So a young couple invited their elderly pastor over for Sunday dinner. While they were in the kitchen preparing the meal, the minister asked the couple’s son what they were having. “Goat,” the little boy replied. “Goat?” replied the startled man of the cloth, “Are you sure about that?” “Yep,” said the youngster. “I heard Dad say to Mom, ‘Today is just as good as any to have the old goat for dinner.’”
Goats get a bad rap nowadays; even Jesus seems to dislike goats. What we heard from Him today about the sheep inheriting eternal life but the goats going to eternal punishment might seem a little harsh, harsh but conclusive, maybe enough for us to start thinking that goats are second-class citizens.
But it wasn’t always so. “The hair of the goat was considered to be of great value to the Hebrew people. When the materials were brought for the construction of the Tabernacle in the Wilderness, only the finest and the costliest that could be obtained were accepted; and goats’ hair was included in the list of materials the children of Israel offered unto the Lord. The Tabernacle curtains were made of goats’ hair1, so the curtains may have been a bit crude, but they were tough.
Tough as the goats were. Shepherds took care of the goats as well as the sheep, and in some ways the goats were easier to take care of, in others ways, not so much. “Goats are especially fond of young leaves of trees, but the sheep would rather have grass. Goats will feed during all the day without the heat of summer affecting them; but when the sunshine is hot, the sheep will (look for restful shade). The goats are bolder, more venturesome, more playful, more apt to clamber to dangerous places, more apt to break into the grainfields, more headstrong, more vigorous, and more difficult to control than are the sheep.”2
For all those sins and for those we can no longer remember, the goats are, to their detriment, separated from the sheep. But wait, the goats didn’t do anything, you say?
I think therein lies the problem that so many have with this lesson from Jesus. The goats, those horrible sinners who will be separated from the faithful and cast into outer darkness, they didn’t seem to commit any terrible sins; they’re records were pretty clean! Maybe they were a bit headstrong, perhaps a bit too vigorous for their own good, but hey, they never hurt nobody.
Or did they? This is where Jesus threw the whole world upside down. Yes, Jesus tells us, we have erred, and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep. We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts. We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; and there is no health in us. Yes, we have certainly done those things which we ought not to have done, but first: We have left undone those things which we ought to have done.
As Buechner said, “Thus for Jesus the only distinction between men that ultimately matters seems to be … do they or do they not love — love not in the sense of an emotion so much as in the sense of an act of the will, the loving act of willing another’s good even, if need arise, at the expense of their own. “Hell is the suffering of being unable to love,” said old Father Zossima or, as John puts it in his first epistle, “He who does not love remains in death.””3
And so love, as defined today, is this: giving the hungry food, the thirsty drink; welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and the prisoner. “As you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.”
“Just as Jesus appeared at his birth as a helpless child that the world was free to care for or destroy, so now he appears in his resurrection as the pauper, the prisoner, the stranger: appears in every form of human need that the world is free to serve or to ignore.”4
That’s our choice for today:, to serve or to ignore, to love or not love, sheep or goat; to treat everyone as we would treat Jesus…or not.
3Frederick Buechner, http://www.frederickbuechner.com/content/weekly-sermon-illustration-sheep-goats