Why does someone’s triumph nearly always require someone else’s demise?
This is of course the classic “zero-sum game” dilemma—you can’t win unless I lose. When resources appear limited, the more I have means others have less.
A more pointed version of this query has been percolating in my thoughts as the liturgical year draws to a close: must we read the parables of Jesus as if they were all just religious versions of a divine zero-sum game?
The last three parables in Matthew’s account of the Gospel are classic examples of this quandary. Two weeks ago, the lectionary gave us the story about ten young women; five had enough oil for their torches, which means the other five had none (25:1-13). The next week, we heard about the harsh master’s servants; the one who had more than enough was given even more, which means the one with very little had even that taken away (25:14-30).
Modern Western society trains all of us in a culture of zero-sum gaming. There must be losers in order to have any winners; we can’t be insiders if there aren’t any outsiders; there can’t be any sheep without goats—as many of us heard from Matthew’s Jesus just yesterday (25:31-46).
But is this really the only way to read our sacred texts? Where have our cultural assumptions interfered with our spiritual insights?
These aren’t just idle queries; it’s high time the Church stopped reading the parables of Jesus in ways that create whole classes of excluded, despised, and even damned creatures of God.
The stakes are extraordinarily high here. We are living dangerous zero-sum games every single day on a global scale with other human beings, with other species, and with Earth’s own precious ecosystems—and these divisive and violent tendencies are often justified by citing parables that appear to favor sheep (all of us good people) over goats (all the others).
We must and we can read sacred texts differently, for the thriving of all and not just for some. This is what I struggle with at this very time of year, as our liturgical year comes to a close and many churches (including my own) celebrate “Christ the King” Sunday, usually with triumphal images of divine judgment. Enough of that—it’s time get real about whatever kind of “king” this Christ is.
Here’s where I start, with the word judgment itself. As even a cursory skimming of the daily news clearly shows, the world is a tangled mess of complexities that often prevent us from seeing things clearly and directly. This hateful, violent mess needs to be sorted out.
And that’s the phrase I keep returning to in all the stories about divine judgment: the need to sort things out, just like sorting sheep from goats. Rather than leaping ahead to the dramatic image of punishment at the end of Matthew’s parable about those poor goats, the focus belongs first on what this parable is mostly about: seeing clearly, and discerning rightly, which is what it means to judge well.
Two things about this particular parable occur to me as helpful for thinking differently about judgment. First, Matthew’s Jesus is not interested in checklists. This does not sound at first like good news to me—I love checklists; I’m a post-it note junkie and I love checking items off my “to-do list.”
But that’s not what this parable is about. Just as Matthew keeps insisting throughout his account of the Gospel, it’s about a whole way of life, a fundamental approach toward the world and all others in it. When we have adopted and embraced a posture of compassion and love toward the world, we actually don’t need checklists—we simply respond lovingly, and with compassion, and for justice, and we do so as naturally as breathing.
Much to my chagrin, alas, checklists can actually get in the way of this kind of life. I truly sympathize with the so-called “goats” in this parable, the ones who are confronted with what they failed to do and who immediately object that those items were not on their “list”—hold on , Jesus! I wasn’t told that person was sick; I didn’t know they were in prison; no one taught me about the residential boarding schools where Native American children suffered; and I wasn’t even born when slavery happened!
These objections miss the point of Gospel life entirely. We’re not given a rulebook; we’re given a map so that we can travel well together no matter what we encounter on the road. And this, by the way, is exactly why Christian formation and Eucharistic worship are not merely optional but necessary and vital for God’s people—that’s how we cultivate lives of love and justice like muscle-memory.
And that suggests the second feature of this parable that might help in thinking differently about judgment: it’s not about others. Of course, I want to think of myself as a “sheep,” and I have a rather long list of those I’m sure are “goats.”
The modern Western world has inherited a long and painful history of making these distinct divisions almost at every turn: between tribes, nations, languages, races, sexualities, genders—the list of potential “goats” goes on and on.
But it’s probably worthwhile noting that the Greek word in this passage from Matthew is actually “kid-goats,” or babies. First-century shepherds often raised young goats with the sheep and cared for them in exactly the same way.
So the “sorting out” that happens in this parable is not between us and some exotic or foreign them; the sorting out happens among and within us. Divine judgment always begins not only at home but within our own minds and hearts. What needs to be sorted out in my own life? Which component parts of my own thinking need to be reoriented? How do I adjust my own course to stay on the good road?
These are the great questions of divine judgment, which are not about separating ourselves from others but discerning how to become the people God intends.
If typical notions of judgment fall away in Gospel parables, then standard images of kingship dissolve in the light of Christ. These realignments of judgment and kingship belong together. The lectionary also gave us reasons for this in a portion from the Letter to the Ephesians (1:15-23). There we read that the “king” is the one who lived among us as one of us, who suffered and died as one of us, and whom God raised from the dead for us.
This King is not the powerful monarch on high who condescends to step down from a heavenly throne but is instead intermingled with the dust of decay and the ashes of mass death and the dirt of our despair, buried there with us, and also with the promise of God: to rise up, Phoenix-life, with us enfolded in heavenly wings—and not just some of us, but all of us.
So here’s the thing: I have never liked the last three parables from Matthew’s Jesus. I think they mostly perpetuate exactly what has been wrong with institutional Christianity for quite a long time—the religious permission to judge and separate and divide and conquer. Besides all that, I rather like goats.
As I paused right there this past week and reflected on the goodness of goats, it suddenly occurred to me: There’s actually nothing in this parable to suggest that the final scene of punishment is inevitable. I would go further: the Gospel of Jesus Christ as a whole is good and it’s news precisely because God loves goats, too.
So what if Jesus told this parable to inspire us to live in such a way that everyone, absolutely every creature of God is welcomed into everlasting joy and delight?
What if God is calling the Church to exactly this kind of life, to do all that we can, with whatever we have, and for as long as possible to ensure that no goat is left behind?
That’s the road I want to travel toward the only “kingdom” I want to live in with a King truly worthy of our worship.