I saw jails and prisons. I saw how we create Hell on this planet for each other. And for the first time in my life, I did not see God as the inventor of Hell.”[1]

You can imagine that by suggesting that hell was not some other-worldly reality where people – the nations – who did not profess Jesus would go, might more or less ruin the super-star status of a man like Pearson.  Gehenna was a real place for Jesus.  It is a real place in our own world.  We sheep and goats create that same kind of suffering and horror and need now.  But both have implications for eternity.  In both of his references to fire and to punishment in the story of the sheep and the goats, Jesus talks about eternity: eternal fire, he says, eternal punishment.  The interesting thing about ‘eternity’ is that it is not necessarily the same thing as ‘forever.’

Eternity here is from the Greek word ‘aion’ where our word eon comes from.  It means ‘age’, or a period of time.  It is a long period, maybe, but finite.   It’s not the same as forever.  (Unless, maybe in the sense that ‘this sermon is lasting forever’). The eternal fire/punishment – that could have meant ‘age-long fire,’ or ‘an age of punishment’ as in, lasting for a period of time.  A fire for clarifying and cleansing.

Aion or age, also has the sense that is less temporal than qualitative.  Jesus may well have been referring to ‘that which characterizes the ‘age’ to come – the intensity of feeling that is as if there is no beginning and no ending.  It is as if it always was and will be.

A third way of understanding aion is in the sense of that specific time to come of Jesus’ return.  the time that is prophesied, the days when the Kingdom with come and God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven.  Just as the Kingdom is eternal – intensity of being, reality in practice, at another time and also now, so is hell.

Finally, the word punishment  or kolazo is interesting too.  It’s actually a gardening word.  It means pruning. This means that one possible interpretation of the age of punishment = Aion of kolazo = a period of pruning so that the plant might flourish.

C. S. Lewis has probably given me the best imagery that I’ve seen for the kind of shape it takes, this now-but-always, forever-but-finite world without end. In The Great Divorce the main character journeys to hell and to heaven and the souls who have died – he calls them ‘ghosts’ -from hell visit heaven, where they are welcomed in by God and the souls who are already there.  They are welcomed and encouraged to turn and embrace this new place and new eternity and forsake their own selfish longings and desires.  They can be taught how to do that.  In Lewis’ theology, it seems, hell is both always and immediate and so too is the welcome to heaven.

The characters wonders how it is that in eternity, the ghosts (the goats?) who occupy hell can still find a place in heaven – in the realm of God.  In Jesus’ story, the goats are sent to hell, having not been willing to open themselves to love that serves.  Should they then be able to recognize the least of Christ’s family, recognize Christ

“Everyone who wishes it does.  Never fear.  There are only two kinds of people in the end: Those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done.’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done.’  All that are in Hell, choose it.  Without that self-choice there would be no Hell.  No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will never miss it.  Those who seek find.  To those who knock it is opened.”[2]

In this analogy, Jesus is saying to the goats, ‘thy will be done.’  “In my kingdom the least will be first, you say that if you’d known it was me, you would have served me, but in my kingdom we serve each other.  If you want to inhabit a place where everyone serves themselves, where people eat each other up and scavenge over scraps, go for it.  That’s not where I am.  Perhaps you will be shaped by that experience.”  Some of you will never understand, not in this life, not later.

My junior high girls understood something that I think is true about this passage: Jesus wants to shock – even scare – his listeners into good behavior, so he uses really dramatic language – words of fire and pruning and darkness and separation.  Gentle language and a promise of candy for everyone at the end wasn’t going to do it.  There are those who need to be scared straight – with Jesus it was those with resources who weren’t sharing, those who preached a good game but didn’t practice the justice that the law.

The ones who are suffering now – those who are now hungry, thirsty, cold and in need of clothes and warm shelter, who suffer from illness or addiction.  Blest are you, Jesus has said, for you shall inherit the kingdom.  You are the sheep.  You are already helping each other and already experiencing the anxiety and separation and consequences of your choices and those of others.  The shepherd king will welcome you home. The ill and poor and hungry aren’t the ones who need to worry about offering the water, finding others clothes, and visiting the prisoners.

Jesus used language to scare and we should be afraid.  We should be longing to be in Christ’s presence and we should be longing to be a part of the joy of that kind of community.  If we can’t quite get there, Jesus give us what we want: ourselves – now and later.

I am the first to admit that I am not an expert, nor do I feel like my answers are anything like definitive.  In addressing the very big but very real questions of heaven, hell and eternity, I also readily admit that I may have bitten off more than I can chew.  But I am interested in the conversation and interested in engaging questions of eternity.  In our next round of small groups I hope to start a small group around some of these questions, possibly with Rob Bell’s book as our starting place.  I hope there are others who are willing to join me in the conversation.  May we offer hospitality to all as if we served Jesus, and live in hope of the invitation to his side.  Amen.

[1] Carlton Pearson, quoted in This American Life, 12-16-2005, from transcript at

[2] C. S. Lewis, The Great Divorce. p 72