In the Name…
After a trial had been going on for three days, the man accused of committing the crimes approached the bench and said "Your Honour, I would like to change my plea from 'innocent' to 'guilty'." The judge angrily banged his fist on the desk and asked. "If you're guilty, why didn't you say so in the first place and save this court a lot of time and inconvenience?" The man looked up and stated, "Well, when the trial started I thought I was innocent, but that was before I heard all the evidence against me."
Today is the last Sunday of the church year and, in our Gospel, we’ve heard about Jesus in his role as Judge at the end of time. Now, this idea of Jesus bring a judge doesn’t go down too well with people of the 21st century. It’s an image we don’t see very often. We see Jesus the shepherd; Jesus who loves children; Jesus who forgives the sinner and heals the sick. We see Jesus in a manger; Jesus on the cross. But we don’t see many images of Jesus sitting in judgement.
This has not, however, always been the case. Throughout history, the Last Judgment has been a favourite subject for religious art. Indeed, in the Sistine Chapel, the whole wall behind the altar is one huge painting of it, also by Michelangelo. Christ is in the centre with one hand raised menacingly over the condemned and with the other hand reassuring and calming the righteous.
It is an inspirational topic for artists and, no wonder with such vivid language. "When the Son of Man will come as King and all the angels with him, he will sit on his royal throne, and the people of all the nations will be gathered before him.” So, the Return of Christ and the Last Judgement are not legend, myth, or fiction. There will be an end and there will be a judgement.
But, what are we to make of this image of a Jesus who divides his flock into, as it says, those who are sheep and those who are goats, inviting the one into eternal joy, and sending the other into eternal punishment? In fact, thinking of Jesus in this way can send a bit of a shiver down our backs. I know it does mine.
Especially, in this particular passage when Jesus says, "I tell you, whenever you refused to help one of these least important ones, you refused to help me."
Actually, one thing I can’t help but notice in this story is how surprised the people were who were told that they had been caring toward others. "When did we do that? When did we see you hungry, thirsty, a stranger, naked, sick or in prison?" We might expect the negligent to be surprised, but the generous are just as surprised. You’d think they would know they were doing good deeds.
Now, I am not, nor have I ever been, a shepherd. My familiarity with livestock is pretty minimal. So, I wonder what Jesus’ audience have understood by this parable. Why are sheep better than goats? Why does one earn reward and the other earn punishment? How do I make sure I am not a goat? What if I already am a goat, and I don’t know it?
Well, I did a little research and here is what I learned. In North America, sheep and goats are easily distinguishable due to specialization through breeding. However, throughout history, and still today in parts of Asia and Africa, sheep and goats are almost identical, and no one but a herdsman can easily tell the difference.
It would seem, then, that the application here for the parable would be that outward conformity, or just being part of the herd, isn’t enough to make it. There is something in us that only our Shepherd can see, and that unseen thing tells God whether we are sheep or goats. But what is it? So, I did more research.
Sheep, of course, have a reputation for being a bit dull. And why is that? They need to be led and guided and protected. Goats, on the other hand, have a reputation for being independent and opinionated, or, rather, dangerous and destructive. In fact, one writer has summed it up this way: Shepherds protect their sheep from the environment. Goatherds protect the environment from their goats.
The main thing though, the central difference, is really quite simple. A sheep is led by its shepherd. A goatherd is led by his goat. I had no idea. Sheep follow the voice of their shepherd and trust him to lead them to food, water and keep them safe. If they wander, the shepherd will bring them back.
A goat, however, doesn’t follow anyone. A herd of goats goes where it wants and the goatherd follows behind. Instead of grazing in one place, goats browse for whatever strikes their fancy. If some wander, they don’t need to be brought back. They can look after themselves, thank you very much.
So, if we are allowing ourselves to be led, being sensitive to the pull of God’s Spirit, and following the path of our Shepherd, we are sheep. If we are headstrong, going our own way, and pushing back against God’s Spirit, we are goats.
And, the thing that God sees in His sheep is a gentle and generous spirit that welcomes the shepherd and his leading whereas goats have a spirit of defiance, self-will, or independence from God’s involvement in their lives. That’s why the sheep are surprised to be told their good deeds were special. They were just doing what seemed obvious to them. Nothing special. And that made them special.
The goats, on the other hand, were also doing what seemed obvious to them, looking after Number One.
Well, now that you know these things, how are you feeling? Are you more of a sheep or more of a goat?
If you’re like me, some days you probably feel a little more goatish than others, but, what I learn from all my research is that, in our case, being a sheep or goat is not a permanent thing. We’re not restricted to acting according to instinct. It’s something we can change. I can choose to be led, or choose not to be.
But, if I want to be led, I need to tell God that’s what I want and I need to do the things he wants me to do. Study his Word. Then, I’ll get to know his words. I’ll get to know his mind. And, I need to thank him. Thank him for leading me to situations and opportunities to put his words into practice until they become second nature. That’s the “doing” part of the parable. And, lastly, take time to rest. When life gets chaotic and confusing, and you don’t know which path to take, pause and reflect and ask him to come and guide you. In my experience, if you ask, He always will.
So, this parable doesn’t have to be a source of worry to me. Now that I know what it means, I can find it a source of comfort. I can take the steps to be a sheep and not a goat.
In the Name…