#88: Sheep and Goats

This is mark Joseph “young” blog entry #88, on the subject of Sheep and Goats.

Some years back I was again listening to a wonderful collection of Keith Green songs, but came to one I never much liked in which he plays the piano, cleverly retells Jesus’ parable of separating the sheep from the goats, and preaches a conclusion from it.  This time I asked myself why it bothered me, and it struck me that he had to be wrong:  what Keith was drawing from the story was not the gospel of Christ.  So I looked up the parable (it is in Matthew 25:31ff) and read it once again–and indeed, Keith had it wrong.  So, it occurred to me, did most of the people I had ever heard talk about it.

I talked about it in more than one venue, and got some interesting responses to what I taught, but it continued to nag me.  So I am now sharing it here, so more of you can read what the parable really says, instead of what so many seem to think it says.


Let’s start with the way the parable is understood by too many people.  It appears that at the end of the world Jesus separates everyone into two groups.  He puts all the people who did good things over on his right, and all the people who did bad things to His left.  Then he says to the people on His right, “You people, because you did all these good things, I recognize that you are sheep.”  Those people say, “Thank you, Lord, yes, we worked hard to be sheep, and are pleased that you noticed.”  So the Lord says, “Come into the Kingdom, you’ve earned your reward.”

Then he turns to the other group on his left, and says, “Because you did all these bad things, I recognize that you are goats.”  They replied, “Yes, well, we liked doing bad things, made an effort to be bad, and don’t really care what you think of us.”  So He says to them, “Go away, you deserve your punishment.”

If you think that’s what the parable says, I hope I can disillusion you of this.  It says something that is almost the complete opposite of that in the most important ways.

First, we got the part right that it is the end of the world and Jesus is separating everyone into two groups–but He does so strictly on the basis of whether they are sheep or goats, not on anything they do.  That is, like any shepherd with at least a day of experience, He can tell the difference between a sheep and a goat by looking at it, and doesn’t have to observe what it is doing.  In the picture above you can clearly recognize the goat in the bottom left corner foreground as distinctly different from the other animals in the flock, most of which are obviously sheep.  So he looks at each animal and puts it in the right group, sheep to the right, goats to the left.

Now Jesus talks to the sheep.  What He says is, “You know, I’ve noticed something about you sheep:  you are always doing all these kind things for me.  It’s as if you can’t help yourself.  You see people in need, and you reach out and do something.”  The sheep, now, reply, “What are you talking about?  We don’t remember doing anything out of the ordinary.  We just did what we did, what sheep naturally do.”  He says, “Yes, but what you sheep naturally do for everyone makes you the kind of creatures I want to have in the Kingdom, so come.”

It’s time to talk to the goats, and you know what He says, but you might still have it wrong.  He begins, “I noticed something about you goats, too.”  What He noticed about the goats, though, is not “You are always doing bad things.”  No, not at all.  He says, “You never showed Me any kindness.”  It was the absence of those kind acts that Jesus noticed.  And notice the reply:  they say, “We never saw You in need of any kindness.”  The goats aren’t cruel; they’re oblivious to the needs of others.  Those needs never come onto their radar.  It does not occur to them to do anything for anyone else.  It is entirely natural for them to be completely self-absorbed.  Then Jesus says to them, “Your attitude toward others prevents you from being good members of this Kingdom, so I’m going to have to send you away.”

The important point to notice here about both the sheep and the goats is that neither of them is trying to do what they do.  The sheep are acting like sheep, and the goats are acting like goats, and both are doing so completely oblivious to the fact that they are doing something unusual.  Sheep show kindness to others because they are sheep and naturally see needs and try to meet them; goats do not show kindness because being goats they are oblivious to anything that is not about them.  Neither is really aware of what he is doing; he does it because it seems the natural thing to do.  You don’t try to become a sheep by doing something; if you are a sheep, you act like one.

I taught this in a small worship service at the Ubercon game convention some years ago, and one of the attendees I’ll call Avian shared a story from her own experience.  She had been invited to what was something of a house gathering, possibly a meeting or something like a service, by a Wiccan.  She accepted the invitation, and arrived to find the home filled with people she didn’t know, but a hostess who was obviously rather sick trying to make everyone comfortable as they interacted with each other.  Avian immediately saw that the hostess was exhausted, struggling against some kind of head cold or allergies or something, and said, “You don’t look well.  Come on, show me your kitchen, I’m going to make you a cup of tea.”  She took the hostess into the kitchen, and with a bit of coaching on where to find things soon served her a cup of hot tea and sat with her to see what else she could do.

The others at the meeting were flabbergasted.  They asked why she was doing this.  She was confused.  “What do you mean, why am I doing this?  Why aren’t you doing this?  It seems the thing anyone would do, that this woman is not feeling well and she needs someone to help her feel better.”  They didn’t get it.  It strikes me that they were all goats, completely oblivious either that their hostess had a need or that they might want to do something about it.  Avian was a sheep, someone who sees a need and looks for a way to help meet it, because that’s what she thinks people do, because she is a sheep and that’s what sheep do.

Obviously at this point I can’t tell you to act more like sheep.  That would be putting us back to where we were with Keith Green’s error.  You don’t become a sheep by acting like one.  Either you are a sheep or you are not.  But Paul tells us that if anyone is in Christ he is a new creature, old things passed away and new things come.  That is, God changes us from goats to sheep when we look to Him to save us; part of being saved is being turned from our selfish self-absorption to see the needs of others.  We are changed by the renewing of our minds, by the softening of our hearts, by the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives.  He teaches us compassion, gives us compassion, causes us to become sheep, and then we act like sheep–and probably don’t even realize we’re doing it, because like Jesus being moved with compassion we try to help.  Whether we give money or time or effort, we do so to meet needs we perceive, to make the lives of others better.  So let your guard down, let God give you that concern for others, and allow yourself to take the risk of becoming a sheep.

It will seem the most natural thing in the world.

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