Day 8: …OR WHATEVER
Matthew 3:12 His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.
I am 8 books away from reaching my (arbitrary and self-imposed) 2016 reading goal. One of the best books I read all year was The Trouble with Goats and Sheep, by Joanna Cannon. It’s her first novel, set in England in 1976. A woman in the neighborhood has gone missing, and two young girls decide to become amateur detectives to figure out where she might be. In the course of their investigations, they learn a lot of hidden secrets about their neighbors: marital difficulties, hidden traumas, old crimes and forgotten punishments, long-buried grief and some twinkling joy in the midst of it all.
The neighborhood is quick to judge and even quicker to ostracize, and the whole community is divided along arbitrary lines of good and evil, assumptions about who is which and which is where. The girls go to church and hear the passage from Matthew 25: “But when the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. Before him all the nations will be gathered, and he will separate them one from another, as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.”
The girls are troubled by the reading, and one turns to the other: “But I don’t understand…How does God know which people are goats and which people are sheep?”
The second girl answers: “I think that’s the trouble. It’s not always that easy to tell the difference.”
The apocalyptic Advent texts are chock full of judgment. Goats get sent to the eternal fires of punishment, the chaff gets burnt with unquenchable fire. Those who decide against God are in for an awful, burning eternity – that much is clear.
What is less than clear is which of us end up being goats and which of us end up being sheep. Jesus is quick to pair the promises of divine judgment with warnings that human judgment is worthless: no one knows the day or the hour of my coming, he says, and: do not condemn, lest you yourselves be condemned.
I am fascinated by people and by people’s stories. I am curious about how people get to be who they are, why people do things the way they do, how people ignore parts of themselves or parts of others in order to make the world align with their own narrative of reality.
And the more I learn about people, the less sure I am about who belongs at Jesus’ left hand and who belongs at his right, the less certain I am that I will fall into the ‘wheat’ category and that those Others will fall into the ‘chaff.’
Jesus is clear that there is some nasty cosmic consequence for life lived out of sync with God’s purposes here on earth. But Jesus is also clear that it is not my job and it is not my place to assume anything cosmic about anyone.
So: God of judgment, God of discernment, God who knows goats from sheep and wheat from chaff, God who sees cosmic realities because you created them, God who understands the depths of each heart and each mind, grant me gentleness with each of your children. Fill me with curiosity instead of condemnation. Help me to ask questions instead of making assumptions.