Playing the Indian Card

Friday, August 25, 2017

The Sheep and the Goats

If I were to write that there are fundamentally two kinds of people in the world, good people and bad people, you would probably condemn me for being un-Christian.

There are two kinds of people in the world: good and evil.

What? We are supposed to love the sinner, we say, even if we despise the sin. We are not to judge. The line between good and evil, we often say, runs through the hearts of every one of us. Real life is not about white hats and black hats: there is moral ambiguity everywhere. Most of that is true enough.

But not the moral ambiguity part. Nor any notion that everyone might be saved eventually. Origen, among others, suggested this in the early Church, and it was soon seen to be a heresy.

That is not what Jesus says; that is not what the Gospel says.

He tells us to love our neighbour. But then, when asked, “who is your neighbour?” he does not say “everyone.” He tells the story of the Good Samaritan.

In the consecration at mass, the English version used to say “shed for all.” This has now been corrected. The original Latin of the Vulgate says “for many.” Not for all.

Indeed, it is implicit in the doctrine of hell.

“But when the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. Before him all the nations will be gathered, and he will separate them one from another, as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left.” (Matthew 25-31).

So there it is. There are two kinds of people.

The existence of hell presupposes that, even given an infinite amount of time, some people will never repent. Goats are goats, sheep are sheep.

The same point is pretty clear in Luke’s version of the Beatitudes; and almost as clear in Matthew’s. They are half of a parallel construction, defining the good and the bad people.

Looking at his disciples, he said:

“Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.
21 Blessed are you who hunger now,
for you will be satisfied.
Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh.
22 Blessed are you when people hate you,
when they exclude you and insult you
and reject your name as evil,
because of the Son of Man.

23 “Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven. For that is how their ancestors treated the prophets.

24 “But woe to you who are rich,
for you have already received your comfort.
25 Woe to you who are well fed now,
for you will go hungry.
Woe to you who laugh now,
for you will mourn and weep.
26 Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you,
for that is how their ancestors treated the false prophets.”

There it is again. There are two kinds of people: the sheep and the goats; the pharisees and the salt of the earth.

John’s Gospel seems to include the same point:

“The gatekeeper opens the gate ..., and the sheep listen to his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice. But they will never follow a stranger; in fact, they will run away from him because they do not recognize a stranger’s voice.”

Not sheep and goats here, but sheep who belong to the flock of Jesus, and those who simply do not.

In case there is any confusion, John’s Jesus quickly makes the point that this is not a matter of subscribing to this or that doctrine, this or that faith. The parable of the Good Samaritan, of course, makes the same point. Simply saying you are Catholic does nothing at all.

“I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me—just as the Father knows me and I know the Father—and I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd.”

Nominally Catholic or not, nominally Christian or not, some people are of good heart, and some people are not. Those who are of good heart follow the shepherd as soon as they hear his voice. Those of bad heart do not.

But, you will say, what about the need to follow Jesus specifically? Isn’t this religious indifferentism?

No; the need is to follow Christ. Christ is “the Way, the Truth, and the Life.” This does not refer to a particular Latinized Hebrew name. This refers to following “the Way, the Truth, and the Life.” Anyone who makes the pursuit of the good, the truth, and the beautiful above self is following Christ, the Logos, regardless of the word they use. Anyone who does not pursue the good, the truth, and the beautiful above self is not following Christ, the Logos, regardless of the word they use.

Again, in John’s third chapter:

“Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God.”

That seems like a pretty clear division. We all sin, but some of us—most of us, if the Bible is to be taken in its plain meaning—are dedicated followers of evil.

To these people, Jesus does not seem even to make the offer of salvation.

Matthew 3: 7:

But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptizing, he said to them: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?”

Matthew 13: 10-15:

The disciples came to him and asked, “Why do you speak to the people in parables?”

He replied, “Because the knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them. Whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them. This is why I speak to them in parables:

“Though seeing, they do not see;
though hearing, they do not hear or understand.

14 In them is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah:

“‘You will be ever hearing but never understanding;
you will be ever seeing but never perceiving.
15 For this people’s heart has become calloused;
they hardly hear with their ears,
and they have closed their eyes.
Otherwise they might see with their eyes,
hear with their ears,
understand with their hearts
and turn, and I would heal them.’”

Given that God is infinite in his mercy, this must mean—and the doctrine of Hell must mean—that some people have taken a basic, foundational position that means they are never going to repent, no matter what. Otherwise it would be a failure of mercy for God/Jesus to withhold the chance of salvation from them.

They are, in a word, evil. Evil to the core.

And they must have chosen to be evil. I see no room here for the Calvinist doctrine of predestination, in which you are born this way, and there is nothing you can do about it. That is a convenient alibi. There is nothing the Bible so clear about as the concept of free will. See the Garden of Eden story in Genesis. Rather, it is that there is some fundamental choice that some people make—that, indeed, Satan too made, in the story of the fallen angels—which then precludes repentance.

What might that be?

Jesus calls these irredeemables “goats.” What then is the apparent difference between goats and sheep?

It is that goats are not herd animals. Sheep stay with the shepherd and the flock, while goats strike out on their own.

This looks, at first glance, like a condemnation of individualism, eccentricity, or of thinking for yourself. But this is not a possible interpretation. We are misled by our metaphoric use of “sheep” to mean conformists. It would not be compatible with Jesus’s saying

Matthew 7:14:

“Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.”

This suggests that it is precisely conformists, conformists in the eyes of the world, who are going to hell. Jesus himself was anything but obedient and a conformist in this sense. And the same is true of the apostles, or John the Baptist.

Being a sheep and not a goat means being obedient to the voice of the shepherd, and to the needs of all, instead of to egotism and one’s personal desires. Jesus gave the two prime commandments as “love God, and love your neighbour as yourself.” That could be given pictorially as “follow the shepherd and keep with the flock.”

In John’s gospel, Jesus uses the metaphor of darkness and light. Once one has done something wrong, one immediately faces a critical choice: admit it, repent, and get back on the narrow path, or deny it. Everyone stumbles. Everyone sometimes gives in to a selfish urge, or an immediate desire. Make the second choice, and you have turned away from the path itself, and begun down a road from which there is in principle no turning: you then start to shun the light itself. You will soon come to deny the very concept of truth, of God, of right and wrong, of beauty, rather than admit you have done this thing, or that it is wrong to have done this thing. That is the road to hell, and it is fairly clear in daily life that many people are always taking it.

This distinction is the distinction between a mortal and a venial sin. A mortal sin is a turning away from God, and implies the death of the soul.

But, in principle, no sin you repent remains mortal.

All of this means that, while it is true that the struggle between good and evil runs through the heart of each one of us who is still on the path, it is also a real dividing line in human society as a whole. At any time or place, there is a faction on the side of evil, and a faction of the side of God.

This means, in turn, that it is not enough to mind our prayer life in solitude. For some, that might be wise, but everyone cannot. There is a war on. There really are good guys and bad guys, and they are always fighting.

Consider any group or ideology that holds that there is no God, there is no objective truth, there is no such thing as objective beauty, or some obvious sin is good.

There are a lot of them, aren’t there? Postmodernism, Marxism, atheism, abortion, many feminists.

Any group or ideology that holds one of these tenets is, pretty much necessarily, on the side of Satan. They have made their bargain with the devil, and at this point there is probably no turning back.

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