Sheep, goats and the social gospel

‘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. 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, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 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; 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, 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.” 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? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” 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.” 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; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 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.” 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?” 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.” And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.’ — Matthew 25:31-46

Sometimes the most familiar passages are the hardest to read. Oh, it isn’t that the words themselves are polysyllabic obscurities or filled with foreign words and jargon, but rather that they are so simple, familiar, and clear. Reading it today, I wonder what is so terribly unclear about it that it can be ignored so easily or even overwritten by a different kind of gospel?

The premise is, like the passage, simple and clear. If you want to be one of those receiving God’s blessing and place in the kingdom, then do this, otherwise, don’t. The sheep will go to the right, the goats to the left, and there’s no doubt that the right is the favored side.

Sheep and goats were familiar things in villages and towns. Sheep were considered “manly” animals – tended by men and whose milk and cheese were consumed by men. The rams protected their herds, were more stoic in the face of danger, and were a bit more particular about what they ate. Goats, on the other hand, were seen as more shame-ful animals, eating almost anything and definitely promiscuous with no single male having his own group of females to guard and protect (and reserve for himself alone). Women tended and milked the goats, drank the milk and ate the goat cheese themselves. A further view of the two animals revealed that sheep represented the “in” group, the Jewish males, while the goats represented everybody else — including women and “outsiders” (non-Jews). Jesus drew the parallel that marked the in-group from all others, members of the in-group (men, anyway) practiced a radical form of hospitality to members of an out-group and thus gained honor and recognition for their righteousness. Taking care of the poor, widowed, orphaned, sick and the like of one’s own group was a duty that accrued no extra honor; it was simply expected that they take care of those to whom they were related.

Today we still think of sheep and goats in terms of left and right, separating “good” and “bad”, right and wrong, conservative and liberal. Jesus’s words specifically called out duties of the “sheep”, those who were part of his in-group as well as those who followed him. Most of those things Jesus called for the sheep to do would be considered what is sometimes called the social gospel today, caring for not just the members of one’s own group but everyone in need regardless of kinship or ideology. Somehow it is sad that those who claim the right side, that side designated for those inheriting the kingdom and recognition by God of righteousness, are those who often reject what they call “entitlements” such as anti-poverty programs, humane treatment for aliens and prisoners and the like. It seems as though they are reading an entirely different gospel, one that reverses almost everything that Jesus taught while emphasizing issues that benefit the few rather than the many. So-called Leftists have always been considered to be radical and anti-establishment, ] to be fought against and overcome lest the whole world become one vast anarchy. Yet leftists usually seemed to be following the gospel more closely with their concern for the poor and downtrodden, those imprisoned unfairly or for political reasons, and those in greatest need. I wonder — would God really condemn them for that? Who really are the sheep and who are the goats?

Sheep and goats meant different things in Jesus’ time. People understood the meaning and nuances. Today, though, the lines seem to have reversed themselves. Jesus continually spoke of doing things an honorable person would do, like caring for widows and orphans, prisoners, sick people and the like. There is no honor in just doing it for people who are part of the in-group, whether by birth, marriage, adoption or ideology. The honor comes from doing it with equality for all, so how does a practice of exclusivity fit into that framework? Is what Jesus said only a cultural or a back-then thing or is it really something that is laid on us as an imperative? Jesus didn’t make this stuff up; he had a solid background of Old Testament teaching and example to go by.

What Jesus was saying is that when folks like me look at someone, no matter who, we should see Jesus himself in that person and treat them as if they were indeed Jesus. If they have needs, those needs must be met, plain and simple.

So as I look around, I wonder — who really are the sheep and who the goats? Am I earning my sheep-hood or am I just being goat-ish? I have to earn the honor of being a sheep, despite the modern conviction that sheep are easily led, are not too bright and that goats are smarter and more open to opportunity. Am I going to be pointed to the left or the right when Jesus comes again? I’m pretty sure I’m not going to be graded on how well I took care of myself but rather on how well I helped to take care of others. That, to me, is the plain, unvarnished meaning of a story so familiar and yet so difficult. Sometimes the seemingly simple things are the hardest, but if it were easy, wouldn’t everybody be doing it?

I wonder — what would the world be like if there weren’t sheep and goats but only sheep? I wonder, would Jesus say, “Now that’s what I’m talkin’ about!” It will be interesting to find out.

Linda Ryan co-mentors 2 EfM Online groups and keeps the blog Jericho’s Daughter

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