Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24
34:11 For thus says the Lord GOD: I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. 12 As shepherds seek out their flocks when they are among their scattered sheep, so I will seek out my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. 13 I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land; and I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the watercourses, and in all the inhabited parts of the land. 14 I will feed them with good pasture, and the mountain heights of Israel shall be their pasture; there they shall lie down in good grazing land, and they shall feed on rich pasture on the mountains of Israel. 15 I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord GOD. 16 I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice. 20 Therefore, thus says the Lord GOD to them: I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep. 21 Because you pushed with flank and shoulder, and butted at all the weak animals with your horns until you scattered them far and wide, 22 I will save my flock, and they shall no longer be ravaged; and I will judge between sheep and sheep. 23 I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd.
24 And I, the LORD, will be their God, and my servant David shall be prince among them; I, the LORD, have spoken.
95:1 O come, let us sing to the LORD; let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation! 2 Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving; let us make a joyful noise to him with songs of praise! 3 For the LORD is a great God, and a great King above all gods. 4 In his hand are the depths of the earth; the heights of the mountains are his also. 5 The sea is his, for he made it, and the dry land, which his hands have formed. 6 O come, let us worship and bow down, let us kneel before the LORD, our Maker! 7a For he is our God, and we are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand.
1:15 I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, and for this reason 16 I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers. 17 I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, 18 so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, 19 and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power. 20 God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, 21 far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. 22 And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, 23 which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.
25:31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33 and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 34 Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38 And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39 And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ 40 And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ 41 Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42 for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ 44 Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ 45 Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ 46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
What a lot of sheep in the scriptures for today! In spite of what many people think, West Virginia is not made up totally of backwoods hillbillies who have farm animals running in and out of their houses. In fact, West Virginia DOES have some major metropolitan areas. I’ve lived in one of those metropolitan areas my entire life. It is for that reason I never really “got” the parable of the sheep and the goats. Yes, I was in 4-H, and no, I didn’t raise any kind of critter for the County Fair. The amount of knowledge I have about most farm animals comes to me second hand from reading books and watching television. I have no experience with sheep or goats, and what I know about them could really fit into a thimble.
I know that we get wool from sheep, and some people get milk from goats. Female sheep are called ewes, male sheep are rams, and baby sheep are lambs and are cute. Lambs show up on cue in the spring around Easter time, and Jesus is the Lamb of God. One serves mint jelly when serving lamb. When someone is called a “lamb” it is considered to be a compliment. Goats have horns and beards and are said to be stubborn. A female goat is a nanny, a male a buck, and a baby a kid. Sheep and goats can mate and produce (usually sterile) offspring. There are pigmy goats (cute too), and fainting goats (weird.) Sheep and goats are often in the same fields and herds, being watched by a shepherd.
Because of my lack of knowledge of animal husbandry, I had to do some research when commenting on the scriptures appointed for Christ the King Sunday. From my childhood on, it has always seemed to me that the goats in the Scriptures got the raw end of the deal, and I wanted to find out just why this is. I mean, what’s wrong with the goats? This is what I learned:
Sheep are gentle, quiet, animals and do not give their shepherds a lot of problems. They are not aggressive; they are very docile animals. The word “docile” as described in the Webster’s dictionary means, “easily managed or handled, readily trained or taught.” Sheep love to follow the shepherd, and can often be quite affectionate.
Goats, on the other hand, tend to be more independent, are rather aggressive and quarrelsome, and goats are pushy, self-sufficient, and headstrong. They rear and butt in order to establish dominance. Goats will easily revert back to their wild conditions if given the chance. Goats are naturally smelly animals.
Overall, a goat’s reputation is less than positive. Even goat metaphors are negative. For instance, “Look at the old goat” refers to an old fool or dirty old man. “You get my goat!” applies to a person who irritates another. The nursery rhyme, “Mary had a little lamb, its fleece was white as snow; and everywhere that Mary went, the lamb was sure to go” gives a positive view of the little lamb, but when the gypsy girl, Esmeralda, in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, has a pet goat that performs tricks, the people want to hang the girl because they presume she’s using witchcraft. The Jewish Heritage Online magazine reports: While goat’s milk was reported to have some medicinal benefits, goats were regarded as “armed robbers who would jump over people’s fences and destroy their plants.” The ancient rabbis were said to have told this story:
There was once a certain pious person who suffered from heart trouble, and the physicians said the only hope for his recovery was for him to drink warm milk every morning. A cow was not available to this fellow but his family was able to come up with a goat. After some days the sick man’s colleagues came to visit him, but as soon as they noticed the goat they turned back and said: An armed robber is at the house of this man, how can we come to see him? They then sat down and inquired into their friend’s conduct, but they did not find any fault in him except this sin of the goat….
Anyway you look at it; goats tend to be seen in a negative way.
So what about the shepherd? The shepherd is the man or woman who takes care of the sheep and goats. It’s that simple, and even I knew that. Christ as shepherd is a pretty easy analogy to understand. We are his flock and he takes care of us. What I didn’t realize or know is that the analogy runs deep in the literature of the ancient world. In Mesopotamia, the region along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, the model for kings was the shepherd. The king-as-shepherd was to “rule kindly, counsel and protect the people,” and “guide them through every difficulty.” Babylon’s Hammurabi, credited with the world’s first written law code, was described as a shepherd of his people. In ancient Egypt, the shepherd’s crook was used “as an insignia of kings, princes, and chieftains.” In the Iliad and the Odyssey from ancient Greece, ship captains are called “shepherds of ships.” Plato uses the shepherd analogy to define justice in the Republic, and in the “Statesman” uses the shepherd to symbolize the work of a good ruler. And of course today, the shepherd’s crook is a symbol of our bishops, representing them as the shepherds of Christ’s flocks.
Having learned all of this, what then, does the parable of the sheep and the goats mean for us? How do we apply this to our lives? Remember, all the nations are gathered before the judge, before the throne of the Son of Man, before the King, THE Shepherd, and the Shepherd separates them
– the right from the left, the sheep from the goats,
and he judges them
– and those on the right are saved, and those on the left are
The judgment is made on the basis of the compassion, the love, or the
lack of it, that is shown by those who are gathered before the throne of judgment.
“I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you took me in” the Son of Man tells those on his right. To those on his left he says the exact opposite. “I was naked” he tells them, “and you did not give me clothing, I was sick and in prison and you did not visit me.”
Awesome words these. Words of great clarity. Words with a powerful message for those who have ears to hear it.
Yet, in the end, despite our knowledge of the story and of its message, the message about the vital importance of our acts of sharing and caring, especially with those who are numbered among the least of us – the poor, the hungry, the imprisoned, despite our knowledge of this parable there are elements to it that are not often talked about, or if talked about which are glossed over.
I speak of course, about the surprise expressed by the sheep and the goats when they hear the Son of Man say – “I was hungry and you fed me. I was thirsty and you gave me drink.” or “I was naked and you did not clothe me” and “I was in prison and you did not visit me”
Why is that? Why are they surprised?
What is it that both the sheep and the goats seem to be missing when they perform their good works – or when they fail to?
I think that they are missing a sense of how the sacred penetrates and is interwoven in the ordinary – indeed in the less than the ordinary, in those places – those persons – that we might consider far from holy – far from being a part of Christ, much less Christ embodied.
Remember the words that Jesus uses.
He doesn’t talk about how blessed are we when we visit our friends who are sick, or how wonderful it is when we give good things to our family members and our fellow believers, or how nice it is when we clothe the folks who are just like us.
No. Jesus talks about the least among us – the least within this world, those whom conventional wisdom might even regard as accursed,
– the poor,
– the thirsty,
– the sick in the wards and in the deserts and jungle floors,
-those who are in prison
– perhaps sex offenders
– perhaps murderers
– perhaps only those who have stolen so that their families may eat.
We don’t know. But we do know that they are the least amongst us. Those persons whom we might think don’t count. Those people whose opinions we might regard as unimportant or invalid, because of their age – or their sex, their gender identity, their socio-economic status, educational level, or sexual orientation. Those people whose cries we might ignore because of their race.
And that the Son of Man, that Jesus the Christ, claims to be among them – indeed IN them. And that is surprising is it not – at least to most of us? In fact, it might even be considered to be outrageous.
There is no question raised in this parable of what creed either the sheep or the goats had believed; or whether they had sworn allegiance to one whom the Bible calls the Son of Man – the Good Shepherd – the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords.
There is only the surprise that this exalted one – who is – in fact – Christ Jesus himself – has been present in every person they had ever met, and most especially, in the needy ones and the least important ones – the ones that Jesus calls “the least.”
And that judgment is based on whether we treat this king, this son of man, present in these the least, well; or ignore him in his suffering and his want and his need.
That is – to say the least – a bit disconcerting. We sometimes think that religion is about believing “stuff”, and that if we believe the right “stuff” we are safe.
But it seems not to be so. Rather our faith seems to be about awareness,
about having our eyes opened to the real world, and responding compassionately to it. Whether or not we are “aware” that the Christ is there.
The parable is calling to us to see the Christ in the squalling child who is getting in our way, and to hear God in the voice of the beggars who so often come and sit with us on Sunday in their dirty and smelly clothes – waiting for a chance to get a free lunch. The parable is calling us to see the Christ in those who irritate us, who have done us wrong. In those whom we don’t particularly care for. The parable is alerting us to the importance of compassion and to the fact that the Son of Man is present in the needy of our world, that Christ is present in each and every human being with whom we come into contact, regardless of who they are, how they act, how they have treated us, or what they believe.
To encounter the least of the brothers and sisters of the Son of Man, however, we don’t need to go to Calcutta, or the Sudan or to one of the
overcrowded prisons in our land do we?? Aren’t there many who are marginalized, many whom we are regarded of little significance of not being equal to those close to us right here amongst us – here in our hometowns, in our parishes, or even in our own families?
Remember the first and the greatest commandment – the one about how we are to love God with all our heart, soul, strength and mind?
Consider what John the Divine, John the Apostle, the disciple of Christ says about that love in his First Letter. He writes in Chapter three, verse seventeen:
If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in
need, but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in
and again in the 4th chapter, verses 20 and 21:
Anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen,
cannot love God, whom he has not seen. And he has given us
this command: Whoever loves God must also love his brother.
The sheep – those on the right – have shown love for their brothers and sisters, and in doing so they have shown love to God, and so they enter the kingdom prepared for them. Their faith is alive – even if they have not grasped the fullness of it. Even if they have not recognized how the Son of Man is everywhere about them. One might say the law has been written on their hearts and guided their actions, if not their thoughts and words.
But think of it. Think of the fullness of it. If our eyes were opened to the depth of the real world and not the shallow world of conventional wisdom, then we would see God present in everyone and everything, especially in the needy and the least important ones.
And that would be even more transforming, – not only for the sheep, for those who are doing good, and for those to whom they are showing the compassion of God, – but also for the goats, for those who may have the right creed and doctrine but who may have judged the least among us as not being deserving of their love and care, as not being people in whom the Holy One dwells.
What a priceless thing if the sheep are not surprised – by the presence of the Son of Man in everyone – and in joy remind those who may risk being judged as goats that all people are wonderfully made and all need to be treated as we would treat the Son of Man.
Provocative isn’t it? It raises a thousand questions in your minds I am sure.
How far should we go in our caring? Whom should we care for – and whom, if any, should we not care for? How can we prioritize our caring so that the truly needy get what they need while those who would suck us dry do not. Or should we even worry about that?
I can’t answer these questions for you. It is something that each of us needs to struggle with on a case-by-case, day by day basis.
But I can tell you that Christ is all around us. That Christ is in the least among us. In the single welfare mothers – and the AIDS patients, and in the prisoners in our jails and in the homeless upon our streets.
Think about this one last time with me. Think of it some 2000 years ago when the Son of Man – the one who is King of King and Lord of Lords, wandered as a poor preacher in a poor land, having no home to call his own, much less a throne of righteousness.
Think of when the Son of Man was tried for blasphemy and flogged 39 times as a common criminal and then was hung on a cross to die as one who was accursed. Think about how the Son of Man came among us – that first time – as we prepare for his coming with Advent starting next week. Think about the circumstances of his life and his death.
The prophet Isaiah, some 700 years before the birth of Christ puts it
He had no form or majesty that we should look at him,
nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was
despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and
acquainted with infirmity; and as one from whom others hide
their faces he was despised – and we held him of no account.
Where is Christ to be found today? Where is the Son of Man? He is most certainly here among us, and in you my brothers and sisters. But he is also here in ways we do not so easily grasp.
I understand the surprise of those sheep on the right of the Son of Man – and of the goats on the left. I understand because it is so easy to not see him in those who are reckoned to be the least among us. I understand because I have some decisions to make.
Do I want to be a sheep or a goat? I most definitely want to be a sheep, and I can think I am a sheep, but literally act like a goat. Am I feeding the hungry? Giving drink to the thirsty? Taking in a stranger? Clothing the naked? Visiting the sick and imprisoned? Recognizing the Christ in every person? Respecting every person? Looking for the good in every person? If I am not, then who am I? Clearly the goat, not the sheep.
If we think we are sheep, we should be acting like sheep. We have all talked and talked about serving Christ in some way, but like goats we often have gone our own way, too caught up in our own needs and desires. The buck stops here (pun intended!)
As we celebrate Christ as King, and prepare for Christ’s coming during the season of Advent, the beginning of the liturgical year, let us make a new (liturgical) year’s resolution, to love and care for our fellow human beings, to treat every person with whom we come into contact with dignity and respect, to serve our Lord with gladness, to exorcise our individual goats, and to truly become the sheep of Christ’s pasture. Amen.