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The Sheep and The Goats

A sermon delivered by Randy L. Hyde, Pastor, Pulaski Heights Baptist Church, Little Rock, Ark., on November 20, 2011.           

Ezekiel 34:11-22; Matthew 25:31-46

May I be perfectly honest with you? This parable we read a few moments ago from Matthew’s gospel is not my favorite. My guess is it isn’t yours either. Don’t know about you, but I’ve never been much of an us-versus-them kind of guy, and this story definitely has that kind of texture to it. The good guys and the bad guys, the white hats and the black, the cowboys and the Indians. Oops. Maybe I went a bit too far with that last one. The Indians weren’t always the bad guys, were they?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m just as competitive as the next fellow. I still remember with some embarrassment the spring Saturday afternoon in college when a group of us guys took our dates out to fly kites. (What can I say? I was a cheap date. But being a college student, I was in good company as far was that was concerned.) I found myself doing everything I could to make sure my kite went higher than anyone else’s, and when one of my buddies reminded me that we hadn’t done this to outdo one another but just to have a good time, I realized I had kind of gotten into a competitive zone. It’s just in the DNA, I suppose.

But still, I get pretty uncomfortable thinking that some folks are going to get in, “in” being the kingdom of heaven, and others aren’t. I grew up, as did many of you I imagine, hearing guest evangelists preach almost with glee at the thought of stubborn sinners going to hell. But that didn’t catch on with me. For some reason it just didn’t take. I don’t particularly care for the idea of some people being thought of in terms of sheep while others are goats.

Those same evangelists would have been quick to tell you that the only way to make it to heaven was to accept Jesus as Lord and Savior. That’s all. If you wanted to escape the eternal fires of hell, just walk down the aisle. Funny thing… I never heard a guest evangelist preach from this story in Matthew’s gospel, maybe because it says there is more to eternal life than just saying words. We have to live out what the words mean. There it is, right there in the 25th chapter of Matthew, the only New Testament gospel that includes this parable… if indeed a parable is what you would call it. An analogy might be more like it. The sheep and the goats. When the final day of judgment comes, separated like the good guys and the bad, the white hats and the black, the wheat and the chaff.

I kind of feel like Barbara Brown Taylor. She says, “Matthew gives me a pain.” I tend to agree. Matthew gives me a pain because he has this way – this dogged, insistent, irritating way – of getting my attention.1 And he does so in ways that make me uncomfortable.

This time, he does so by telling me that I am supposed to see the face of Christ in other people, even and especially those who are identified as the hungry and thirsty and lonely and naked and imprisoned, and that once having seen Christ in them I am to be Christ right back to them. It is not an easy thing to do.

Understand, these are not people who will grace the pages of Soiree magazine or High Profile. Chances are, they won’t be your next-door neighbors either, though, according to Jesus’ definition of things, they are your neighbors. Truth be told, however, they are not the kind of people we want to keep company with.

Unless you have to. There are times when you don’t have a choice.

Just the other night, after dark, Janet and I came by the church office. I needed to retrieve something and we were in the neighborhood, so we swung by for just a moment. As I was walking in a woman approached me. There was something recognizable about her, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. I just knew instinctively that she was going to ask me for money. I’ve been doing this long enough be able to tell. Sure enough, she asked for $8. Not seven or even nine. She was very specific; she needed eight. I told her I didn’t have that much money, which was true. I tend not to carry a lot of cash with me. So I gave her a dollar and explained that’s all I could do. She said thanks, sort of, and it was the reluctant way she said it that triggered my memory.

It was, oh, maybe two or three years ago that this same woman came up to me outside the church as I was leaving for a downtown meeting. Said she was hungry and needed lunch. So I drove her down to the Burger King on Markham and bought her lunch. When I handed her the tray, she took it silently – and rather sullenly – and walked away without offering any word of thanks. I wondered if she really was hungry, or if she simply wanted money for another purpose, and resented the fact that I wouldn’t give her any. The other night, when she approached me on the street, I remembered her because, in our previous encounter, she didn’t say thank-you. This time she did… sort of.

May I be honest with you once again? She’s not a person I want to keep company with. For one thing, I’m not sure I could afford it.

One Bible commentator has said, in rather typical Bible commentator type of language, “The image of the Son of Man one day separating sheep and goats is a diagnostic tool designed to inspire faithfulness, root out self-centered living, and help each of us measure who and where we are as we grow in the likeness of Christ.”2 I suppose that may be true, but I wish God had another way of doing that, don’t you?

We may wonder why Jesus chose this imagery for his purpose: sheep and goats. Why sheep and goats? Chances are, his original listeners would have known immediately. After all, they come from an agrarian society. We do too, of course. We may think of ourselves as being urban, but we’re surrounded by agriculture,. That doesn’t mean we have it in our backyards. Or maybe we do.

Former Arkansas senator Dale Bumpers and his wife Betty were on the news the other night. Did you see them? They live in our neighborhood, off Napa Valley Drive. Their house is situated right behind Betty and Chuck Gardner’s abode, a block or so down from where we live. The Bumpers have chickens, yes they do, enough to provide them eggs on a regular basis, I am told… though Janet and I haven’t yet gone over to ask to borrow any. I grew up with chickens. We had a five-acre place outside town. Never thought there’d be chickens in my neighborhood here though. So look around you. Your neighborhood might be more agrarian than you thought. Mine certainly is.

Jesus’ listeners would have known immediately why he used this idea of separating the sheep from the goats. Growing food and taking care of animals were the main ways of earning a living in the world in which Jesus lived. In that time and place, sheep and goats were herded together. They chewed the same grass, drank from the same water, and were treated pretty much the same… at least during the day. All of this changed at sundown, however, for these animals had very different nighttime needs.

Sheep have thick coats of hair, as I’m sure you are aware. So, they stayed outside at night in the open, protected from the cool temperatures by their thick wool. But goats, at least compared to sheep, have a thin coat and had to be taken in on cold nights.

Even though they stayed outside at night, sheep were generally more valuable than goats. They produced wool, which was sheared and sold season after season for a number of years. Then, when the animal was no longer useful for this purpose, it was slaughtered and used for meat. Owning sheep was quite a long-term investment in that day. Losing sheep, whether to wild animals or thieves, was a very serious matter. That is reflected in Jesus’ famous parable about the shepherd who left the ninety-nine sheep to go searching for the one that was lost. Sheep were very valuable to their owners.

That was not so true of goats. Goats produced one thing and one thing only: milk. That was their only source for profit. For this reason, more attention was given to the sheep than the goats. In addition, sheep were generally docile and well-behaved, but if a goat took a disliking to you, you better not turn your back! And we won’t even talk about how goats smell.

The sheep were generally white and the goats were black, carefully bred this way so that in the deepening shadows of dusk it was easier for the shepherd to separate them. And separating them was a daily task.3

For all of these reasons – and probably more – goats became then, and still are to this day, a symbol for the bad guys (ever heard of a scapegoat?), while sheep represent the good guys.

Five years ago, when I went to Africa, I was riding one day through the bush country of Kenya with our host Sam Harrell. Sam’s Toyota truck had a huge grill guard on the front, and when I asked him about it he told me it was for the goats. The goats? Yeah, he told me, he wasn’t going to sacrifice his life or his truck for a goat that was dumb enough to wander out in the road and get in his way. And let me tell you, in the bush country of Kenya goats are everywhere, and they don’t think twice about getting in harm’s way. Goats are expendable in Sam’s world.

Maybe they were in Jesus’ day too. But somehow, we are aware, are we not, that this story isn’t about sheep or goats. No, we find Jesus’ story staring right back at us because that’s who it’s about… us. He uses the sheep and the goats to represent those who represent him. So if we want to be sheep, one of the good guys, we better shape up and fly right. Right? Keep a keen eye out for the “least of these,” be on the lookout for those who need our help, make a conscious effort to work overtime so we can get the Boss’ attention and make sure that when the final bonuses are handed out, we’re in line.

Except… Somehow you knew that was coming, didn’t you? Except, the sheep in Jesus’ story don’t know what they have done and the goats aren’t aware of what they have not done. Both groups are caught completely off-guard when it comes time for the Son of Man to come, as Jesus says, “in his glory.”

“When did we?” the sheep want to know. “When did we do these things you have mentioned?” “When did we not?” ask the goats. God’s final judgment just may take us all by surprise. Maybe that is why they call it grace. We just don’t know what God is thinking. Even with our best efforts, we don’t know. Not really.

Except… somehow you knew that was coming, didn’t you? Except, we should no longer be surprised by what Jesus did or said. It’s right there in the record. I get the feeling he wants us to do what he did. It is not – I repeat – it is not an easy thing to do, if for no other reason than we get caught up in what we want to do so that Jesus and everybody else has to take a back seat to our personal desires.

What did Jesus do? He went all over the place touching people, blessing them, showing them a side of God they had never seen before. Rich or poor, sick or whole, young or old, Jesus touched them in a way that no on else had ever done before.  People who could do nothing in return for him, Jesus touched them and made them whole.

And there were no strings attached.

We can continue to live each day, and conduct church on Sunday, the way we’ve always done it. And all the while we could be ignoring those Jesus sends our way. But do we really want to take that chance? After all, when that day of reckoning comes, there will be a separation. He will know when we have looked and when we have looked away. He will know when we have blessed and when we have ignored.  According to the gospel of Matthew, he will know.

Matthew still gives me a pain, but it’s the kind of pain that keeps me on my toes. There is another line in his gospel that I will leave with you. You’ll find it in the 18th chapter, 14th verse. The context is – guess what? – the parable of the lost sheep. Jesus concludes his parable by saying, “It is not the will of the Father in heaven that one of these little ones should be lost.” Not one.

And that, my friends, should be motivation enough for us to see Christ in everyone we meet.

Lord, when did we? When did we not? Help us to see you in the faces of those we meet, regardless of who they are. We need your eyes of compassion and grace, and ask you to show us the way. Through Christ our Lord, Amen.

Notes

1Barbara Brown Taylor, The Preaching Life (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Cowley Publications, 1993), p. 135.

2Lindsay F. Armstrong, Feasting On the Word, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Editors (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011, p. 337.

3Frank Stagg, Broadman Bible Commentary, Volume 8, (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1969), p. 227.