SHEEP OR GOAT
We have become so used to hearing this parable that it probably doesn’t even occur to us to ask why Jesus chose to compare sheep to goats and why he would see sheep in a positive light and goats in a negative light. Each animal is useful in providing nourishment and more. Goats are highly prized because they seem to be able to exist on almost anything; they give milk which can be used for yogurt, cheese, and butter, they provide meat, and their skins can be used for clothing. Now to be sure the sheep is no slouch when it comes to usefulness: there is cheese made from sheep’s milk; the oil gives us lanolin and the meat is good to eat. And when it comes to clothing, you can shear a sheep and keep getting wool over and over again. But you need to be cautious about how long you wait to eat it because the older it gets, the tougher it gets – and I have had my fair share of mutton over the years!
It is in the time of Moses that the most common practices involving sheep and goats make their appearance. When the people of Israel are preparing to flee Egypt, they were commanded to take a lamb and slaughter it. They then spread the blood around the doorframes of their homes and ate the meat. Later we find the people celebrating what will become the Day of Atonement. The sins of the people are ceremonially placed on a goat and it is sent out into the wilderness to die. It is a symbolic way for the people to cast off their sins and embrace the forgiveness of God. Sheep were also considered a worthy sacrifice at the Temple.
And so, in the mind of the Hebrew people, sheep became associated with the blessing and mercy of God while goats became associated with sin – with whatever had disrupted the relationship of the people with God and with one another. Often in the Gospels – and this is an echo of the Old Testament – Jesus refers to the people of God as sheep; he tells them that just as a shepherd will not rest until all the sheep are safe, so God continues to seek out his people until each one has come home spiritually. Given that history, it is not hard to understand why Jesus would take the example of sheep and goats and use it as an illustration to show the two ways people can and will choose to respond to their neighbours.
But there are two judgments spoken about here. The first concerns the nations of the world. Nations that choose to be compassionate, who care for the poor and needy, who express concern for those who are ill or troubled will be like sheep and will have a place of honour at the right hand of God. Nations that choose to ignore the plight of the poor and needy, who oppress the disadvantaged and who abandon the ill or troubled will be like goats and will be sent to the left hand of God – the place of dishonour.
The second judgment is one that concerns each one of us. Those who will be given the honour to sit at the right hand of God will be those who responded to the suffering and the needs that they saw in the people with whom they interacted. Those who will not be given that honour will be those who saw the suffering of others but choose to ignore it and walk away.
Now the criteria that determines whether a person will be received into the kingdom of heaven is whether or not their response is motivated by true compassion or by a sense of self-preservation. Concern for the community as a whole has ever been front and centre in the heart and expressed mind of God. The very fact that the two greatest commandments concern love for God and love for neighbour give a clear indication that we are not to ignore the plight of those who share our community locally, regionally, nationally, and internationally. And while we will never be able to meet the needs of everyone in the world, we must ever be conscious of the needs around us and continue to encourage our nation to be one that seeks to be truly equitable in its dealings with all members of society. We are also to encourage one another to be people who seek to be equitable in our dealings with all members of society remembering that true love for neighbour is an extension of the love we have for God and for ourselves.
I will freely admit that it is not an easy thing to imagine that Christ is indeed in the one who appears to us as a hungry family or a thirsty child or a homeless beggar. I admit that it is not easy to imagine that Christ is present in everyone who is sick or in trouble. But perhaps that is exactly the point. If it were an easy thing, we might never have a struggle within ourselves over how to respond to the need before us. If indeed we always believed it was Christ, I am sure we would always do the right thing.
We are coming to that season of the year that is one of expectation and hope. Let us keep in mind our neighbours and make the conscious effort to care for each one be they hungry or cold or ill or in trouble, for God can be found in every person whether we or they recognize it or not. It is not for us to judge but to respond.
I invite you to think on this prayer which I use as part of my preparation for the day:
My Father, I come to you at the beginning of this day to ask you to guide me and help me. Give me courage to face the problems that lie ahead and give me a heart wide open to the joys you have prepared for me. Forgive my many sins that I may start this day anew. And as you forgive me, may I learn to be forgiving and compassionate to others in return. My Father, I long to serve you aright. May all that I do and all that I say be pleasing in your sight. AMEN.