Reflections During High Holy Days
We are at a place in the year where we are thinking about things of ultimate importance. These are the days of awe, the days of introspection. I have been spending a lot of time reflecting on my life, reflecting on how God feels about my life. I have been spending a lot of time since Erev Rosh HaShannah asking myself the question, “Who do I need to give myself permission to love.” I have a short list and a long list.
I have been spending a lot of time thinking about how much I love the family here at Beth Messiah. Lauren and I are so blessed to serve here. So man of you here went out of your way to bless me when you found out it was my birthday. When you found out that some anonymous person had written a hate letter, so many of you called me, prayed with me, hugged on us.
I am so amazed of how well Beth Messiah has welcomed in so many new people. I understand that Erev Rosh HaShannah we had over 80 new visitors on campus and over 2,000 people watched us online. I heard from some of the new visitors that they said, “They felt the love of God and the love of family in this place.”
I think you are some of the most amazing people on planet earth Beth Messiah. I don’t deserve the honor of being your rabbi and in the words of Isaiah the prophet, “I have received a portion with the great” (Isa 53:14).
Would you grab your copy of the Scriptures. Say it with me today
I want to talk to you today about some reflections I have been having on a passage of Scripture that is one of the most misunderstood passages of Scriptures and misapplied passage of Scriptures ever it is from Matthew 25:31-46
“Now when the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the angels with Him, then He will sit on His glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before Him, and He will separate them from one another, just as the shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And He will put the sheep on His right, but the goats on His left. Then the King will say to those on His right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty and you gave Me something to drink; I was a stranger and you invited Me in; I was naked and you clothed Me; I was sick and you visited Me; I was in prison and you came to Me.’ “Then the righteous will answer Him, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry and feed You? Or thirsty and give You something to drink? And when did we see You a stranger and invite You in? Or naked and clothe You? When did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?’ “And answering, the King will say to them, ‘Amen, I tell you, whatever you did to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.’ Then He will also say to those on the left, ‘Go away from Me, you cursed ones, into the everlasting fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave Me nothing to eat; I was thirsty and you gave Me nothing to drink; I was a stranger and you did not invite Me in; naked and you did not clothe Me; sick and in prison and you did not visit Me.’ “Then they too will answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not care for You?’ Then He will answer them, saying, ‘Amen, I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for Me.’ These shall go off to everlasting punishment, but the righteous into everlasting life.”
Let me tell you the history of this section of Scripture.
Not the history you get if you read some scholarly commentary on this passage or read the latest Jonathan Cahn book, I want to talk to you about my personal history with this text.
The first time I remember hearing about the sheep and the goats was one time when I was a teenager.
I had been out all night with a good buddy getting high and drinking. He was a good catholic and since we had been up all night drinking and partying he felt it necessary to go to mass. Now, of course, I had very little religion and very little judaism so I did not know what mass was. He told me that mass was where we could tell a priest and God that we had been drinking and getting high and then our record would be clear with God and man and we could keep on partying. Well that sounded like a good deal to me. Pour out my sin bucket and get to fill it back up.
We went to the mass, remember we had been up all night with no sleep. Pretty high, pretty drunk. The Priest started talking about the sheep and the goats. I did not know how to study the Bible so I took the story pretty literally. And I thought to myself, “Why would God be concerning himself with sheeps and goats.” It sounded like a county fair up in heaven. I had been to a few counties fairs in my day and I just could not imagine why God would be concerning himself with a bunch of stinky goats and smelly sheep.
Then somewhere in the message the priest mentioned something about God counting the very hairs on your head. I thought if God is interested in such trivial matters as my hair, well sheep and goats makes lots of sense. That was my first time to interact with this story. I was so high and drunk after I ate the cracker and stole a couple of extras, they were mighty small hors d’oeuverves, I can’t say I thought about it too much.
About eight years later, the Lord had rescued me from a life of partying, drinking and abuse. I started to read my Bible and somebody told me to read the Gospel of Matthew.
I think they were trying to scare me away. After all, Matthew’s Gospel is the most challenging Gospel and I was rough around the collar. So I read Matthew’s Gospel and when I got to this passage I said to myself, “Aha, I remember this one. This is not about animals at the county fair, this is about people.”
I realized, the good people are sheep and the bad people are goats. But, why are the good people the sheep and the bad people the goats. For years I wondered about this when my wife and I moved to Chicago, I met a fellow student who was from sheep ranching family in Western Washington. He was Mennonite, loved the Lord. I asked him about sheep and right away he said, “They are the stupidest creatures that God ever did make.” I said to him, “What about goats?” He was not as quick with that one but he said, “They are stubborn animals. They have no discernment. They will eat anything. They will attack friend and foe alike.”
All the nations will be gathered before Him, and He will separate them from one another, just as the shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.
Anyhow, the sheep are the good guys and the goats are the bad guys. When I first came to the Lord and I would read my Bible I was always trying to imagine what passages like this would look like.
When I thought about where could there be a place where there could be a lot of people gathered and some separated here and some over there, all I could think of was the Astrodome. I had been to the games there when Mike Scott was pitching and Nolan Ryan. I can remember the large crowds there was the home team we would be the sheep and the away team and their fans the goats. I could imagine that out one the field were great giant angels playing their horns, their shofars.
There would be this blast and an announcement over the PA, “If you are sheep over to the right side of the stadium and if you are goats over to the left side of the stadium.”
When I thought about this I thought, “Well I had just met the Lord and of course I would be one of the sheep and I would go over to the right with all the other sheep. With all the other sheep that I had met when I met Messiah.”
I was worried about all my old friends who did not know Messiah. I was worried about my old gang Casey, Larry, Rod, Eddie and Little Mike they had never met Yeshua, they did not even know about mass where you could at least empty out your sin bucket and then fill it back up again.
I figured they would be really surprised if they were there. I thought one of the angels would have to explain everything to them. He would say, “Okay, you goats come with me over to the left.” I could hear little Mike saying, “Yo, dog, where do you get off calling me a goat.” And the angel would say, “Well, it is not personal it just has to do with the way you treated the King?” I could hear little Mike saying, “I never met know King unless it was in a Poker game.” The angel would say, “Well he was thirsty and you did not even offer him a Pepsi or anything. He was hungry and you would not even offer him some of your fries. He was shivering cold one night and you would not loan him your extra jacket. He was homeless for a week or two and you would not take him in. He was in jail and you never visited him. He was sick almost dead and you did not even care.”
I could imagine my old gang saying, “We never saw that dude, never saw a sick King, a starving King.” And the angel would say, “Well it is not exactly him, it is the people that He loves. It is his brothers.”
I could imagine little Mike saying, “Take a guy in, you kidding me, in this neighborhood you take a guy in he will have 9 millimeter pointed at your head and rob you blind.” I could think of my friend Eddie saying, “My pops is up in max security for murder. I go visit him, does that count?”
I just knew that was going to be a tough assignment for that angel.
Years later, I came back to this text and realized something so obvious. I could not believe that I could miss it. The sheep are just as confused as the goats.
The sheep ask the exact same questions. They had the same questions as the goats.
I thought about this. One thing we know this passage is not teaching is that if
you go feed somebody on Thanksgiving your automatically going to heaven.
or if you put some money into a jar at the grocery store for someone’s medical need that you got your ticket for eternal life.
If you have ever read the Gospel of Matthew which is the Gospel of God you realize you do not get into heaven that easy. So I have wondered a lot about this passage and realized it might not be as easy as I once thought. In this parable in Matthew 25:34 there is a line that at first glance does not appear to carry much weight it says Matthew 25:34
Then the King will say to those on His right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.
It is that phrase, “Blessed by my Father.” It is not a throw away line. It carries a lot of weight. I paid a lot of money in seminary to learn the three secret words to studying the Bible, “Context, Context, Context.”
Well when you look at the context of Matthew’s Gospel that phrase Blessed by My Father is something that Yeshua had challenged his disciples with at his first sermon. The sermon on the Mount. I am assuming that Yeshua’s disciples wanted to know who was the kind of person who could be blessed by God the Father. So Yeshua lays it out for them in what we call the beatitudes: Matthew 5
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are men and women who sense they are spiritually destitute and bankrupt. They have no coins that they can give to get into God’s favor. They realize how bankrupt and broken they really are.
The second beatitude flows from the first. Matthew 5:4
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
Mourn about what? Mourn about the fact they are spiritually destitute? They mourn about the fact that there is nothing they can do to earn God’s favor. They mourn about the fact that they don’t have enough spiritual coin to buy living waters or spiritual food. They mourn about this.
“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
This one is a troubling one. I wish the word were different. The translation is correct but the work is just troubling. Where I came from, you call a man meek and you might get punched in the mouth.
If you do a word association it is a meek little man. A weak little man.
But the word meek is not a weak word. It was used outside of the Bible to describe a horse that won a horse race. It was not used to say that the horse was to shy to run the race, or get out front. No, it was said of this champion stallion that he was meek because with one touch from his rider he would go left, or go right, with one slight pull on the reigns he would slow down, or speed up at the slightest command. He was said to be meek because was in submission to his rider.
So blessed are the meek, they are under the submission of their king. Little tug from him and they go left, go right, slow down, go forward.
They will “inherit the earth.” Funny isn’t it. Our faith is not just about what happens on the other side of this life but what happens on this side of the line. We think of heaven but part of God’s promise is that we will inherit the earth. An earth filled with those in submission to their king.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.
These spiritually destitute people who are poor, who mourn, who submit to their king will hunger and thirst for righteousness.
I have wondered a lot about “righteousness.” Righteousness is not a thing. I can’t go to the store and say I would like a Rib-Eye and 5 lbs of Righteousness. Righteousness is about relationship. A relationship with God and with others.
When the word was first used of our Father Abraham it was used to express how he was in relationship with God. But it is also describes our relationship with others.
These people are filled with the reality of relationship with God and with others. It is something they are hungry and thirsty for.
“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall be shown mercy.
This makes sense doesn’t it? It is like a cycle. If you received mercy you should be merciful to others.
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
I have struggled with this because I don’t know exactly what this means. I know it means at a bare minimum that these people have a vision of God that is like and HD picture of a beautiful sunrise and not like a jigsaw puzzle that you have to put together.
I also know one thing for sure, if you are not pure of heart the last person you want to see is a Holy God.
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.
That makes a lot of sense. Destitute sinners who mourn, who want the reality of God who have received mercy. These people want to tell other people that the war between God and man is over. That the blood of Yeshua has made perfect peace. This is all they want to talk about.
They also want to bring people together rather than separate them. Like this congregation right here. We have Jews and Arabs, we have black and Asia, white and latino. We have young and we have old and we have the in-betweens. It is amazing. We have a unity of the spirit and the bond of peace right here.
We should not be the people who show contempt, criticism, defensiveness and build walls between people, we should be bridge builders.
So you take all that from Matthew 5 and go back to Matthew 25:34
Then the King will say to those on His right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.
And now, I come to realize this is not just some kind of intellectual checkmate. This is not some checklist of items, some chore sheet that you have to do for some class you are taking, or some accountability group you are in.
These sheep did this naturally and had no idea they were doing it. Look at what the sheep said Matthew 25:37-38
“Then the righteous will answer Him, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry and feed You? Or thirsty and give You something to drink? And when did we see You a stranger and invite You in? Or naked and clothe You?
When you are really one of His, you are totally unaware of what you are doing. These little deeds of kindness, little deeds of love are natural to them. They were not trying to do it, these sheep are just doing it naturally.
It comes as naturally to them as, well, as wool.
I have never talked to a sheep and had it talk back to me. But I could imagine talking to a sheep and asking him, “How did you get all that wool?” And I don’t think he would say, “Bahhhh, I held my breath and said woooool.” No, I think he would say, “What wool?”
I would say all this wool all over your body. See this is just part of their nature.
These sheep don’t keep a record of their wool to get into the flock they produce wool because they are part of his flock.
That is why the King can say Matthew 25:40
“And answering, the King will say to them, ‘Amen, I tell you, whatever you did to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.’
During these days, during the days of awe and introspection I would be lying to you if I did not think a lot about appearing before this King, standing before his throne. This the judgment of all nations, I suppose I am part of all nations.
I can imagine him saying to me, “Vowell, did you bring your date book?” And I would say, “Yes Lord, I know it says I brought nothing into the world and I will taking nothing out but I got my date book past customs coming into the kingdom.”
Well okay, Vowell, lets look back at March 2009.
Oh, yes. March 2009, You must be thinking of the first week because that is when I submitted my paper on the Septuagint’s Suppression of Rock Metaphors in the Book of Psalms. Yes, that is when I was told I would receive the Merrill F. Unger Award in Old Testament Studies. I remember that very well.
The King would say, “well I don’t go to a lot of seminaries they are too stuffy and I did not understand the title of your paper so I just put it aside.”
No, no Vowell what I am referring to happened a week after this when Dr. Waters told you about a couple at your school that was on hard times. You see Vowell I had designed things so that they had a 25 day check but a 31 day month and she was in the hospital desperately ill.
You remember Vowell how you put some money in an envelope and you and your wife made a big meal for them. Remember, they had never even met you before. They did not know you from Adam. Remember, how you got up early that morning at 4am and made sure to meat the husband at the hospital with that food and that envelope.
Oh Lord, that was a long time ago. I didn’t think much of it. It just felt like the right thing to do. The King would say, “I remember it. When you put that money in that envelope. When you gave that meal to him. Got up that early. You did not even tell him your name.” He would say, “You gave it to me. I have never forgotten it. I know your name.”
Or Let’s go back even further. You remember it was December of 2004. Oh yes Lord, I remember that. I was named one of the “Who’s Who Among Students in American Colleges and Universities. I had just received Goldberg Award in Jewish Studies.” I remember that very well.
The King would say, “Well I have never read the “who’s who” they get it all wrong and I knew a guy once his name was Rabbi Saul he had a few awards but he gave them all up.”
The King would say, “No, there was a time after class in the early part of December. You saw a fellow student in the commons and you could tell he was stressed out. You did not know him but you went over and asked him, “How are you doing.” Remember, he said to you, “Yes” and you said, “But how are you doing really?”
Remember how he wept and told you that he was scared of failing school and he was doing so poorly that he was thinking about killing himself because he could not bare the shame of failing in Bible College. Remember how you sat and talked with him. Remember how you helped him to get his thoughts together. Remember how you helped me to outline his paper and coached him through how to write a great paper and remember how a made B and he did not fail out. Remember how you prayed with him and made sure he was okay.
I would say, “Lord I remember that. It was so long ago now.” The King would say, “When you sat there and listened. You were listening to my pain, my shame as well. When you bore his cross with him, you were bearing my cross as well. And that is something that I did not forget.”
There are going to be a lot of surprising things at the judgment. Surprising because there are just some things that will not get through customs as you enter into the Kingdom.
There will be many who will be surprised when they say Matthew 7:22-23
Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, didn’t we prophesy in Your name, and drive out demons in Your name, and perform many miracles in Your name?’ Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you. Get away from Me, you workers of lawlessness!’ ”
Then there are going to be others of us. You wonder if you are ever going to get in at all you feel like Isaiah who said Isaiah 6:5
Then I said: “Oy to me! For I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I am dwelling among a people of unclean lips. For my eyes have seen the King, Adonai-Tzva’ot!”
You feel destitute, sin feels so sinful to you. It feels cold, feels bankrupt and you can do is mourn. Unless that King finds some way to accept me, someone like me there is no way. I feel like a leper and I want to yell “unclean, unclean.”
Yet to those kind of people looking to Yeshua he says Mark 2:5
Yeshua, seeing their faith, said to the paralyzed man, “Son, your sins are forgiven.”
I think as I have been reflecting during these days of awe, I keep thinking there are going to be a lot of surprises at the coming judgment of the King.