Sheep and goats, Pharisees and tax collectors – let’s talk about eternity.
So the other day, I was telling y’all about my husband who (like everyone else on the planet) had no control over his place of birth or his religious roots. He was raised as a Muslim in the Middle East.
I had the distinct pleasure of being raised as an Evangelical Christian in the U.S. of A.
I surmised, years before we met, that I had been born into not just the only true religion (Christianity), but hands-down the most theologically correct denomination (Missouri Synod Lutheran). How lucky could I be?
At roughly the same time, my husband reached the conclusion that he was blessed to be born into the only true religion (Islam), and the best branch thereof (Wahabi-style Sunni). He did prefer an American education, and that’s when we met.
After 30 years of marriage and many failed attempts to convert each other, we finally realized how narcissistic we’d been. It finally dawned on us that God desires people to seek after him and love others. Humans are the ones that care about being right, about separating into Us (those who are right) from Them (those who are wrong).
Are you thinking, “Wait a minute, I think Jesus said something about separating too.”
I’m way ahead of you, homey! You’re thinking about the parable of the sheep and the goats. Jesus described the sorting out of all nations as a shepherd separates sheep from goats. To the sheep, he says, “take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world.”
Which ones got to be sheep? Which ones inherited the kingdom? The ones who…do you remember?
The ones who cared for “the least of these” inherited the kingdom.
Not the ones who knew the most about sheep, or had memorized the names of all the sheep, or had never made a sheep-related mistake. The ones who loved others.
We humans spun that parable into something it was not, interpreting it as, for example, “those who have lived good lives and believed in God will be put on one side and have a place in Heaven.” or “those who choose Jesus, live and become sheep.”
Making things worse
My husband and I – and zillions of other folks like us – had been relegating billions of people to an eternity in hell because they did not fit our definition of “right,” thinking we were lined up with God.
And we had actually made each other’s eternities worse. I thought that when God judged all people, he’d have mercy on those who had never heard of Christianity, hubby thought there’d be mercy for the poor schmucks who never heard of Islam. But now, we’d introduced each other to the “right way,” making each other guilty of rejecting the truth. i.e. no mercy!
We’d both have been better off, eternity-wise, if we’d never met! How’s that for a gut-punch? More to the point: is this how God operates?
See what this passage from Luke has to say:
Luke 18:9-14 To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: “
Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’
But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God.
If you know your New Testament, you know that the Pharisees were the folks who had all the answers in Judaism. They strictly observed the law and got judgy at anyone who wasn’t as holy as they were. The tax collectors were hated because they were collaborators with the Roman occupiers.
The Pharisee thought he was great because he wasn’t an evildoer. The tax collector only knew he needed mercy and forgiveness.
Every true Muslim is just seeking to serve God; every true Christian is just seeking to serve God. Muslims’ very desire to serve God makes them our brothers and sisters.
Their belief that Jesus was a prophet and not the Son of God doesn’t make them our enemies. It makes them fellow seekers after God who see him differently—but they still seek after God just as earnestly (and imperfectly) as we do.
So, bottom line for today: God rewards those who love much and those who are devoted to God, not wrapped up in their own piety. Sheep, not goats; tax collectors, not Pharisees.
When I began to see life like this, through grace-colored glasses, everything looked different. Not gonna lie, it was a little disconcerting. Really, this shift has altered the whole trajectory of my life.
(BTW, if you missed Part One of this series, it’s here; if you want to check out my last series on pro-life, pro-birth, and pro-choice, you can find parts 1, 2, and 3 here, here, and here. Also BTW, please subscribe to my newsletter!)
Can you do me a favor? Patheos blogging etiquette suggests posts be “around 500 words,” but I tend to get gabby sometimes. (This post is about 900.) Please let me know if I’m droning on too long. Deal?