Separation Anxiety

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“All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.” (Matthew 25:32)

It’s the great divide. The final cut. The big either/or. The last heads or tails. The terminal reality check. The end of the yellow brick road. The buck stop at the end of the world. The great white turnstile in the sky.

Nearly every religion in the world—from the funky graphic version of ancient Egypt to the hard bound, text-heavy editions of the Big Three—has its Last Judgment. This is when everybody who doesn’t agree with you gets cherry-picked for humiliation, rebuke, and everlasting torment. It’s kind of like The Apprentice without commercials—and at the Last Judgment, “You’re fired” doesn’t mean a second career opportunity.

Leave it to Jesus to turn this terrifying apocalyptic event into a story about sheep and goats. In another place he turns it into a story are good fish and bad fish. I wonder what’s with Jesus and the animal thing. Maybe he’s a little freaked out about the whole thing himself and is repressing it by turning people into animals so it doesn’t seem so terrible. In the last episode (note: last episode) of M.A.S.H. Hawkeye deals with the death of a little kid by turning him into a chicken in his head. And when I was a kid I pretended to have a horse even though it was only a stick pony. This isn’t the same thing at all, but I liked that stick pony and wanted to mention him anyway.

Anyway, in the story the sheep are the keepers and the goats are the roasted. (Personally, I think that goats, as ugly as they are, have gotten a bum deal in religious symbolism. At least they give us milk and meat. I would have chosen something like the mosquito or Guinea worm as the emblem of evil, but nobody asked me.) Of course, the absolute, number one rule for every religion worth its Arbitron rating is that the goats are always the other guys. Nobody would join a religion of losers. Why would you want to sign up to be a goat? In order to succeed, a religion must convince people that it’s the sheepish one. This is known as brand association. If your religion gets pegged with the goats, you might as well pack it in.

But no matter how you package it, the Big Separation is a totally freaky thing to think about . . .

There you are, in line at the pearly gates. You’re hoping you’ve got all your papers in order. You go over the instructions again in your head and finger through your documents. Identification. Check. Proof of heavenly citizenship. Check. Profession of faith. Check. You go over your admittedly spotty obedience history and gingerly finger the embossed grace stamp you picked up somewhere.

The line moves forward. Up ahead, it splits in two. You don’t have to ask what that means. Your creedal bravado has evaporated. All the bumper sticker mantras you memorized for this occasion now seem trite and stupid. You only now realize that there will be no shortcuts, no bypasses, no exemptions. You start to tremble.

The line moves forward. You look again at the sheaf of official qualifications in your hands. You let them fall to your feet. Trash. With a deep breath you take another step forward, and, for the first time in your life, you set your hope fully on any mercy that might come your way. When it’s your turn, you will bow your head, hold out your empty hands, and whisper, “Mercy.”

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One Response

  1. Amen

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