Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Sheep and Goats

I don't know about the rest of you but sheep and goats stories don't really work for me. True, I have parishioners who keep one or both and I've read - and preached - all the stuff about sheep behavior, goat warmth issues, scapegoats and even shepherds.

The only reason I can think of for Jesus to use sheep and goats is that you don't house them together. They can go to the same pasture but they sleep in different places. So his listeners would have been caught up in the familiar, I suppose.

But then it gets a little weird since neither sheep nor goats do much talking that we can understand and it is clear that Jesus has moved out of the pasture and onto the judgment seat.

So there we all are, milling around the great conference center in the sky. In order to get into the meeting area, we have to show our badges. But the folks guarding the doors seem to be sending some people in the doors on the left and others into the doors on the right. When we get inside, there's a big net separating the room and no one can get by it.

Jesus addresses us all and says that the left half have served him and the right half didn't. Shock and surprise are present in both groups. Both ask, "Lord, when?" but get very different answers.

It's the surprise that gets to me. Faithful Christians ought not to be surprised. At least, I'm sure that's what I was taught somewhere along the line. And most of us, especially given that we know this parable by heart, usually notice when we pass someone by or stop to help them, don't we? If we don't help someone, we have good reasons for our non-action, of course. We rationalize it or at least say that helping would have put us in danger. If we help, we may well do so gladly and willingly but often, there is that little voice in our heads reminding us how good we are being, the points we are scoring.

Here's why I think the sheep and goats are surprised. I think the sheep automatically, without thinking, stop to help, move over to share the grass and water, cuddle up to keep the shorn one warm. To be told that every time they did this, they did it to the Lord is a surprise to them because it was the natural thing to do.

The goats don't stop for anyone ever. Life is all about them, making sure they have enough, they are warm enough, they are safe and are receiving God's bountiful grace. But it never occurs to them to make sure others are taken care of. That's a sheep thing and goats are not, simply not, sheep. So they, too, are surprised to hear that they have systematicallly, all their lives, rejected the Christ even though they thought differently.

I don't think many of us are goats. My guess is that even the tycoon with the hardest of hearts has a little sheep in him/her somewhere. But I'm equally sure that most of us haven't reached sheep status yet. Kindness, generosity, giving are things we still have to work at, especially if it means I might feel shorted by helping someone else. But I know we can get there. I have role models who are/were great sheep, nary a goat gene anywhere. I'll bet you do, too.

And when we get pretty good at being sheep, let's convert the goats. Let's show them how to be short-haired, butting-headed, omnivorous sheep. Still goats but different. And I'll bet goats have some good things to teach even all those surprised sheep!


Sally said...

Thanks this is thought provoking- I like the way that you draw out the surprise here, I suspect many of us overlook our own selfishness- it is just how we are!!!

Anonymous said...

You know, I have come to this sermon several times this week and I must say that Christ's parable about the sheep and goats has always left me in a state of confusion. I understand that he was trying to say that we need to be concerned about others and that we shouldn't be oblivious to the needs of others.

Although I haven't spent a great deal of time around sheep and goats, I have spent some time around them and I must be honest that really, they are very similar in behavior. Both sheep and goats herd together, the males of each stink with a musky odor and will both ram people with their heads, they all seem to eat constantly, and they are hard to keep in a pasture without building a jail fence. LOL... I guess I just don't understand the comparison that Christ was using in his parable. It makes me sad for the goats. LOL...

As far as your sermon, I think you did a great job in illustrating that we need to be concerned for others and to love our neighbors as ourselves instead of being self-absorbed. It was a difficult parable to preach.

Ray Flanary