The parable of the sheep and the goats
Given on Sunday 20th November 2011 at The Abbey by Canon Tim Biles
One of the fun things in the Lands of the Bible is trying to sort the sheep from the goats – they look so alike. It was a long time before a local told me the secret: all the goats have little tails that go UP and all the sheep have little tails that go DOWN. Maybe you knew that already, but I didn’t.
You can have another fun thing anywhere, trying to sort Christians from non-Christians. What is the telltale mark? It’s not the haloes and horns of mythology, so what is it? It’s a good, fair question: what is the mark of the people who will be welcomed by the King into his Kingdom?
I got an unexpected answer from an event in Sudan twenty years ago
Sudan’s civil war between African southerners and Arab northerners was at its peak. It was only possible to travel in the South by convoy, under the protection of the rebels, known as the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA, who are now the government). The front vehicle carried twenty or so child-soldiers, all barefoot, clad only in shorts, but proud of their Kalashnikov rifle.
I was in the third vehicle, a UN Land Rover with a young Sudanese called Kuol who was also barefoot and in shorts. He was my interpreter. A Buddhist from Burma called Mung was in charge and was the driver. The roads had been mined, the bridges had been blown up, the paths were swampy tracks. The boy soldiers pushed and pulled us through the rivers, with water up to their waists. It was not what I was used to in Dorset. In fact it was the stuff of nightmare.
A message came over the Field Radio. There had been an ambush. Several SPLA were dead: would we divert and collect the wounded? It was the last thing I wanted to do; all I wanted was to get to base. But Kuol and Mung decided. We had to go.
When we found the SPLA outpost, we took on board two young lads who had been shot. The bullets were still in their bodies. One was wounded in the shoulder, which had swollen to the size of his head; the other who was naked had the bullet in his stomach. Kuol put them in the back of the Land Rover, midst the kerosene cans. I’ve never been any good at blood and vomit and all I did was turn into the bush to be sick.
Kuol took the spare shirt from my pack and made bandages. He took the spring water I had carried from Kenya to bathe the wounds and he took my towel to cover the nakedness. His tender care was a thing most wonderful to see, in that desperate place. I admired that young man, and loved him. He was all that I wasn’t. His struggles, in danger of life and limb, in the midst of that horrific war, made him a hero in my eyes, heaven-sent: he was the angel of mercy that I was not.
Later, when I had time to reflect on these things, I saw two signs of the King and the Kingdom that day. First, we don’t know whether Kuol was a Christian or not. I never had time to ask. He might have been. More likely he was of the traditional African religion – which we call ‘pagan’.
I never saw him again. I often wonder whether he is alive or dead. But what I do know is this: he fulfilled the Lord’s command. He clothed the naked, he tended the sick he comforted the dying. And of such is the Kingdom of God.
The idea of the Divine in the dirt does not come naturally to us: we prefer our Kings in glory. This is the radical gospel message. The King stoops, to conquer hearts
Of course, I was standing there, a true believer and knowing the creeds and all the formularies. I could expound the Doctrine of the Holy Trinity, (well, more or less) – but I only wanted to be sick. I could have explained Paul’s doctrine of Salvation by Faith, in Greek (if I got some dusty books off the shelves), but I hadn’t wanted to divert to the ambushed camp. Kuol’s actions told me that day, and the Lord’s parable tells us all today, that it is not holding the right faith that is the test on the day of judgement. The test will not be on correct doctrine. We will not have to believe man-made creeds, correctly and completely. The Lord’s parable of the Kingdom gives us completely different criteria. Our Lord is concerned with a greater thing, by far.
You can be the most committed Christian, a dab hand at doctrine, keep all the Commandments, know all the ritual – and miss the Kingdom. You can be a doubter of doctrine, fallen and flawed, caught in dreadful conflict but – like Kuol and Mung – catch the Kingdom.
This is good news, it throws open the Kingdom. After all, how could I be in, and Kuol out? And Mung the Buddhist, who, as he was delivering food for the hungry on a later journey, was shot dead: surely he had met the criteria of the Kingdom in today’s parable?
That day was repentance time for me, metanoia: my mind and my understanding were taking a turn.
The second sign of the Kingdom is this:
The tragedy of war, of famine, of wandering in the Wilderness – which is the story of so many places – was bringing forth heroic goodness. Tragedy and Triumph were near neighbours.
So much of life (and I don’t just mean war, I mean everyday life) is not what we would choose it to be. Things go wrong, sometimes very wrong. When the marriage breaks, the stress is painful. When the children grow up and grow awkward the disappointment is more than painful. But the Good News is that God’s way is to bring good out of ill.
So whatever your personal problem or pain, remember this, and take heart: The Kingdom is full of surprises. The King who stoops brings good out of ill.
The parable proclaims to us all what Kuol showed me that day, that good will be brought out of ill not because we believe correctly, not because we behave properly, not because we deserve it, but because God’s goodness cannot be defeated. That is the message of the King.
Kuol was the messenger that day. In the dirt were signs of the King. In the Kingdom the creed and the colour and the name won’t matter. It will be full of surprises, and if Christ the King counts me worthy to be a neighbour to Kuol I will be blessed. Amen.