Sermon: Should Jesus have been a Goat-herd? Matthew 25: 31-36 Text and youtube
Many people will be familiar with the story of the kid in math class. Teacher asks “ If there are 20 sheep in a field and one gets out through the fence, how many are left? Boy answers “none”. Teacher says, “You don’t know your math”. The boy says, ”You don’t know your sheep”.
If we ask the same question about goats the answer would be – Well – it depends on how they feel. There might be 19 left or 0 or 6. Goats are much more independent than sheep.
I have raised both sheep and goats. They are very different animals. Sheep are followers and will mostly stay in a group. Goats on the other hand make their own decisions. I always thought they were similar to a dog in intelligence. I had goats who could climb ladders, open gates and turn on taps. If you have had goats you have looked out your window and seen them sleeping on your vehicle. They love to be up high. Some who have never had goats are saying “Well don’t let them on the vehicle” Those who have had goats are just laughing.
I have always had a concern about the emphasis on sheep in the bible. Jesus is often portrayed as a shepherd. He is portrayed as the “Lamb of God”
The lectionary, which is an international three year rotation of suggested scripture reading, is used by a majority of the churches. It suggests for this Sunday the passage which describes Jesus as a shepherd. I don’t always follow the lectionary (no surprise) so I chose a related one about the separation of sheep and goats.
The idea of Jesus as a shepherd raises some questions for me. The idea of the goats getting tossed out raises some concerns
First, Jesus was not a shepherd. He was a carpenter as far as we know. We see lots of pictures and sculptures of him carrying a lamb but I cannot recall an image of him carrying a saw. Why?
Part of the construct comes from the idea of the sacrificial lamb which was part of the Jewish religion. The Passover is the celebration of the Israelites escape from Egypt. They were to put the blood of an animal on their doorposts and the angel of death “Passed over” their homes. The Passover lamb, is the sacrifice that the Torah mandates them to ritually slaughter on the evening of Passover, and eat on the first night of the holiday with bitter herbs and matzo as a remembrance. Interestingly the Torah states that it also could be a goat.
Part of the idea also comes from passages such as the Psalm 23. “The Lord is my Shepherd”. It is a beautiful passage that has brought comfort to many over the years. The thought of Jesus as a compassionate shepherd is very powerful. There are about 30 passages in the Old Testament that refer to God as Shepherd and about 10 in the New Testament that extend that metaphor to Jesus.
As beautiful as it is, in reality Jesus rarely would have come in close contact with a sheep. Sheep were housed outside town. He worked in town. Shepherds were of a lower class while carpenters were probably like jewellers in today’s world. Wood was more difficult to come by and so it was more of an artisan or specialty practice. Houses were primarily built of stone.
The passage from the lectionary talks about Jesus being a gate to hold the sheep in. Is this good of bad?
On one hand it is wonderful. There is a concept of protection involved. There is comfort in being with others who are similar. There is reassurance in being protected from the outside world and guarded by someone you trust.
However every room has walls. Walls keep others out but also keep you in. Right now we are protected from the virus by staying apart, but at the same time we are losing some of our liberties. Should we be concerned?
Was the image of Jesus’ followers as sheep done on purpose?
Was the image of goats as bad, done on purpose?
The passage of scripture I chose, talks about how good and kind sheep are and they can spend eternal life in paradise, while the goats are bad and must be cast away. Yet if someone says “they followed like Sheep” it is not considered a compliment.
The church and the government of any country have always known it is easier to control people who are placid and contained than people who will question. A few years ago a bumper sticker came out that said “Question authority”. It was seen as a radical statement.
During the history of the church there has been a desire to have people follow without question. The bible was not easily available for 1600 years. The large bibles in pulpits were chained down and people were not allowed to look at them. Even recently people have told me that their priest, minister or pastor explained that they should believe without question.
I wonder if our history and our personal view would be different if the church had chosen to call Jesus a Goat-herd?
Names are important. At a funeral or wedding I always make sure that I have the right name. It makes a difference- trust me. Many times, a person’s legal name is not even similar to the name they go by. I knew a man who changed his name slightly with each new girlfriend. He did it so he could keep track. If one of them wrote him a note and didn’t sign it – he knew who it was from.
Names have meanings. In the Chinese culture relatives have different names depending on where they are in the family tree. So the older uncle would have a different title than a younger uncle. It is a sign of respect but it is also a sign of clarification. It might also be easier than our system where we say “Well that’s your mother’s second oldest uncle on her father’s side, who was actually his sister’s son from a previous marriage”.
So if we change the title of Jesus from Shepherd to Goat-herd. What effect does that have?
In every society there is an undercurrent of submission. People are to fit in. It makes it easier and there is tremendous pressure from many sources. Fashion is a powerful force to make everyone abide by certain rules. We were never to wear white after Labour Day. Every family was to have a house in the suburbs with a white picket fence and everyone was to have a legitimate job. The people who didn’t fit in, the artists, the rebels and the outcasts were often people who questioned and were questioned. Those were people who thought in different ways. They are people in today’s world who have a difficult time “fitting in”. They are often people who have depression and anxiety because they don’t feel accepted. They don’t fit the status-quo.
Did the church make a mistake by emphasizing the sheep over the goats?
There is a video making the rounds right now by TomFoolery called the Great Realisation, where a man reads in poetry form to his child about the great change that came to the world after the Coronavirus because we were forced to reassess our values and needs.
After this Virus there will tremendous pressure to return to the “normal”. There will be pressure to buy and spend. There will be pressure to continue the rat-race and there will be pressure for us to follow like sheep.
But maybe it is time to question; – to ask, if the sheepfold we are in is the right one.
This is not a sermon to discredit the sheep or the sheep fold. We need comfort and security right now. But maybe we need to look and see where the goats are. How many are left in the field?
I believe that God cares for the sheep and made Jesus a shepherd but I also believe that God cares for the goats and Jesus is a goat-herd.
Maybe following Jesus in the new world will be very different.
God we come to you. As people who are often consumed by fear. We are overcome by obstacles tht we think are walls.
We lose faith
We lose hope
We lose our vision of who you are.
As the sun finally breaks through the fog
As the face of a friend finally breaks through the crowd
We ask for your care and compassion
But God we also ask for your challenge and encouragement
Provoke us to venture out
Out of our secure fold and help us to make a difference in the world
Help us to challenge the hatred and evil
With love and kindness
Help us to uplift the human race
We know you walk with us in our fear and in venture
We pray for those close to us
We repeat together the Lord’s Prayer
Our Father who art in heaven
Hallowed by thy name
Thy kingdom come,
thy will be done in earth as it is in heaven
Give us this day our daily bread
and forgive us our trespasses
as we forgive those who trespass against us
lead us not into temptation
but deliver us from evil
for thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory
forever and ever