Goats and Sheep

Included in Matthew’s Gospel is Jesus’ Judgement of Nations and reflection on goats and sheep [25:31–46]. Although often called a “parable,” it is just a “similitude” or an imaginative comparison. This passage gets a lot of attention around the deeds of mercy for the least of our brothers being a criterion of judgment. I have used it myself in blogs before. However, this time I want to focus on the Goats and Sheep. I have never seen goats as the evil counterpart of sheep, so why are they accursed? I have reserved that personal judgement for cats (evil) and dogs (awesome). Although since my daughter brought her rescued kitten home from college, I have softened my stance somewhat.

In the time of Jesus, in the Middle East, sheep and goats were often indistinguishable from one another in a flock. Usually, only the shepherd who was familiar with his flock could tell them apart. To the outside eye, it would be difficult. In one of the earliest episodes of the Bible (Genesis 4:2), Abel became a keeper of a flock of sheep and goats together. In Hebrew life both animals were a source of milk, meat, and fabrics. It was important to early Hebrew pastoral economy to have a large flock of sheep and goats, it was a sign of wealth. Goats and sheep were equal in their commercial value.

Sheep appear aloof but are intelligent, quiet animals, obedient, and persistent. In the face of danger, the adult males will surround the females and the young. Sheep are admired for their loyalty and silent strength. Sheep follow the voice of their shepherd and trust they will be led to food, water, and safety. When they wander the shepherd will go and bring them back to the safety of the flock. Sheep rely on a shepherd to protect them from their environment.

Goats, however, are stubborn, destructive animals if left unattended. Male goats do not protect their mates. A goat doesn’t follow anyone. A herd of goats goes where it wants, and the goatherd follows behind. Goats tend to be much more self-governing and impulsive than sheep, even unruly. Goats are naturally quarrelsome; they are aggressive and physical to establish dominance. Goatherds protect the environment from their goats.

In the folklore of Ancient Greek culture, the goat symbolized the loose morals of the lesser gods, the symbol of a disobedient and an undisciplined lifestyle. People drew moral analogies from the habits of sheep and goats. The name “goat” became a derogatory term for a man shamed.

As noted, from a distance it is hard to distinguish within a herd which are goats, and which are sheep. As a high school football coach, I would occasionally get the ‘from a distance’ question of why a certain kid was playing versus another, often based on the perceived differences in physical abilities. The best players allow themselves to be coached, they welcome it. They have the humility to be coached, much like the relationship of sheep and shepherd. The ‘I know better’ types feel their athleticism is all they need. They do their own thing, often to the detriment of others and the team.

In coaching, I used the comparison of being on the team versus being a teammate. For this blog I will adapt it to fit. Being in a flock benefits personal ambitions; being a flockmate benefits the ambitions of the flock. Being in a flock is personal; being a flockmate is communal. People in a flock are energized by emotions; flockmates are energized out of commitment for one another. People in a flock have a common interest; flockmates have a common mission.

Surprisingly, as well as disappointingly, I see this similitude in society today. Those, who from a distance and at a glance are part of the community – civic minded and Christian – are behaving like goats, aggressive and quarrelsome. Earlier in Matthew’s Gospel (7:15) he warns of false prophets (wolves) who come in sheep’s clothing. But to me a goat who flocks with sheep is scarier. The wolves are intentionally practicing deception, they know they are bogus and misleading with the intent to destroy the flock. Goats, on the other hand, see nothing wrong with their behavior and like all the benefits of the flock while being subversive.

There is nothing wrong with independence and self-reliance. In a previous blog, Don’t Be a Processionary Caterpillar, I discuss not blindly following the group. We are in control of our choices and direction. Choices and directions set with integrity and no gap between intent and behavior. No one should not be surprised by our decisions and path. We cannot keep company, in the same flock, with anyone who’s not going where we aspire to go.

The words ‘discipline’ and ‘disciple’ share the same root word, ‘discipulus’, which is Latin for ‘pupil’. The concept is that as disciples we surrender ourselves, like a sheep to its shepherd or an athlete to a coach. Our surrender is given to God and His wisdom.  We surrender ourselves with love in our hearts, into our Shepherd’s hands without reserve and with boundless trust.

In “The Problem of Pain”, C. S. Lewis described the fall of Adam and Eve as their desire to be on their own and to take care for their own future, and to call their souls their own (sounds like a goat). God is the shepherd of sheep not goats, with many biblical references to this fact. From Psalm 95:7, “For he is our God, we are the people he shepherds, the sheep in his hands. Oh, that today you would hear his voice.”

Are we allowing ourselves to be sensitive to the pull of God’s Spirit, and following the path of our Shepherd? Or are we headstrong, going our own way, and pulling back against God’s Spirit? Does God see a gentle and communal spirit, a trust? Or does He see a spirit of defiance, self-will, and independence from His guidance? Do we have the humility to be shepherded?

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