About Those Sheep And Goats

Matt 25:31-46

Jesus called God Sovereign and said that at the end of days God will separate the sheep from the goats, putting the sheep on his right hand and the goats on the left. God will praise the sheep for all they have done for him and curse the goats for all they have failed to do.

Neither group understood what in the world, or in their lives, he was talking about. They had all gone to church, they had all tithed, they had all prayed and obeyed the law, they had all been faithful to their family. And none of them – not one of them – had ever even seen God, much less clothed or fed him, visited him when he was sick or in prison.

Those sheep, they were plenty grateful to be praised, they knew they deserved praise, but he was praising them for all the wrong things. He was praising them for things that had never happened. What about those Sunday mornings when all they wanted was another hour’s sleep but instead they got up and went to church? What about that year when they changed their vacation plans to help with the fund raiser for the church roof? What about knowing the Ten Commandments by heart, saying the rosary, grace before meals? Listen, if there’s going to be a reward, it should be for predictable, expected achievements.

The goats agreed completely. What in heaven’s name was he talking about? Wasn’t it enough that the kids went to Catholic School – and that cost a pretty penny, believe you me — when public school would have been cheaper, and had a better football team? Wasn’t it enough that they stayed in the church through all the scandals, even when they learned that Father What-a-waste, that handsome young priest in charge of the youth ministry, was more of a wastrel than a waste? Wasn’t it enough that they never cheated on taxes, always paid their debts, and what about contributing more than their share to that neighborhood fence? What was all this business about feeding and clothing, helping and visiting God? God doesn’t need any help!

Now I like goats as much as sheep, maybe even better. And I happen to be left-handed. So I always felt this parable was harsh on goats and on left hands. But, boy, God really got them, didn’t he? “Whatever you did for the least of these, you did for me.”

I hope the light turns green before I have to stop. That guy with the sign that says he’s homeless is at the intersection again. But he has a cell phone and how does he get out here to a suburban shopping center anyway. I’ve heard it’s an organized scam and I donate to the Food Bank regularly. Phew, thank goodness, the light is green.

Trying to Listen

(This morning at my gym, I sat in the lounge area next to a woman who was old but probably not as old as me. I smiled at her, she smiled weakly at me. She began to play music on her cellphone. I was immediately annoyed that she wasn’t using earphones, but I didn’t say anything. Very soon, however, a younger woman did say something, causing the older woman to stop the music and storm off, saying, “OK, you win!” So I challenged myself to write a story that would turn my irritation into empathy.)

She had to listen to it surrounded by people. But not people who knew her, knew him. She couldn’t, couldn’t listen alone, so alone, at home. In the house that now always felt empty and threatening. In the garden that felt so bare even with so much in leaf and bloom. She couldn’t listen with her children, whose grief sliced her already bleeding heart to shreds. She couldn’t listen with friends and neighbors, whose pity made her want to scream and throw things. Heavy things. With sharp edges. At them.

She tried the library. The problem was that she couldn’t listen with earphones that shut out all other sound and left her even more alone than alone. But other people looked at her with disapproving judgement and the librarian came over to tell her to use earphones or stop playing or leave.

She left.

She tried the coffee shop but still those looks. When the second person asked her to turn down the volume or use earphones or leave, she left.

She tried her gym. Just a few others sat in the lounge area in the chairs in front of the fake fire or at the small tables along the back wall. But it was a busy place. Right inside the door, before the registration desk, in front of the café area, across from the Kid Zone. Busy, noisy, people talking, walking, answering the phone, paging trainers, asking questions. Surely here. She sat in one of the chairs and started to play his last composition. His unfinished what? – not symphony. A weird piece with Eastern overtones and a heavy almost mournful…

“I’m sorry, but could you please turn that down? Or use earphones. It’s just too loud for me to concentrate,” asked – but really demanded – the assertive young woman now standing next to her. Where had she come from?

She smiled a weak smile at the seemingly polite young woman and turned the music off. Closed her eyes and just sat until she felt movement next to her. An older woman sat down in the nearby chair, gave her a soft smile.

“Maybe,” she thought, “maybe she is more tolerant – or more hard of hearing.”

She turned the sound down a bit and restarted the music. The young woman came quickly from the table behind her.

“I’m sorry, but that is still too loud. You sh…”

“OK, you win,” she said angrily to the empty too-full world, as she turned off the music and fled before she sobbed her too loud sobs.

Sarah and Zacchaeus

[This short story combines two New Testament stories and characters, and the tradition of St. Veronica.]

I am Sarah, my husband is Zaccheaus. We are rich. We have money but that is not why we are rich. We have faith, we have the veil and I am Sarah and not savah. That is why we are rich. Others tell our story, but they mix up parts or leave parts out. I will tell you our true story.

It had been twelve years of struggle, then twelve years of something like happiness and then twelve years of shame when we met him and now again it is twelve years since he died and then was not dead. So it is time to tell our story.

But I don’t know where to start. With my childhood in my father’s Jericho home, learning to be a faithful Hebrew woman, learning the laws, waiting to be betrothed? With my betrothal to Zacchaeus, the man my father chose for me? My father said he was a fine young Hebrew man, faithful to God and the synagogue, not above himself. I thought he was very small, but he had kind eyes.

With my children? Four children in as many years. Three lived and became fine people, long gone from our house.

With Zacchaeus becoming a tax collector for the Romans? Oh, how my father raged, how my mother wept, how Zacchaeus’ own parents raged and wept. Our neighbors no longer trusted us. Zacchaeus stopped going to synagogue because no one would stand near him. The women looked on me with pity. Other children taunted our children. But we moved from our old neighborhood to a better one. We told ourselves, Zacchaeus and I, that the others were jealous, that we were doing what was right for our children. On market day, I was proud. I could buy the best fruits and vegetables, good cloth, new sandals every year for the children. I looked in my husband’s eyes and if I no longer saw kindness, I saw pride and I knew he saw his pride reflected in my eyes. Sometimes, it hurt that we were kadesh, cast out, shunned. Sometimes, I saw the sadness in Zacchaeus’ eyes and I knew he too felt kadesh. But we told each other often that we were lucky and we were happy and we were wealthy and we were good parents and we were good people before God. We were not kadesh to each other or to God.

I am a woman so every month when I was not with child, I was niddah for those days when I bled. Afterwards, each month, I went to the mikveh and cleansed myself, ignoring the looks from the other women. I held my head high, I would not let them see that their scorn hurt me. I was Zacchaeus’ wife and Zacchaeus was rich and our children had good clothes and good sandals.

Until that day when the bleeding did not stop. The day I became not just Sarah but savah, unclean. For one week, then two. Now I was kadesh from my husband and my household, for I was unclean. But we were rich and Jericho has the best doctors in Israel. Ah, the remedies, the prayers, the tears, the blood, always the blood. No man could touch me, of course, but the doctors did not need to touch me, did not need to come near me. The doctors knew which herbs I should prepare, which river I should wash in, which sacrifices Zacchaeus should make, which balm I should use. Zacchaeus could afford it all, even the balm of Gilead, even the pilgrimage to Jerusalem to sacrifice at the temple. But not even Gilead’s balm, nor the temple sacrifice, stopped the blood. Days became weeks, weeks became months, months became years. The children grew tall and strong. Bar mitzvahs and betrothals were celebrated – without me. Because still I bled. Zacchaeus collected taxes and spent a fortune on doctors. And still I bled.

My husband had tired eyes then, but he still had kindness for his family in him. We could not sit together, we could not eat together, we could not lie together, we could not be husband and wife together. But still he spoke with me, still he paid for every new doctor, still he sacrificed in the temple for me. And one day, twelve long years after the bleeding did not stop, he told me about a man. Not a doctor but a prophet and healer. A man who said strange things sometimes but who also healed lepers and drove out demons. A Nazarene named Yeshua who said he was the Son of God. A Nazarene! We might have laughed, twelve years before, we might have laughed at a Nazarene claiming he was the Son of God. But the laughter had stopped when the blood did not.

“I will go to him,” I said. “I will go to this healer in Nazareth.” But Zacchaeus said that was impossible. It would take me more than a week even on a donkey; even if I made the ridiculous journey, what would I do when I got there? This man, this healer, he was famous now, he would be surrounded by many people, many men. How could I hope to get near the healer without touching a man and making him unclean? I could not risk that further sin. I knew all of that, but I also knew I must go. So my kind Zacchaeus arranged it. I traveled to Nazareth.

My husband was right, there were many people. I heard people say that the man at the front of the crowd, talking with this Yeshua, was  Jairus, the leader of the synagogue. I heard that Jairus’ daughter was sick, dying, that Jairus had consulted all the doctors and none could help. I knew what that felt like. I heard them say that Jairus was desperate enough to ask this Nazarene for help. I knew what that, too, felt like.

No one knew me; no one knew I was savah as I pushed through the crowd. I heard someone say that they had seen him touch a paralyzed man and the man walked. Trembling, I pushed through the crowd. I heard a woman tell of how she heard those with him talk of how he had saved them from drowning by quieting a lake storm. Curious, I pushed through the crowd. I heard that Yeshua had healed a leper and that a rabbi had acknowledged the man was cleansed. Not daring to hope but hoping, I pushed through the crowd. I heard that he spoke of God with authority and I crept up behind him and reached out my hand and let my fingers graze the back of his cloak. And I knew, I knew, I knew, I felt it and I knew. I was Sarah and I was not savah. The blood stopped flowing, my strength returned. I stood still and closed my eyes as the crowd pushed past me. I just wanted to stand there and be well.

But Yeshua stopped too. He stopped just a few feet from me so that the crowd around me almost fell over themselves, almost knocked me down. And he asked, “Who touched me?” The men who were with him laughed at him and said, “Who touched you? Who touched you? Look around. There are people pressing in on us on every side. Many people have touched you. What are you talking about?” But Yeshua turned and looked at me and said, “Someone who needed healing touched me, for I felt the power go out from me.” And I fell to my knees for I knew, I knew that I had been healed and I had been saved and I was loved. I told him, I told him everything, even though I knew he already knew. And he smiled and he told me, but not really me because I already knew, he said so that everyone else would know, he said, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace.” And I went home, home to Zacchaeus. Home to start the ritual cleansing. I went to a home that could now be a true home for my husband and me.

My Zacchaeus, he was filled with wonder at my news, at my joy and my strength. For I stood straight and proud, with no pain, for the first time in twelve long years. “I should have gone with you, Sarah. I wish I had seen this Nazarene, this prophet, this Yeshua for myself,” he said.

A few months later we heard that Yeshua was in Jericho. Zacchaeus went, as soon as he heard the news, just wanting to see him. But my Zacchaeus, he is so short and the crowd was so large, he couldn’t get even a glimpse of the prophet. So my resourceful, clever Zacchaeus climbed a tree! And then Yeshua looked up and saw him and spoke to him. But that is not all. Yeshua did not care what others thought of my Zacchaeus; Yeshua came to our house and broke bread, shared a meal with us. No one was pleased by this, except myself and my Zacchaeus. In his heart of heart, for his family, my husband had always been a good man. But that day, he became again a good man, a generous man, a true son of Abraham, for everyone. That day salvation came to our house.

That was in Kislev, mid winter, twelve years ago. By Nissan that year Yeshua was arrested in Jerusalem. We were there, Zacchaeus and I, for Pasech. We did not like to be separated now that we could again be husband and wife together, so I had gone with him to Jerusalem.

Even now, twelve years later, I cannot easily speak of the horror of that time. Even knowing the wonder that came after, the horror, the sadness never really leaves me. We watched, we listened, we cried, we tried to talk sense into others and we were almost stoned for our efforts. We followed him to Golgotha. We saw his shredded back, his bleeding head, the blood dripping down his face, into his eyes. We saw him fall and I could not help myself. I ran to him and used my veil to wipe his face. As once he had cleansed my blood, so I cleansed his. Once again, he looked at me and knew me. Even in his great pain, even there near the end, he knew me. Then the Roman soldiers pushed me back, back into Zacchaeus’ strong arms.

We saw him die. For two days we mourned, too stunned to even cry, too broken to even think about going home. Then we began to hear an incredible story. We began to hear that he lived. But we had seen him die. We spoke with Mary from Magdala, we spoke with Mary and Martha and Lazarus from Bethany, we spoke with Peter and John and Thomas. And, though we had not seen him ourselves, we understood. Our hearts understood what our heads had been too slow to know. Because our hearts knew Yeshua. We knew his heart and we knew that his love still lived.

We are old now, my Zacchaeus and I. Soon now we will die. I hear our stories told by others, some who knew Yeshua, some who only have learned of him from others. They tell our stories but sometimes they forget the whole story and just tell the parts. So here, before I die, I wanted to tell our own whole, true story. So that you can understand how very rich we are, my sweet Zacchaeus and I, and how we became so rich.

Rachel Weeping

When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:
“A voice was heard in Ramah,
wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.” Matthew 2:16-18

The first lie I remember learning, being forced to tell, is that I had no baby brother. I barely remember it. I remember being very, very scared. All the grown ups were running around, screaming, shouting, crying. There were horses, lots of horses, in the streets of Bethlehem. And soldiers. Soldiers going in and out of the houses.

I remember my mother hurting me, hurting me because she was grabbing my shoulders so hard. Grabbing my shoulders and shaking me and crying and crying. She made me say it again and again. My baby brother died. My baby brother is dead. I don’t have a baby brother.
And I didn’t. I had a baby brother before that day. I remember looking at him, I remember stroking his soft hair, much softer than the turtle dove. I remember watching my mother feed him and how I wanted her to feed me that way. I remember I wanted to be the one she held and stroked and sang to while her nipple was in his mouth. I remember wishing he would disappear so she would hold me that way.

And then he disappeared.

At first, I asked about him but I was always told to hush, that he had died and that was an end to it. So I stopped asking. But I never stopped wondering.
My mother was always sad after that. Even after my brother Joshua was born a few years later. And then my sister, Sarah. I tried to remember what my baby brother’s name was. I tried to ask, but I was told he didn’t have a name, he had died at birth.

I didn’t even know that I was being taught to lie. I thought I had wanted him not to be and so he wasn’t. I thought I was the reason that my baby brother died and my mother was always sad. So I was very careful when Joshua and Sarah were born. I kept away from them. I tried not to think about them or look at them at all.
Ah, well, that was so many years ago. Now I live in Nain and I sit, waiting, waiting again for that unwelcome visitor. It should be an old friend by now, so many times has it visited. First my mother, then my father, my brother, my husband, and now my son. Soon death will come again and when he leaves, I will stay but my son will go with him.

I went to see that new prophet, the one they say can heal the sick. They say he’s from near here, from Nazareth. He travels the country with his companions, teaching and healing. I thought I would ask him, beg him, to heal my son. So I went to see him. He was sitting on a hillside. I looked at the men and women around him. Since he’s from Nazareth, I thought I might know one of his companions. Someone who could introduce me, plead with me for my son. I looked at them, one by one, until my heart lurched. One of the youngest men looked just like my brother Joshua, like my father. He looked to be the right age, the age of those babies when I was four. Those babies who were all killed. All killed when my mother taught me that my baby brother had never lived.

I just stood and stared. The man who might be, must be my brother saw me staring and smiled a questioning smile. The man they call a prophet saw me and smiled a gentle sad smile. He motioned for me to come but I fled back home in tears.

Maybe tomorrow, tomorrow if I am not walking with that ugly visitor behind my only son’s body, maybe tomorrow I will go back. I have two questions in my heart now. One for the prophet and one for his companion.

Soon afterwards he went to a town called Nain, and his disciples and a large crowd went with him. As he approached the gate of the town, a man who had died was being carried out. He was his mother’s only son, and she was a widow; and with her was a large crowd from the town. When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her and said to her, “Do not weep.” Then he came forward and touched the bier, and the bearers stood still. And he said, “Young man, I say to you, rise!” The dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother. Luke 7:11-15

The Last Shall Be…

The gospel reading today was Matthew 20:1-16, the parable of the generous vineyard owner. As I listened to the Lector reading the parable, another story came to life in my head.


What does it take for a person to change? Do you ever wonder what happened to those workers, the lucky ones who worked one hour and were paid a full day’s wages…

I wake late, as usual, and with a splitting headache, a dry mouth, a foggy memory of the night before. How many beers? How many shooters? Did I drive home? How late was it?

Damn all that noise – Joy and the kids clattering and squabbling through breakfast. Just a little while and Joy will be off to work, the kids to school and the world will stop bothering me.

She will be mad again. Please God, let her just leave without a lecture. I am so goddam sick and tired of her lectures, so tired of making promises I know I won’t keep. Goddammit, why can’t she understand that I need to relax after work, I need to be with the guys and the guys want to be at the bar. Does she expect me to be a hermit? A man needs friends. I bet George’s wife doesn’t ride him about his drinking.

Footsteps come down the hall. I pull the covers up, turn on my side, close my eyes. I don’t respond as she opens the door and calls my name…don’t respond to her loud sigh…don’t respond as she shuts the bedroom door, almost slamming it.

When I wake again, much later, I pull on my boxers and lurch to the kitchen to grab a can of beer, some bread and baloney from the fridge, and head to the family room to find that game show with the long-legged blonde.

Early afternoon, I get dressed. Why shower when I am going out to try to get work? I’ll just get dirty; I can shower tonight.

George and Joe are already at the work center when I get there. We stand around, smoking, talking a bit, exchanging nods and a few words with the other men. Then, just as I am about to head back home, grateful and ashamed to have spent another day not working, already rehearsing my story for Joy, some guy pulls up in a big van and hires me, George, Joe and a bunch of others to work in his vineyard for that last hour of the work day.

Lots of men are already working, practically sweating grape juice and dirt; some have been in those fields all day. We work just one hour then, at the end of the day, everyone gets paid the same. Joe, George and I couldn’t help grinning at each other; we made out like bandits! But, man, were those who had been working all day pissed off!

“What kind of shit is this? We busted our balls in your vineyard all day and you give these jerks, these one-hour wonders, the same pay?”

The guy who hired us didn’t give a shit about their complaining.

“Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?”*

First thing I do is call Joy, tell her I’m taking her and the kids to Mickey Ds for dinner. But with all that money, much more than I counted on, I realize I have enough for a few drinks. I put $20 for drinks in my right pocket and the rest, for Joy and the family, in my left. Then I head for the bar with Joe and George. We need to celebrate our good luck.

I wake late, as usual, and with a splitting headache, a dry mouth, a foggy memory of the night before. How many beers? How many shooters? Did I drive home? How late was it?

There was no money for Joy and the family. There was no family – just a note on the kitchen table. Joy had left and taken the kids.

Damn that man. If he had hired us at the beginning of the day, I would have been too tired to go to the bar. If he had just paid us for an hour’s work, I would have been too broke. This is all his fault.

Now that the family has stopped bothering me, now that I don’t have to make excuses or feel guilty…What the hell am I supposed to do now?

*Matthew 20:13-15

An Allegory, or Parable

Once upon a time there were 12 people in a room. This room was very beautiful with large windows on every wall. Now it happened that 10 of the 12 people were blind which was sad because they could not experience the full beauty of the room. On this cloudless summer day deep in the South, as the sun climbed ever higher in the sky, the room grew brighter and brighter. The two people who were not blind said to the others, “We want to pull down the shades because the bright sun is hurting our eyes.” But the ten blind people said, “The sun is not hurting our eyes. We don’t understand what you mean. We don’t know what bright is.” And the blind people and the sighted people fought and it was sad.

My own parable

As I prayed through Psalm 86 this morning, making it personal in my usual way, an image came to mind that made me laugh at my own greediness. I imagined myself drowning in a rough sea. Like Peter, I was sinking beneath the waves. But a woman in a boat threw me a lifeline and hauled me in. She saved me. I was so grateful. I thanked her again and again.

We got to shore. I went home. I dried off. I loved telling the story of how I almost drowned, how I had swam out too far in water too deep, too rough for me. But I didn’t drown because this wonderful woman saved me. She was there, she used her boat, her lifeline, her strength to save me. I loved telling that story.

Then, one day, I needed money and so I went to the woman who had saved me and asked her for money. Another day I had problems at work and so I went to the woman who had saved me and asked her to fix those problems for me. Another time I had made some of my family angry with me so I went to the woman who had saved me and asked her to get them to not be angry with me anymore. When I realized I didn’t like myself very much, I went to the woman who had saved me and told her that since she had saved me, it was her responsibility, her duty, to make me better.

I made the woman who had saved me once responsible for my whole life, for making everything right, for making everything better.

What a totally absurd story. That poor woman who had saved me would have had to join the Witness Protection Program — the Savior Protection Program.

Fortunately for me, God is not human; She doesn’t care if I am being absurd. She is willing to help me every single time. Still, I do feel that perhaps I could be just a bit more reasonable in my expectations.