Compassion and Gratitude

A sermon preached on November 23, 2008 (Thanksgiving Sunday) based upon Matthew 25:31 – 46, entitled “Compassion and Gratitude.”

There is little Buddhist fable about a voracious frog that was determined to capture a swift-running centipede. One day, as the frog crouched in a shady place, the centipede passed by, confident that it could elude any attack. The frog, making no movement in the centipede’s direction, asked in an admiring way, “How do you do that?”

“Do what?” the centipede asked.

“Run,” the frog replied. “And so fast.”

“I have a hundred feet,” the centipede boasted.  “Of course I can run fast.”

“But how do you keep those hundred feet in order?” asked the frog.

“How do you keep those hundred feet from getting all tangled up? Think about it for a minute. Just how, exactly, do you know to put down foot number forty-six, rather than fifty-two, and foot eighty-nine rather than twelve? How on earth do you keep the whole sequence flowing in such a smooth and perfect manner while you glide over the earth? I mean, think about it.”

The centipede did, indeed, began to think about this, and as it did so, the frog rose up in a leisurely manner and began moving in its direction. Frantically, the centipede tried to make its escape, but now its conscious thought processes were engaged in what had been an unconscious effort. It’s feet fell out of sequence, and its legs become tangled. The frog gobbled up its meal, a victim of his self-consciousness.

This morning’s reading from Matthew reminded me of this little story, which, I suspect doesn’t make much sense to you, so let me back up and explain.

Once more I find in this passage of scripture that peculiar combination of the good and the bad when it comes to reading the Bible. I think we have here the profundity of Jesus, mixed in with what amounts to the unfortunate misdirection of Matthew the Gospel writer.

First off, this little story of the separation of the sheep and the goats is presented as if it were another one of Jesus’ parables about the kingdom of God, when in fact, in its present form it’s not really a parable at all — it’s an allegory which is quite different from a parable.

Parables invite you to climb inside and evoke an ever evolving stream of insights.

An allegory, on the other hand, is pretty straight forward; each character, each object represents something quite specific, and once you’ve got those representations figured out, you’ve pretty much got the allegory figured out.

What we have here is an allegory, the meaning of which is clear enough: people who do helpful things for people in need will go to heaven, and people who don’t will go to hell.

If you are a Bible literalist, this is what you’re left with, which is a bit of a problem for a most literalists, insofar as most Bible literalists will say that entrance into heaven isn’t based upon what you do at all, it’s based upon what you believe, that is, that Jesus is the Son of God who died for our sins.

This is precisely not what this allegory is saying.

But since I am NOT a Bible literalist, I am free to sort through this story, and once more I see the hand of Matthew, who, for all his many good traits seems to have a thing for eternal punishment, and a need to have things be black and white, qualities that show up in his Gospel in a way that far exceed anything you find in the other three Gospels.

I think, however, that there is a parable hidden inside Matthew’s allegory, and it is in pondering the inner details of the story that this parable begins to speak to us.

Curiously, the details of the story contradict the allegorical interpretation that Matthew has given to this story. For instance, if the message of the allegory is:  you had better make a point of being nice to people in need because your eternal residence in heaven (or hell) is at stake, the reaction of the so-called “sheep” in the story is puzzling. They are truly surprised to discover they are being rewarded. The never did what they did with an eye for reward — any thought of, “Hey, I better do this because God is watching and it’s what God thinks of what I’m doing that matters.”   No, their actions were spontaneous, with no calculation involved whatsoever.  They just did the compassionate thing, because in some sense it was for them the natural thing to do; it was what they wanted to do. They lacked any self-consciousness. In other words their actions came from the heart (which is where compassion arises from.) They felt the pain of the other, and they wanted to ease that pain.

It was as simple as that.

And so ironically, the ones in the allegory who are offered up as the models for right behavior are people who weren’t paying attention to allegories that say, “Do this or you will be punished.”

The reaction of the goats, on the other hand, seems to suggest precisely the opposite. They are functioning out of a reward/punishment framework, and assume that actions on behalf of Jesus will be rewarded. The thing that puzzles them is, “How’d we miss figuring out what the required actions were?”

Put another way, Matthew’s allegory seems to encourage a goat-like kind of self-consciousness that is precisely opposite from the lack of self-consciousness that characterizes the sheep.

If you go back to that original Bible story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden — a story that is more like a parable than an allegory — one of the striking things you notice is that a consequence of what theologians refer to as the “fall” — the condition of “sin” — is that Adam and Eve become self-conscious in a way they never were before. Once they eat the forbidden fruit, they notice for the first time that they are naked and go to lengths to cover themselves with fig leaves. They worry about what God will think about them and so they hide.

Self-consciousness — the thing that tripped up the centipede — is presented as a sign that things have gone terribly wrong in what was once perceived to be paradise.Matthew seems to be encouraging this same kind of self-consciousness. He turns Jesus’ parable into a Law, which turns our attention to ourselves with the question, “Am I doing it right or not?”

In contrast, I think Jesus is inviting us to contemplate the mystery of grace wherein self-consciousness is transcended, that experience captured concisely in a lyric of Paul Simon: “Did you ever have a moment of grace when your brain to a seat behind your face?”This being Thanksgiving Sunday, I am led to think about gratitude, and it strikes me that gratitude and compassion go hand in hand — that they share the same absence of self-consciousness.   What I mean is, hold a law over peoples’ heads and say, “You had better feel thankful for all your blessings!” and I daresay, it isn’t going to work.  Tell your children they had better be grateful for those vegetables on their dinner plate that they‘re trying to avoid — because, you know, “there are children in this world who are starving,” you aren’t likely to induce gratitude, though you may succeed in provoking guilt. In all likelihood you’ll get an enthusiastic offer to ship those vegetables off to the hungry children.

When we’re in the rat race — when we are anxious and troubled about many things (which is the state of mind that contemporary life more often than not induces in us) — when we are in a rush with a big list of things we need to get done — neither gratitude nor compassion are inclined to show up in our hearts.

Go up to a harried parent in the check out line of the grocery store, having just come from work and preoccupied with getting supper on the table, as well as making sure their kids get their homework done and a thousand other problems resolved, and ask them at that moment, “Do you feel grateful for your life?” What you will most like encounter is annoyance. Take that same harried parent, however, and somehow find a way to get them to relax: “Here, sit down in this comfy chair, put your legs up, have a cup of tea, don’t worry about getting the dinner together, the kids are going to a friends’ house for supper and they’re going to work on homework together afterwards. Don’t worry.”  Manage to get them to relax in this way, and my suspicion is that before long you will find gratitude for their life arising in their hearts. For their children, for food, for a house to live in — for the whole blessed gift of life.

Get them into that state of mind, and I suspect you will also find them spontaneously experiencing compassion in a way that wasn’t happening when they were compulsively pursuing their “to do” list.  There will be room now in their hearts for feeling the pain of others.

Go back to that very first Thanksgiving — the one celebrated by the pilgrims.  From one angle they had very little to be thankful for. In their first year in the New World half of them had died because of the brutal winter conditions they found themselves in.

But they were grateful, and maybe a big reason why this was possible was that they gave themselves an opportunity to experience the gratitude that was buried inside them — setting aside a time from work to share a feast with their friends the Indians who had shown compassion upon them when they were strangers and helped them to survive in this strange new world.

Here’s one more place I think Matthew’s allegory has the story convoluted. Underneath it all, the thing that is being talked about here is contact with Jesus; it’s about recognizing the holy presence in one’s day to day life. Which, if you think about it, is a very good thing indeed.

As we go through life in this world with all the muck and messiness, the pain and sorrow that we inevitably encounter, are we making contact with the holy one, or not?  The ones referred to as “the sheep” are finding just that — even though they may never not put it into words. They really are blessed; not just in a future life, but right now as well.

On the other hand, the ones referred to as the goats are missing contact with holy God. Perhaps their assumption is that all those needy people really are God-forsaken — hopeless — and they had better avoid contact with them lest they be drawn into the same God-forsakenness. (I think we all know this feeling, which is a way of saying that the goat lives within us as well.)

In certain sense the goats already feel abandoned by God, with their only hope being that somewhere down the road they will manage to make it to heaven where God IS present.

If you look at it this way, well, the so-called goats might well evoke our compassion, rather than our condemnation.

It might lead us to want to gently lead that goat to a nice comfy chairs to sit quietly, or maybe beside some still water, or to nice green pasture somewhere to lie down in, and to look them in the eyes and say as tenderly as possible, “You know, you don’t really have to be so afraid, God really is with us.”