All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. — Matthew 25:32-33, NRSV
I live in a country that speaks often of sacrifice. We extol the virtues of our military and civil service members, revering the sacrifices they make to keep our nations safe and free. Movies portray characters that give of themselves to a heroic degree, always affecting some sort of monumental change at the end. Not surprisingly, we also lift up Jesus and His sacrifice, which grants us forgiveness and understanding of God’s insurmountable love.
With all that in mind, I believe we are very unhealthy when it comes to the notion of sacrifice and the “hero-worship” to which this nation subscribes. It is right that we respect the choice of those who join our military out of a love for family and country. This becomes problematic, however, when we are no longer allowed to question the legitimacy of the causes for which they are made to fight. Further, our respect seems to be mere lip service in a country with such high veteran unemployment and suicide rates.
Our police officers should be respected and given every chance and resource to safely and effectively keep our streets free of crime and violence. This goes too far, however, when the justice system cannot be challenged for its injustices against the poor and people of color. Again, our praise falls short when budgets, paychecks, and training protocols don’t reflect a desire for safety when it comes to our officers and civilians.
Parenthood requires self-sacrifice and putting the needs of others before ourselves. Problems arise when this idea is used to send an abused wife or child back to their home with the misguided hope of “keeping the family together” and “suffering as Christ suffered.” Again, what is a good notion of self-giving becomes an occasion by which innocents pay the price for the misdeeds of others.
I hope you noticed an important distinction. I am in no way criticizing the individuals who are simply trying to do what is right, but I am casting a suspicious look on the powers that make use of their good intentions. Blaming individual persons for structural issues is unproductive, and I do not want to be misunderstood.
So what is my point here? Sacrifice in and of itself is not necessarily a good or blessed thing. It matters who is doing the sacrificing, and it also matters for what they are making the sacrifice. Further, it is important to note that sacrifice, in the Christian sense, is not to be limited to our heroes. It’s the call of all people who claim to follow Jesus.
The text of Scripture that motivated this point is Matthew 25:31-46, known commonly as “The Sheep and the Goats” or “The Judgment of the Nations.” The “sheep” are those who, at the final judgment, are commended for their care of others (verses 34-40). As they did to “least of these,” so they did to Christ (verse 40). Notice the “sheep” have no idea that they were serving Jesus, just that they were doing the right thing!
Now, to truly care for another person, we must sacrifice ourselves. To feed, give water, clothe, visit, and comfort, we must give of our comfort and resources. This kind of sacrifice must be made of our own volition, utilizing our gift of freewill to honor God.
The “goats” also make sacrifices… out of others. They receive criticism for refusing the same compassion evident in the lives of the “sheep” (verses 41-45), and they pay the penalty for such selfish behavior (verse 46). When we decide not to care for others, we sacrifice them for the sake of our comfort, security, and self-preservation.
Now, it was no accident that sheep and goats were chosen to represent these two divisions of people. Both animals are used for sacrifices in the Old Testament, and the parallel makes perfect sense! Sheep are used as freewill offerings, while goats are the offerings for sin. Creepy, right?
One represents an offering of free will to God. The other represents a necessary sacrifice because of the power of human sin. The “sheep” sacrifice themselves by choice, offering comfort and peace to the afflicted. When we get to the “goats,” we see those who sacrifice others for the sake of themselves.
The latter is not a worthy sacrifice, and here is the takeaway: God will vindicate those who are sacrificed by executing justice on those who take advantage of them… as well as executing judgment on those who allow this to happen. It is here that we have a serious implication for this world and our tendency toward hero-worship.
When we pay lip service to those with genuine, self-sacrificing motives, we fail to truly honor what they have given. For example, if we look to Christ as a hero as opposed to an example, we fail to realize the truly transformative power of what He has done. We are called to take up our cross and follow, not to sit underneath the cross and be grateful that we no longer have a dog in this fight.
A more desirable alternative is to embody the values we extol in others, recognizing them as examples for us to follow. We should be willing to make sacrifices so that all may live full and blessed lives without having to bear the weight of our selfishness. This means asking the questions, taking the chances, and making the generous choices, even when all of this is uncomfortable or inconvenient.
Now, I am not laying the world’s fate at your feet. This is a work that will not be completed until Christ comes to restore all things… but that doesn’t mean we don’t still have a role to play. Start small. As always, I believe in examining our daily lives, finding opportunities to extend hospitality, keep silence, and work for justice. Whether it’s the man begging on a corner, the co-worker having a hard time, or that unbearable family member, our day-to-day decisions will bear witness to our willingness to sacrifice either ourselves or each other.
Instead of leaning on others to do what we will not, the life of Christ calls us to join the large family of people who bear witness to the love of God by their lives of chosen self-giving. Rather than merely talking of our heroes, let’s respect them fully by doing our part, walking the way of the Cross together, that we all may experience the life of God that awaits us.
Peace be with you!