Thursday, November 17, 2011


Stephen Schwartz’ mystical Godspell, now at the Circle in the Square Theater on Broadway, breathes new life into the Gospel stories most of us know by heart.

The musical has been doing that for forty years, and now the infusion of disco, hip hop, blues and funk brings the parables even closer to home. One of my favorite skits in the show is the separation of the sheep (“baaahhh”) from the goats (“maaahhh.”) As the goats realize to their horror that they are being shut out of the kingdom because of their lack of empathy for suffering people, they taunt the sheep: “But, Lord, if we knew it was you, we would have invited you over – for LAMB chops.” But Jesus – on stage as in the bible – is unyielding. “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me. And (you) will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

Is it possible that Jesus could be so mean? You can hear the pathos in the bleating of the goats: “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?” But Jesus makes it plain: when we step gingerly over a sleeping homeless person at Grand Central Station, we step over Jesus. There is a story that when First Lady Rosalyn Carter did just that in 1978, her Baptist heart broke. She wept.

But life isn’t always simple for us goats. This week, my niece in Melbourne, Fla., posted this on Facebook: “Doorbell rings at midnight- creepy guy with a sketchy story trying to get in our house. This song is for my husband, who got up and went to the window with a baseball bat and while our daughter and I hid under the covers. He's so brave!” First the guy said there had been an accident. Then he said he had taken a cab but needed help to pay the driver. Finally, with the dog barking ferociously inside the house, the guy disappeared.

Was that guy Jesus? Not bloody likely. But how do we judge the divinity of every panhandler who greets us in the mall with a sob story? The truth is, sooner or later, we’re all goats. Maaahh.

But much of the time, we’re sheep, too. We care for those who are hungry, thirsty and ill clothed. We support the poor. We nurse the sick. We have our prison ministries. Baaahh.

It’s interesting to note, by way of a scientific affirmation of a metaphysical observation, there is such a thing as a goat-sheep hybrid – a geep. This doesn’t happen often in nature. Goat and sheep do cohabit on a thousand hills, and they have been known to cross species lines and do the nasty, although their offspring rarely survive. But sheep-goat chimeras were created by researchers at the Institute of Animal Physiology in England by combining sheep embryos with goat embryos. The offspring were a mosaic of goat and sheep tissue. The parts that grew from the sheep embryo were woolly. Those that grew from the goat embryo were hairy.

It’s puzzling and perhaps a little disturbing to wonder why physiologists would want to do this, but it does make an unusual sermon illustration. When Jesus separates the sheep from the goats, how will he deal with the fact that most of us are geeps?

Actually, I think this is a bigger problem for us than it will be for Jesus. He knows very well that all of us sin and fall short of the glory of God, and there must be some kind of divine formula to protect us from eternal punishment when we miss a deposit at the food pantry. But how much slack is Jesus willing to cut us?

Last week I watched an interesting 2004 European film called, “The Downfall,” directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel, which depicts the final ten days of Adolf Hitler's life in his Berlin bunker in 1945. In an unlikely but apparently documented scene, Eva Braun – soon to become Frau Hitler – and Hitler’s young secretary, Traudl Junge, take a cigarette break in the bunker and talk about der fuehrer. “I’ve known him for ten years, and yet I don’t really know him at all,” confesses Eva. The lithesome Traudl takes a deep drag and shrugs. “In private moments he can be so kind and gentle,” she says. “At other times, he is so brutal.”

Hitler is one of those malevolent figures who cannot be rationalized, so monstrous that partisan comparisons of George W. Bush and Barack Obama to Hitler fall ludicrously short. No one in history, with the possible exception of Caligula or Stalin, was as bad as Hitler. He is evil incarnate.

But I remember reading an essay by entertainer Steve Allen that speculated no one can be malicious all the time, and he used Hitler as an example. “Probably much of the time he was a very nice fellow,” Allen wrote. The speculation seems to hold true in many scenes from “The Downfall,” which are based on eyewitness accounts. At one point Hitler rages at his generals, saying the German people deserve to starve and die because they hadn’t done enough to defend the Reich. In other scenes, he tweaks the youthful cheek of a pre-teen soldier, or pats his secretary on the shoulder, saying, “You need to get some rest, dear.”

I tend to agree that no one is a monster 24-7. Many of the murderers I knew as a newspaper reporter were perfectly nice people. There is as telling scene in HBO’s Treme in which a felon in prison warns a visiting lawyer that a New Orleans councilman she admires is on the take. The lawyer, who believed in the councilman’s integrity, expresses shock, but the prisoner finds her attitude to be naïve. “We’re all nice guys,” he says. “We all love our mothers. We all root for the Saints.”

Even so, it’s not easy to think of ourselves as both good and evil, simultaneously goats and sheep. Our hymnology assures us that faith in Jesus will wash our all our sins away, leaving our souls – in that irksome Victorian metaphor – white as snow. We fervently want to believe that people can be good, that there are those who do not have “an evil bone in their bodies.” We’d like to think this was true of our sainted mothers, our favorite pastors, our idolized teachers. We’d like to believe that, someday, it will be true of us.

We’d like to think that, perhaps, but it’s not good theology or, for that matter, good psychology. The great psychoanalyst C. G. Jung insisted that evil and good do and must exist together in every human heart. In a Southern Cross review of an unpublished essay by Jung, Frank Thomas Smith quoted the great man:

“Evil is the necessary opposite of good, without which there would be no good either. It is impossible to even think good out of existence.” Jung, Smith writes, believed in the “titanic magnitude of evil,” and he believed Christian theologians “consistently and disastrously dwarfed the picture of evil as arising from the unconscious of humanity.” In Civilization in Transition, Jung wrote that evil “is of gigantic proportions, so that for the Church to talk of original sin and to trace it back to Adam’s relatively innocent slip-up with Eve is almost a euphemism. The case is far graver and is grossly underestimated.”

Jung wrote these words before Hitler came to power, so history’s ultimate expression of “grossly underestimated” evil was as yet unavailable. But there is always ample evidence that evil impacts our lives with “titanic magnitude.”

Perhaps one of the messages in the parable of the sheep and the goats is that humans must strive to overcome the resident evil in our hearts by conscientiously living out God’s commandments to support the poor, “the least of these,” as Jesus called them. But out best efforts to be Christlike are not always successful. There are times when we will be moved to help "the least of these," but also times when we will step over their sleeping bodies on subway vents. As in many animated features, the angel of our good nature orbits around our heads with the angel of our evil nature, one reminding us we are sheep, the other dismissing us as goats.

It’s not pleasant knowing good and evil are competing for our attention, but the knowledge does keep us realistically balanced. Some people go through their lives assuming they are good and godly, even while they ignore “the least of these” who cross their paths.

A couple months ago, as the nation celebrated Labor Day, many Christians were disturbed that other Christians felt justified in removing government support for “the least of these” in order to move toward balancing the federal budget. As so-called bible believing Christians in Congress were calling for budget cuts in programs that support the poor, others were saddened by the reality that one in five children are raised in poverty and 40 million Americans are living below the federal poverty level.

“Be that as it may,” the National Council of Churches said in its Labor Day message, “it is clear that many politicians, even those who name the name of Christ, will not mention the poor in their holiday rhetoric. If that's due to forgetfulness on their part, let us offer this reminder: poverty exists at unacceptable levels in this bountiful land. While politicians can certainly differ on strategies for helping the poor, no politician who claims the bible as authoritative can ignore the poor. And no politicians who ignore the poor can claim the bible to be their guide – not at any time, and certainly not in this time of great need.”

The National Council of Churches offered to send a free bible to any politician who needed clarity on that point.
The biblical message is stated with particular clarity in the parable of the sheep and the goats. The one in five children and the 40 million Americans living in poverty should make us all think of the face of Jesus, and his declaration that whatever we do to help them, “you have done it unto me.”

That probably won’t remove from us the stigma of being geeps, or temper the issue of good and evil in human hearts.

But it will remind us that when we walk among those who are hungry, those who are thirsty, those who can’t afford a decent set of clothes, those who are persecuted by injustice, we aren’t walking among strangers. We are walking beside Jesus.

We won’t be able to help everyone, perhaps. But knowing who we are walking with should be wonderfully clarifying – and motivating.

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