I do quite a bit of driving around the local neighborhoods to make sick calls and other visits. In my travels, I’ve seen some interesting landscaping ideas. Some homeowners seem preoccupied with animals. I’ve seen a number of front yards adorned with plastic flamingoes; I take this as an indication of the desire for, or consumption of, too many fruity alcoholic beverages with little umbrellas in them. Other yards feature plaster figurines of ducks or rabbits; I’m sure that these houses have kitchens decorated with calico curtains, washboards, and antique butter churns. Some houses feature eagles or other patriotic references. I drive past one house in Palm Harbor that has dried animal skins hanging from the eaves of the carport; I don’t know if this signifies a survivalist-in-training or someone who is deeply disturbed.
I don’t know if my interpretations of these outdoor decorations are completely accurate, but animals often are given anthropomorphized meanings. For instance, the sheep and the goats in today’s Gospel reading are anthropomorphized references to religion. In Hebrew culture, sheep represented strength and patience. Goats, on the other hand, were associated with pagan gods such as Pan, Bacchus, and Aphrodite; these represented shameful or repulsive behavior.
The conventional interpretation of the allegory identifies “these least of my brothers” as the poor, the marginalized, and victims of injustice. The allegory, then, is usually assumed to be instruction to care for the least significant members of society. There is reason, however, to suspect that this allegory, like the parable of the talents in last Sunday’s Gospel reading, has a meaning very different from the conventional interpretation.
The allegory is built around a principle from ancient Hebrew culture that recognized a messenger as the representational presence of the sender. Jesus knew himself to the sent by God, and to be the presence of God. (Matt. 11:27) In an analogous way, the apostles whom Jesus sent represented his own presence to those to whom they spoke. This list of sayings indicates that Jesus considered hospitable behavior, given to or withheld from, his apostles was, by association, given to (or withheld from), him.
The meaning of the anthropomorphizing in today’s Gospel reading is easy enough to grasp. Animals can represent certain virtues or ideas. A plastic flamingo might represent someone who is frivolous; a camel might represent a person who is dull and plodding. Jesus compared those who welcome his teaching to sheep: animals that were considered to be patient, strong, and virtuous. Those who ignored his word, he compared to goats: animals associated with excess, self-indulgence, and worldly pleasures.
This parable might well have been composed to speak directly to our situation at the beginning of the Christmas shopping season. These next few weeks are very much associated with excess, self-indulgence, and conspicuous consumption: the sort of behavior that can make us deaf to Jesus’ teaching. There is, however, another choice available to us. We always have the choice to welcome Jesus by welcoming his word, the Gospel.
As an appropriate celebration of Advent, I suggest that you begin and end each day of the next four weeks by listening to God’s Word. You can use the Scripture readings from daily Mass; these are easily available on several websites. You can use a Bible; I recommend reading a few verses each day from the prophet Isaiah. The Scriptural text you choose is of secondary importance to reading a little of God’s Word each morning, and reading a little each evening.
It’s too easy to assume that we have insufficient time to devote to God’s Word. How about if we assume instead that our first priority during these coming weeks is to attend to the teachings of Jesus? The season of gift-giving deserves to be welcomed in an appropriate way. We owe a greater welcome, however, to Jesus, the Incarnate Word of God.
In this coming season of manic consumerism, I recommend that you add an additional item to the list of things you have to accomplish before December 25th. In addition to attention to a season, I recommend that you give attention to the relationship that transcends seasons and feasts; give God’s Word an appropriate welcome.