I have often asked myself the question, “why did Jesus use the form of parables to preach his message?” I ask this question because like Anne and Hilary, I find most parables difficult to understand and as Jonnie said in his words of wisdom they are often like riddles and don’t always give a straight answer.
I make it even more difficult for myself, because my problem is, that I spend more time trying to work it out by over thinking rather than listening to the words spoken to me through the parable. I am aware by doing this it distracts and compromises my understanding of the words of Jesus.
As many of you know I spent many enjoyable hours with my daughter during the first lockdown doing jigsaws. At first I started with five hundred pieces because I was a bit slow at finding the appropriate pieces. Then with practice and I must say help from Lucy I progressed to a thousand piece jigsaw. Is it not the case that if we practice and spend time working things out for ourselves we get greater satisfaction and fulfilment from our actions?
This made me think of the question, is this the reason why parables are so difficult to understand? Did Jesus want them to be difficult in order for us to think very hard about what he was saying and to work it out for ourselves?
So it may not come as a surprise that as I prepared for this words of wisdom, I thought of how I could use the analogy of doing jigsaws to help me structure my understanding of the parable in order to deliver my words of wisdom in a more meaningful way.
As I unpicked the words of the parable about the sheep and goats, to try and work out the message, it made me think, is this not the case when doing a jigsaw, working out where all the pieces fit into one another to disclose the picture on the front of the box. The longer we look at the individual pieces the more connections we see, when the irregular shapes of green becomes trees and disconnected pieces of blue become the sky.
I thought these words from a book called Windows of the Soul summed it up for me, “parables are pictures that emerge from the jigsaw events of life, however irregular or disconnected they may first appear.”
The parable about the sheep and goats is the final parable in Matthews Gospel which doesn’t appear anywhere else in the New Testament. The telling of the parable took place on the Mount of Olives with Jesus and his disciples, only days before his death.
The passage begins by saying, “all the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people from one another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.”
To start to make sense of these words, we have to perhaps understand a little more about sheep and goats, in order to explain why perhaps Jesus used these animals in his parable.
Sheep are seen as dependent on their shepherd and trust him to lead them to safety and are considered as emblems of mildness. Sheep have great hearing and recognise their shepherd’s voice. This is why people knew exactly what Jesus meant when he said, “my sheep hear my voice; I know them and they follow me.”
Whereas goats have a reputation for being independent and they follow no one and go wherever they want. They are not team players and are only interested in their own needs.
The parable in fact has very little to do with actual sheep and goats but Jesus is using the general differences in their behaviour to teach an important message about the way he sees how people behave. The message depicts the difference between the selfless and righteous sheep and the unrighteous and selfish goats which are basically opposites. However we must remember there are good and bad sheep and good and bad goats.
The criteria for separating the sheep from the goats was that the sheep had performed acts of kindness towards those in need amongst their fellow men and women. Jesus’s audience would have known that being a part of a healthy flock meant being cared for but also caring for one another. They would also know that goats would not have performed such acts of kindness.
The sheep’s actions, portrays the righteous, who live their lives according to the scriptures but are unaware of the significance of the good they have done and have not carried them out to earn a reward or to merit admission to the kingdom. They ask, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink?” God replies, “I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of your brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”
Margaret in a previous words of wisdom refers to the actions relayed in this parable as Agape love which is a love concerned for the good of others and that Jesus makes it clear that those acts of selfless love are the corner stone of the Christian life. Jesus, on the other hand, saw the unrighteous attitude of many of the religious leaders flaunting their religiously correct activities primarily for their own benefit unaware of the actual needs of people around them and ignoring the teachings of the scriptures. They were carrying out these deeds not because they particularly wanted to but in order that they could boast about it in the synagogues and streets.
Is this not similar to the goats whose main concern was for themselves oblivious of the needs of others. They did not see the hungry, the thirsty or the stranger. They had not accepted the love of Jesus so they didn’t have that love to give to others nor did they see that by caring for those in need they were caring for Jesus. They lived by the law which was the opposite from the sheep who lived by faith and the living example of the life and sacrifice of Jesus.
It is said in John’s Gospel, “if we cannot love people we have seen, how can we truly love God, whom we have not seen.”
If we are to be like the sheep we must be aware of the needs of others whom we meet in our daily lives and endeavour to give them the help that they need. In the parable, the examples of sharing food and drink to strangers should not be too difficult a task for us to achieve. It is important to acknowledge that in all we do, whether great things or things which may appear insignificant, are parables where God speaks to us. It can be the simple act of delivering lunches to folk but most importantly it is the chatting and companionship shared in those moments. We respond by ensuring that in everything we see, in all that we hear and in all that we do is in the name of Jesus and evidence that he is working in our lives
We can find confidence in the words of the parable and realise that we cannot do everything to alleviate the suffering in the world but we can do something. Even if that something is a little thing, it is better than turning your head and walking away. May we remember the lessons that Jesus taught us through this parable and endeavour to bring the message alive in our Christian lives.
In some parts of the world there is very little difference between sheep and goats and only the shepherd can tell the difference. Is it not also true that there is something in us that only Jesus, our shepherd can see and that those unseen things tells him whether we are sheep or goats.
I would like to close with a few lines of a prayer written by Julian Sanders, a contribution to the 2020 URC Prayer Handbook, “May our hearts not seek the commendation of this fickle world, but seek instead the lasting and eternal reward of our unseen Father in heaven. Amen