Some of you might know that we Brothers follow an ancient monastic practice of taking our meals in silence, often accompanied by a brother reading aloud. As of late, we have been reading a biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
Bonhoeffer was an early twentieth century theologian and Lutheran pastor. In popular memory, he is known chiefly for his staunch opposition to the Nazi’s murderous regime and the Christian Church’s shameful acquiescence in the horror.
After a long period of fearless soul-searching examination, and tremendous spiritual anguish, Bonhoeffer become complicit in a plot to kill Adolf Hitler. The conspiracy was uncovered and Bonhoeffer, along with his co-conspirators, was butchered in an execution specifically designed to prolong the throes of painful death. The SS carried out the execution on Hitler’s orders in April, 1945 just days before his suicide and Germany’s surrender ending World War II in Europe.
Bonhoeffer, a brilliant theologian and prolific writer, had much to say about Christianity and its place and responsibility in the modern world. Never cutting himself any moral slack, Bonhoeffer struggled mightily with his decision to become involved in the failed plot to kill Hitler. He did not justify his action but accepted that he was taking guilt upon himself as he wrote “when a man takes guilt upon himself in responsibility, he imputes his guilt to himself and no one else. He answers for it…Before other men he is justified by dire necessity; before himself he is acquitted by his conscience, but before God he hopes only for grace.”1 He went to his death holding to the sincere belief that God would judge him for his decision to become involved in murder.
Bonhoeffer, never one to mince words, spoke with scathing language about the compromises that the church had made with the forces of evil. He never tired of reminding his congregations that evil and injustice are very present realities in our world. And that the cost of this reality rebounds on all of us. With spiritual eyes, he seems to have had a gift which allowed him to stare straight into the abyss that opened before him and to do so without blinking.
Bonhoeffer came to his beliefs about the nature of evil through his reading of Holy Scripture which he taught and believed to be God’s word written to and for its listeners. I most definitely do not mean to imply that he was a literalist. Quite the contrary, Bonhoeffer advocated prayerful and meditative engagement with scripture. From that kind of approach he came to teach that when we read or hear scripture we must assume the posture that we are listening to God’s specific word to and for us. Adamantly insisting that “anything short of obedience to God smacked of [what he called] ‘cheap grace.’ Actions [he said] must follow what we believe; else one could not claim to believe it.”2
Throughout this past week I’ve been trying to read this parable about the sheep and goats as though it were specifically written for me. I’ve been trying to imagine that I am hearing God’s word spoken directly to me. Like so many parables it’s difficult to hear and take in. It’s rather stark. It’s about the Last Judgment; about God’s righteous judgment. Can you imagine, with me, that these words are spoken directly and specifically to you? That this is God’s word to you and for you this day.
What does it say to you? It forces me to ask myself a question. My question is who am I? Who am I? Am I a sheep or am I a goat? Who am I?
Sheep and goats are alike in some ways but there are differences so great that Jesus said that goats would not inherit the kingdom of Heaven. Sheep are gentle, quiet, innocent animals. They do not give the shepherd lots of problems. If you are having trouble with your sheep, you’re probably looking at a goat. If sheep are not cared for properly they will become someone’s dinner. Sheep are defenseless animals. They are vulnerable and to be comfortable they need their shepherd.
Whereas sheep are gentle, quiet and easily led, goats are pushy, self-sufficient, and headstrong. Most goats are naturally horned. Those goat horns can sometimes bring harm to another. They rear and butt in order to establish dominance. Goats do not require supervision or care as sheep. Unlike sheep, goats revert back to their wild conditions if given the chance. Goats are often pushy and can cause undercurrents and dissension. Turmoil and agitation are part of their nature.3
The parable tells us what sheep do and what goats do. Sheep do the bidding of the shepherd. Goats do not.
If this is God’s word spoken directly and specifically to me then what is it saying to me. What is it asking me to do?
Would I get a lot of push-back from you if I were to say today that there is something terribly wrong in our country and our world? That’s what I want to say here this morning. I want to say that I believe there is something terribly wrong.
I am not an economist. I don’t have the solution for the Euro zone crisis. I don’t have the formula for either getting our fiscal house in order, or reducing the scale of personal and governmental debt, or balancing the Federal budget. I don’t know how we solve those problems. But I think I know that if this is God’s word spoken to us then when we do set about to find solutions we have to do so with the poor in mind. We must do something about these problems but always with their impact on the poor in mind.
We cannot forget the poor and the powerless; even if it is nothing more than speaking up on their behalf. Speaking to people we know; risking putting ourselves out there when we hear others forgetting about our responsibility, as a nation, to the poor; speaking for and on behalf of those who have taken to the streets to protest policies and policy makers that protect and perpetuate an economic structure fraught with systemic injustice. Can we live in the word of God while acquiescing in policies that punish the poor for being poor and reward greed and dishonest wealth?
What would this parable, if spoken directly to us, mean for something like the growing chasm between rich and poor in this country? What does it say about a trajectory begun back in the 1970’s in which a smaller and smaller group of individuals controls more and more wealth, and let’s face it, in our country that often means more and more power? Can we continue to move further and further into the future with a widening gap between rich and poor? If this is the word of God spoken to us can we allow fewer and fewer people to acquire and control more and more of the power and wealth of our country while many remain poor and while others slip into poverty? Should a relatively small and privileged group of financiers, many of them already very wealthy, be protected from risk while millions have their economic lives destroyed? If this is the Word of God spoken directly to us can we acquiesce in the doing of such things?
With whom are we going to identify? Are we faced with making a choice? What will that mean? I don’t know, maybe you don’t believe that this is God’s word spoken to you this day. I don’t know what you believe. But, if you were to believe it what might you do?
A good and dear friend of mine, who is something of an expert in iconography, pointed out to me the other day that icons of the Good Samaritan traditionally give the Samaritan and the man he rescued the same face. I think that this is something we might keep in mind when we examine the plight of those who go without. The icon points to the fact that these people are the same people and that only their circumstances, at this particular moment in their lives, are different. It seems to imply that when we step out to do justice we will, in time, come to enjoy the fruits of justice in our own lives. We are doing something for others and mysteriously, in the Divine economy, we are doing it for ourselves. Our hearts grow, our ability to identify with the other grows and compassion grows. In a profoundly real sense we are doing what St. Paul tells us we are intended to do: we are becoming Christ. It is in becoming Christ that we Christians find the assurance and courage to speak and act in the name of God’s love and word spoken to us and all his beloved children.
1. Bohoeffer, Dietrich. Meditating on the Word. Cambridge: Cowley Publications. 1986, pp. 88-89.
2. Metaxes, Eric. Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy. Nashville: Thomas Mellon Company. P. 240.
3. Parrot, Joy. Watchman, Watchman What of the Night. Website: Symbology of the Sheep and Goats, pp 88-90.
4. I am grateful to the Reverend James McReynolds for sharing his insights on the iconography of the Parable of the Good Samaritan.
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