Readings for First Monday of Lent
Leviticus 19:1-2, 11-18
This homily was preached by Daniel at All Saints Chapel at Church Divinity School of the Pacific on February 23, 2015.
Calm, gentle, creative, thoughtful, amicable and honest. These are some of the characteristics of those born in the year of the sheep, which began about the same time as Lent this year. However, there is some debate about whether this is the year of the sheep or the goat. The Mandarin word for the animal of the year is yang, which can be translated as either sheep or goat. I appreciate this ambiguity because it helps me to see the potential for ambiguity in today’s parable of the sheep and goats. Just as the word yang can be either sheep or goat (depending on who you’re talking to), I know that, depending on my actions, I can sometimes be counted among the sheep, while other times I can be counted among the goats. According to this parable, the way I treat the homeless person on the street is the way I treat Jesus. I might think I have a wonderfully rich relationship with Christ, praying the Daily Office, practicing lectio divina, participating in Eucharist several times a week, but if I ignore the poor person on the street, then I am ignoring Jesus. And according to this parable, I will be counted among the goats. Jesus will declare to me, “I never knew you, depart from me, you evildoer, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.”
Thanks be to God that Matthew is not the only Gospel we have. Thanks be to God for the other Gospels, especially that Fourth Gospel, in which Jesus says, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent” (Jn 6:29). In John’s Gospel, the attention is taken away from our actions and directed towards the person of Christ, to whom we can respond with either belief or unbelief. By believing in Jesus we are automatically counted among the sheep of the Good Shepherd, who calls us each by name, who promises that we will be not be snatched away from his flock no matter what, even if that means he has to lay down his life for us.
However, John’s Gospel does not stop there. Although we are being held by the Shepherd, we are also called to behold the Lamb. We are called to see Christ as the Paschal Lamb, the victim of communal violence. In John, Jesus holds us in our believing and then reveals himself to us as a victim. He reveals himself to us as the victim not only of our violent mechanisms, but also of society’s systematic structures of sin and exclusion. We are still called to care for the poor, the hungry and the imprisoned but not in order to avoid judgment but because we see in them the same victim who laid down his life for us, who includes us in his kingdom which he prepared from the foundation of the world.
This first Monday of Lent also happens to be the feast day of Polycarp, the bishop and martyr of Smyrna. He was apparently a student of the Apostle John and a teacher to Irenaeus, the saint who became the great spokesperson for the Fourth Gospel’s orthodoxy and inclusion in the canon. Polycarp knew the Jesus of John very well. He saw his beloved Good Shepherd in the outcasts of society and in the process of defending them became vulnerable to becoming an outcast himself. Because of his love for the Lamb of God, he stood up for society’s victims even when that meant becoming a victim of violence himself. It was a mob that forced a reluctant magistrate in Smyrna to have Polycarp burned at the stake. According to the account of his martyrdom, he died on a day that is called the Great Sabbath, which is the same name of the day that Jesus was crucified according to John (19:31), the same day that the Paschal lambs were being slaughtered at the temple. Polycarp’s death resembled the death of the Lamb of God, who was also the victim of the empire built upon violence.
The Great Sabbath is also the name for the Day of Atonement or Yom Kippur, which is described in some detail only a few chapters before the reading we just heard in Leviticus. In Leviticus chapter 16, God commands the Israelites to set aside two goats: one to be sacrificed to Yahweh to atone for Israel’s sins and another to bear all the sins of the people and to be sent out into the wilderness. The priest would lay his hands on the goat’s head and confess over the goat all the sins of the people. The goat, which was then led out into the wilderness, was called “Azazel” which literally means “the goat that goes away.” The early church fathers understood Jesus’s passion and death as a fulfillment of this ancient ritual of atonement, embodying both the goat sacrificed to Yahweh and the goat sent out into the wilderness, the Azazel. In the 16th century, William Tyndale translated the word “Azazel” as “scapegoat.” So Jesus is both the lamb and the goat, which is certainly some food for thought during this Chinese New Year and this Lent and perhaps a helpful hermeneutic in reading the parable of the judgment of the nations.
The One who is both lamb and goat separates the sheep and the goats. He separates them based on how they have treated the world’s victims, but in the process he is making more victims out of the goats whom he condemns to hellfire. Perhaps the parable is pointing to a concern for victims that goes beyond clothing the naked and feeding the poor. Perhaps it is pointing to a concern for victims that is willing to go to hell, to pass through hellfire, in order to re-integrate the outcasts, to bring the goats back into the one flock with the beloved sheep of the Good Shepherd, even if that means becoming a condemned goat in the process.
I believe Paul understood this when he said, “I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my people” (9:3). Paul was willing to be the condemned goat in order to save others. During this Lent and this year of the sheep and the goat, we are clearly invited to be sheep and to care for the victims that are all around us. But perhaps there is a deeper and far more challenging invitation as well, asking us, ‘In what ways are we invited to be goats, to risk ourselves, our souls and even our salvation in order to save others? In what ways are we invited to be like Christ, the One who revealed himself as both lamb and goat?’