“Sheep & Goats”
Ezekiel 34:11-12, 17-22 & Matthew 25:31-34, 41
Rev. Chris Mereschuk
Christ the King Sunday
November 26, 2017
The Lord spoke through the Prophet Ezekiel:
“I will judge between sheep and sheep, between rams and goats” — Beware: you goats who foul the water and trample the green pastures and butt the weak animals with your horns! You blasted goats! Your judgement is at hand!
Jesus told his disciples of the arrival of the Son of Man:
“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand [that is, the sheep], ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world;
Then he will say to those [that is, the goats] at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels…
Sheep go to heaven; goats go to hell.
In the calendar of the Christian year, today is known as “Christ the King” or “Reign of Christ” Sunday. It is the last Sunday before Advent, which starts a new Christian liturgical year. And as we approach the end of one liturgical year and the beginning of the new year, the lectionary — the calendar of scripture — gives us increasingly apocalyptic messages: dire warnings about the end times and the coming judgement of God. Woe to the unjust and unrighteous! Your days are numbered! Peace to the long-suffering: your salvation is at hand!
I find these to be challenging verses that clash with my belief in a radically inclusive, forgiving, and loving God. There is much to wrestle with here; so many layers of meaning and context; such rich imagery, even inspiration and encouragement alongside the fear and trembling. But I must admit that when I read this set of complex verses all I could think of is: What does God have against goats?
I mean, I like goats. Goats are cute. Sure, sheep are all wooly and snuggly — but what’s wrong with goats? They’re playful, they can be pets, their milk makes great cheese, let them loose in your yard and they’ll mow your lawn. Sheer-ly goats aren’t all baaaaaaaad? Maybe I just have a bleating heart… (Sorry.)
We know this is not about God or Jesus actually hating literal goats. Clearly, sheep and goats are just metaphors, distilled or stereotyped to their most basic characteristics. These characteristics would’ve been highly familiar to the original audience of Iron Age Palestine, but may be less familiar to us.
So, why are sheep cast as faithful and goats as blasphemous? Again, distilled to their most basic qualities, sheep are seen as fully dependent on the shepherd: following the voice and commands of the shepherd, relying on the shepherd for food, water, and safety. A sheep that wanders away from the shepherd is in mortal danger, risking attacks from wild beasts. Sheep that know what’s good for them are obedient and stay with the flock, fully trusting the shepherd and never straying.
But goats run wild. They are not as inclined to follow a goatherd as sheep are to follow a shepherd. They are stubborn and independent. They’ll wander off and climb up rocks and sheds and use fences like ladders so they can roam about. They’ll chew up anything and everything from poison ivy to tin cans. They’ll head-butt anything that gets in their way, fighting for dominance in the herd. Goats are greedy and belligerent.
Looking only at those characteristics as metaphors, the scriptural message is that faithfulness to God means modeling oneself after sheep: Putting one’s full trust in God the shepherd, relying completely on God and following God’s commands.
I get it, but I’m also challenged by it. To my modern, progressive, free-will-believing mind, I don’t want to be a sheep. Being a sheep means relinquishing control, becoming and being vulnerable. What’s more, sheep are seen as dumb, incapable of thinking for themselves. In fact, calling someone a sheep is a well-known slight against people of faith who are seen as unquestioning and mindless followers. But ours is a faith seeking understanding, a faith that invites questions and doubts and wrestles with how to engage thoughtfully and justly with and in the world.
And that right there leads us to the deeper reading of this metaphor. To understand the real difference between Biblical sheep and goats we have to read both into the scripture and beyond the page. Sheep are not model disciples because they are mindlessly obedient, and goats are not cursed just because they are stubbornly independent. Rather, the metaphorical goats’ real offense is their treatment of others, their trampling of sheep and other goats in their drive to meet their own needs at the expense of others. Once again, this is a reminder of God’s call to justice and righteousness and God’s anger directed at those who neglect, oppress, and exploit the most vulnerable members of society.
Hear the words of God through Ezekiel again:
“As for you, my flock, thus says the Lord God: I shall judge between sheep and sheep, between rams and goats: Is it not enough for you to feed on the good pasture, but you must tread down with your feet the rest of your pasture? When you drink of clear water, must you foul the rest with your feet? And must my sheep eat what you have trodden with your feet, and drink what you have fouled with your feet? Therefore, thus says the Lord God to them: I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep. Because you pushed with flank and shoulder, and butted at all the weak animals with your horns until you scattered them far and wide, I will save my flock…”
It’s not enough for the goats that they have fertile pastures to graze: they trample and destroy what’s left so others can’t graze. It’s not enough for the goats have clear, clean water to drink: they must also contaminate the water with their fouled hooves so that others do not have clean water. It could be said that the metaphorical goat lives by the maxim that, “It’s not enough that I should succeed; others must fail.” It is the selfish narcissism of the “I’ve got mine, I’m not sharing, you’re on your own” ethos of so many social and economic powerholders with no regard for the common welfare of the wider society. Following this, we can ascribe goatish behaviors to innumerable people, situations, and systems in modern life.
So then, the sheep are the ones who have suffered from the greedy and destructive actions of the goats. The sheep are the vulnerable and exploited, and we have heard again and again that those who are vulnerable in society are most fiercely loved by God.
Jesus makes it even more plain in his teaching about the coming Son of Man, leaving no room for doubt that one’s treatment of vulnerable people is a direct display of one’s faithfulness to God.
Jesus proclaims that when God’s kin-dom is fully established and the Son of Man arrives to save and liberate, the flock will be separated between sheep and goats. Sheep will be identified as those who took notice of and cared for the vulnerable, even as they were vulnerable themselves, serving others as they would serve God, thereby honoring the Divine that is within all people:
“I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”
As for the goats, they saw a hungry person and withheld food because they already had their fill. They saw a thirsty person and dumped out water on the ground because their own thirst was quenched. They encountered a stranger and slammed the door because providing hospitality felt like inviting scarcity. They saw a naked person and mocked their poverty. They left the sick to fend for themselves because tending to them would mean risking their own health or purity. They believed that an unjustly imprisoned person was getting what they deserved because they themselves had “followed the rules” and remained free. And just as they refused and rejected others, they refused and rejected God.
These parables call us to a gut check — maybe a “Goat Check” (sorry again). I believe that we are all a part-sheep, part-goat hybrid depending on the day and the situation. We hear the voice of the shepherd and we care for our fellow sheep, and we ram others out of the way and take more than our fair share. And our treatment of others in the world is indicative of our treatment of God.
But remember that we must keep reading on, because there’s Good News. While both Ezekiel and Jesus proclaim this dire warning about the coming judgement, the key part is that it is still yet to come. Yes, it is a warning, but it is only that. It is not the final sentence with no right to appeal or reconcile. Judgement is not the final word, and it is never the final word. Both Ezekiel and Jesus are issuing a call to repentance — that is, a turning around of heart and mind, turning away from unjust behaviors and turning toward living out God’s vision of a just world.
What’s more, we should not mistake this whole “coming judgement” for our primary motivation, thinking that we are racking up points to go to heaven or just doing all we can to avoid going to hell. Personally, as I have shared before, I am not convinced of the existence of heaven or hell as it is popularly conceived, rather I believe we create our own heaven and our own hell here on earth during our lifetime. So my actions are not motivated by a bid to get into heaven or stay out of hell. For me, it is not about my fate in the afterlife, but the impact of my actions in this mortal life.
Ezekiel and Jesus proclaim the coming Day of the Lord, and at the same time proclaim that God is already among us, that the Kin-dom of God has been, is being, and will be established here on earth. God is already present, Jesus is already among us, and we recognize and honor that reality when we follow the shepherd’s voice and care for our fellow sheep.
So then, in order to be more sheep-like and less goat-like, we need to be mindful of the entire flock. More than mindful, we need to actively, prayerfully, intentionally recognize if and when we are butting others out of the way, trampling the pasture, and fouling the water. We need to be co-shepherds with God, taking notice of the most vulnerable members of the flock. And through this, we are at once enjoying the fertile green pastures and promised saving liberation of God the shepherd while ensuring that others may be fed as well.