On Goats and Sheep
On Goats and Sheep
Parable of the Sheep and Goats
September 26, 2020
Rev. Fritz Nelson
All fall we’re focusing in on Matthew 25:31-46, the parable of the sheep and the goats. In the parable Jesus returns to earth and calls all the nations to him for judgment. Once they have gathered divides them as a shepherd divides sheep from goats. Jesus, the good shepherd, places the sheep on his right hand, praising them for how they’ve treated the poor and hurting, the stranger and the imprisoned. He places the goats on his left, condemning them for their treatment of the poor and hurting, the stranger and the imprisoned.
As we dig into this image of Jesus, the good shepherd, dividing sheep from goats, we turn to John 10:11-18. As I read the passage and in the pause to follow consider your relationship with the shepherd. Do you know him? Does he know you?
Thursday night we geared up for one of the great rivalries of local Little League baseball – Columbiana vs. East Palestine. The games are intense. They can and do get ugly. Yet if you had every kid on the field change from their uniform into basic Old Navy t-shirt and sweats you couldn’t tell who was a Bulldog and who was a Clipper. They’d just be 18 kids, playing ball as the sun set on a beautiful fall evening.
As we reflect on this parable of Jesus, the good shepherd, separating the sheep from the goats it can be easy to envision the great pasture as a baseball field. It’s a huge field, crowded, because all the nations have been called to the game. “I have other sheep in other folds,” Jesus tells his disciples who, as sheep of the Jewish variety, were the focus of his earthly ministry. Now Jesus has called all his sheep – from north and south, east and west, he has called them. Jews and non-Jews. Big fat wooly sheep. Skinny, bearded goats. The inning is over and Jesus is there at home plate. Red and white to one dugout. Brown and orange to the other.
Yet in ancient times there wasn’t that much difference between sheep and goats. The Bible calls almost any domesticated, grass eating, herd dwelling mammal a sheep. The Bible rarely mentions goats, but when it does, its right alongside sheep. To the casual observer there wouldn’t be much difference between the herd destined for heaven and the heard destined for the eternal fires. Just a bunch of kids on a ballfield wearing old navy t-shirts and sweats. All playing ball to their various abilities, enjoying a beautiful summer night.
In the last few weeks the houses on my usually boring street have sprouted a plethora of signs. Its election season, and where once the differences were subtle – flowers here, a bold paint job there, now the neighborhood has begun to divide itself between Republican houses and Democrat houses. Its tempting to call the election based on signs alone. Its tempting to wonder if neighbors have stopped talking to each other.
At the time of judgment, Jesus, the great shepherd, calls his flock together and divides them as a shepherd divides the sheep from the goats. But we’re already divided. Without Jesus’ urging – but frequently claiming his mandate – we’ve divided ourselves into nations, into religions, into political parties, into sports teams, into races, into causes. We’ve divided ourselves, noted our differences, and declared ourselves to be sheep and others to be goats.
We always declare ourselves sheep. A neighbor of mine, a graduate of Crestview but who, like me lived within an easy walk of Columbiana Elementary school bussed her kids to Crestview. She didn’t want her kids among goats. As I’ve prepared for the upcoming class on heaven, I’ve been reminded how every religious group, while declaring God to be in control, declares themselves worthy of heaven and their enemies worthy of hell. Eventually our human divisions become our path to salvation. We become more loyal to race, or nation, religious creed, or high school, or political party than to our God. We drive down the street, look at the yard signs, and say to ourselves – sheep, sheep, goat, sheep, goat, filling with pride and self satisfaction each time we point out a sheep. We’ll see them in heaven.
Take away the signs and we’re back to commenting on the landscaping. Replace the uniforms with Old Navy and its just kids playing baseball. To the casual observer both those on the left and those on the right look exactly the same. Its only Jesus, the good shepherd, who knows his sheep intimately and completely, who can tell them apart.
Not that long ago we wouldn’t be putting a plaque on a tree in a park for Wendy. Mental illness was a sign of sin. Suicide the most direct path to hell one could take. The church would have branded her a goat (not a Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger type GOAT), disowned her, and placed her grave outside the cemetery wall. But we’re here, remembering her, honoring her, praying for her in death as we prayed for her in life. Is she a sheep or a goat? The good shepherd knows. And will judge with a heart so full of love he gave his very life for his child whose pain was so deep only he can heal it. We don’t know. Its not our call to make. So we stand here committed to the only path we’re allowed to take. The path of love without judgement. The path of loving our neighbor as ourselves.
Our divisions have a purpose. Local sports rivalries galvanize our communities. Denominational structures provide frameworks through which we worship God and support leaders. Political parties organize people around agendas and elect leaders in support of those agendas. And those agendas matter. Some belief systems and theologies bring us closer to God and provide healing while others do not. Some political agendas can help shape the kingdom of heaven here on earth while others do not . Yet when we’re driving down the street dividing houses as if we're the good shepherd we’ve gone too far. We cannot grant heaven. Nor can we condemn to hell.
To the casual observer both those on the left and those on the right look exactly the same. The shepherd knows his sheep and they know him. That’s why they fed and clothed and welcomed and healed and visited. Those they fed and clothed and welcomed and healed and visited were Christ to them, even if they did not know it. They didn’t know they were sheep. Nor did they know which neighbors were goats. The yard signs and T-shirts, labels and theologies, none of it makes us sheep. None of it makes us goats. The shepherd decides who is in, who is out. God merely calls us, his herd of domesticated, four-footed, grass eaters, to follow as faithfully as we can and most of all to love.