The Civility of Sheep and Goats

When I was about 8 years old, I was invited to follow Jesus. But this invitation was not given in the context of a loving, trusting relationship with one who was already in Christ; instead, this invitation came in the form of a Vacation Bible School altar call from a stranger—and it took on brutal dimensions in my 8-year-old mind and heart, because it was constructed in the hyperbole model given to us here today in scripture: The Judgment of the Nations, as it is sometimes referred to, or more commonly as the Sheep and the Goats (Matthew 25: 31-46). We are nearly at the end of the church liturgical year, with Advent and a new church calendar beginning next week on November 29th. And before we start another holiday season, I would like to take us back to the basics of who we are, and who we most definitely are NOT, as little children in God’s world. To me, this is a significant part of understanding our own God-given civility.

     Because that little 8-year-old girl who branded herself a “ bad goat” instead of a “good sheep” because she was too afraid to walk up to the altar in front of all those people at church, still lives inside me. And for anyone else for whom that has been so, in one way or another—feeling you are not worthy of love, attention, and belonging—this sermon is for you. No one directly said anything negative to me that day long ago, mind you. All that was needed was an erroneous interpretation of this parable to wound me deeply. So let us set our minds clearly on what has been a deeply frightening passage for many people over the millennia.

     The last 2 chapters of Matthew contain parables that are APOCALYPTIC in nature. Which means that they focus on what the book of Ezekiel and others do: the end of the world-order as we know it, as a new world order is being created. Related to this is ESCHATOLOGY, which just means, how the matters of body and spirit will be realized as the fullness of God emerges in new ways for creation to see and touch and feel.  This kind of writing—from Ezekiel and from Matthew—is designed to give people, who are oppressed, HOPE—to remind them that God sees their plight, has not forgotten them, and that their situations will not only be redeemed but that the whole cosmos will be re-ordered to experience complete alignment with the revolutionary love of God.

Wow. How did we ever get from THAT to a sense of DREAD for the Day of the Lord? Hyberbolic language, friends. That’s how—by interpreting hyperbolic language LITERALLY, as if it’s a news story instead of hyperbole. Apocalyptic literature like this from the ancient Jewish and Christian world used hyperbole—well-placed exaggeration—to make its point in very emotional and graphic ways.

     Picture this: you are a child, and you have the most loving parents in the world whose company you enjoy deeply, and who make you feel safe and happy. They love you so much they would give up their own lives if it would make your life better. As a teenager, imagine these parents of yours celebrating with you when you got your first job at that drive-thru restaurant. After a few weeks of bumpiness and a poor work ethic, they remind you how important it is to show up at your job on time, be respectful to the other workers that you don’t like, and to go beyond what the boss expects of you. You, as a teenager, sigh and roll your eyes and say “whatever.”

     These parents, who would give their lives for your happiness, might likely say something like, “Hey, this is really important stuff. If you don’t do this, you can basically kiss goodbye any possibility of real success or joy in life. You might as well just move out now if you’re not gonna re-think what you’re doing.” THIS is what Jesus was saying in hyperbole—in his dramatic language about being cast into eternal punishment: “You are gonna miss out on major goodness in your life, and you are not going to be able to experience being a part of the beloved community, if you don’t live the revolutionary love of mercy for others whom I so strongly identify with as my own—the powerless and the vulnerable. Get it through your head, because I don’t want you to miss out on the experience of of a lifetime.”

     As a first century Jew or Christian hearing Jesus’ words about sheep and goats, you already knew that God was not a hateful, abusive Father-God who kept order with a tight fist wrapped around micro-managing the planet. You would know God as a place of safety and rest, of joy and peace—but a Holy One who didn’t hesitate to tell you when you had forgotten the roles of justice and compassion in your life—for yourself and others. You would know that God is imaged as a Father and a Mother in your scriptures, and that even if your own parents were abusive towards you, the God of Deuteronomy is one of a Mother Eagle who stirs up her nest and hovers over her young, taking them up and bearing them aloft on her pinions, and the God of Isaiah, who labors in birth pains like a mother, helps her children find their way, and will never forget her children’s needs for love and care, even if other nursing mothers could somehow forget their own children. 

     Even as part of the Israeli religious elite in the ancient world, you didn’t hold much power and security—you were surrounded by Egypt, Philistia, Tyre, Sidon, Edom, Moab, Assyria, then Babylon, then Persia, then Greece and Rome—and you were deeply looking forward to a future age of blessing when your God would rescue you once and for all. Except Jesus doesn’t describe the Day of the Lord as a political or military victory for his followers, and that includes us today. Jesus is all about creating a new world order through living by an ethic of revolutionary love and mercy.

     So let’s now take a closer look at the text from Matthew, whose author was clearly writing for a mostly Jewish audience, and see what this ethic is that he wants us to live by in order to experience kingdom life first hand.  Jesus is basically talking about 3 groups of people: First, there are the “least of these.” Remember him saying to his disciples that the greatest among them would be those who became like children? And that whoever welcomes a vulnerable, powerless child is welcoming him? These “little ones” are the kind of people that Jesus lives in solidarity with today in our world, too—the least of these.

     In addition to the least of these, there are 2 other groups of people in this apocalyptic parable. There are the sheep and the goats, who are referred to together as “all the nations.” “All the nations” (commonly read today as “just plain everybody on the planet”) is not what Matthew was saying in ancient Greek. Matthew was talking specifically about the Gentiles, many of whom were God-fearers in that time and place (which means that we don’t really know what they thought about God, but they sometimes attended synagogue and financially supported Jewish communities even though they didn’t fully embrace the Law). They were good people in other words—deeply caring people, who I imagine, the Jews often wondered about throughout history in terms of what would become of them without a covenant of any kind with God, since they clearly were not doing their religion correctly, or AT ALL for that matter. Have you ever heard religious people wonder about that very same thing today? I know I have.

     When the text says, “All the nations will be gathered before the Son of Man and separated into sheep and goats,” Jesus is saying that all those OTHERS that you often look down on and stay away from (which of course, we have our own groups today that would fit that bill, don’t we)—those OTHERS will have their own time of judgment with me. And they will be divided before the Good Shepherd.

     Do you hear how in a way this is very, very similar to Ezekiel 34 where God is the Shepherd who is sorting out sheep and goat children, not as good and bad, but just because caring shepherds sorted sheep and goats, paid attention to them and their individual needs, back in the day. They sorted them by color, by sex, by physical condition—not as “good” or “bad” but all valuable and unique.

     But listen to how Jesus does something really FUN with this image from Ezekiel and brings us back into alignment with how GOD sees the world—-not in dualisms of right and wrong, good and bad, but instead, points out the different levels of Oneness of which we’re all a part, like the shepherd in Ezekiel was trying to do way back then, as well.

     In Ezekiel, God basically said, “Hey, you motley crew of animals, you are mine. How come you don’t treat each other better, given all the resources I’ve provided you?” In Ezekiel, God vaguely refers to judging but isn’t clear about the details. Jesus decides to take the biblical narrative to another level, just like he often does, because he knew his Jewish scripture as well as he knew God.

     Jesus places the sheep “at the right hand.” This location has a long tradition throughout scripture as the place of greater power. Not better-ness, but more power-ness. These sheep are the folks who are doing powerfully helpful things to help bring the kingdom of God closer to everyday reality. These are the folks who will more readily experience the powerful freedom that love brings, when our focus is on giving mercy and compassion just for the joy of it, not for our own ego strokes or because we feel guilted into it. There is a power of BEING that comes from alignment with this kind of DOING for the “least of these.”

These sheep Jesus refers to—non-Jews and non-Christians—are basically experiencing a relationship with Jesus, he says, by caring in this way for the least of these: what a powerful teaching for us in thinking about people of other religious backgrounds! When you are living from this place of loving powerfully the people who belong to God, it’s easy to experience eternal life or the kingdom of God right now. Perhaps you’ve experienced this at some points in your life—it’s a true high that makes you fall in love with God, the world, and your life, over and over again. Think “Ebenezer Scrooge” at the end of A Christmas Carol. He became a sheep.

     But what about the poor Goats? Doesn’t Jesus say that these people are going to be separated from God for all of eternity? As always, we first need to examine the context in which these words were written. Unlike us, the people hearing these words likely had no doubts about whether they would go to heaven or hell, like we Christians sometimes do today. Jews have a different way of understanding their essential belonging to God, and it doesn’t include the sadly used heaven and hell framework like the Christian tradition has included for far too long. Think back to what I said earlier about hyperbole and being a rebellious, arrogant teenager whose loving parents are trying to get her to sit up and pay attention to something that is critically important to get right.

Jesus is saying to us that if we think that being a responsible citizen, voting and writing letters to senators, creating a trust fund for our grandchildren’s education, and remembering people’s birthdays is going to win anyone an exhilarating, satisfying ride in life, think again. That is a false civility. Rather try simply paying attention to those who require your compassion TODAY. Right here. Right now. In the flesh. “For that is me here with you,” he says. When you enter into what it might be like for someone down the street or at work or in a class you have—whose health is worsening—and offer them friendship out of solidarity—and not pity—that is a powerful way to experience Jesus in your midst right now. Today. (With all the safety precautions that a pandemic requires, of course.)

Don’t miss out on the incredibly satisfying work of revolutionary love and mercy that is free for the taking for all the nations, for every political party, for every religious or non-religious person on the planet. The satisfaction of eternal life is here for all today, most especially for the little 8 or 10 or 16-year-old child inside of you who may be still wondering if she’s good enough to be accepted and joyfully welcomed by God. Tell her or him the answer is YES. It always has been and it always will be.  Thanks be to God.

Scripture referred to:

Ezekiel 34: 2-4, 11-12, 17-22

Matthew 25: 31-46

(p.s I’d love to hear how the exegesis of this parable works (or not!) in your own understanding of God and Christ in your life. With Love and Light, LeAnn)

2 comments on “The Civility of Sheep and Goats

  1. Thank you Leann. I agree that this story has often been misinterpreted and misused. It’s not presenting a duality. That comes from a literal reading. But this is all metaphor, and for me that means the truth it presents is deeper and larger than the words it uses. It points beyond itself. I appreciate your distinction between better-ness and more power-ness.

    Happy Thanksgiving. God’s peace be with you,


    • I was tickled to see the title of your sermon: “Sheep or Goat? Yes We Are.” Perfect! I think this parable has sadly been the source
      of much self-righteousness or self-hate by folks who desperately don’t want to be cast off by God…what a relief that we’re all in!

      Liked by 1 person

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