Having heard that parable of the sheep and the goats, I couldn’t help but ask, what is the difference between sheep and goats? — And why did Jesus use them to illustrate this story?
Well obviously sheep and goats are totally different species but if you had them standing side by side just in front of you, how would you be able to tell which was which?
I suppose one of the main differences between the two, if you don’t go in for counting chromosomes, is the way that they forage. Sheep are grazers; you see them in fields or on the hillsides rambling slowly, eating short plants like grasses, close to the ground. You only have to visit our own churchyard to see how good sheep are at keeping the grass in the adjacent field in control. On the other hand goats are browsers; they will of course eat grass but they are also on the lookout for less digestible leaves, twigs, vines, and shrubs, the sorts of things that sheep probably wouldn’t even look at. You may well remember the pictures of the goats invading the streets of Llandudno during the first lockdown. I don’t know whether they were searching for a different diet or just after a new adventure because it wasn’t as though they were actually short of food back up on the Great Orme. But during lockdown they became opportunists and some of my favourite memories are of those goats, balancing on garden walls and eating people’s hedges, which I suppose is alright, provided it isn’t your hedge they are eating.
But there are other ways to tell the difference between sheep and goats. Not all goats have beards but you could look at their tails: goat’s tails typically point upwards, while sheep tails tend to hang down. Another way to decide is to look at their coats: sheep are woolly and need regular stripping or shearing, whereas goat’s coats are of hair and don’t need so much attention. Even so, there must be times when it is difficult for anyone who lacks experience to tell the difference between the two.
So why did Jesus use sheep and goats to illustrate his story?
Well firstly, they coexisted. Mixed flocks roamed the countryside to take advantage of the whole habitat and, as we know, Jesus liked to use illustrations with which the people of the time could easily associate and understand. However, if we were rewriting the parable for an audience in the present age we may be tempted to talk about separating out football supporters, or people who do, and do not, care for others by sticking to the Covid rules rather than referring to sheep and goats.
Secondly, and this may be a bit of a generality, to my mind, goats seem to be a bit more mischievous, some would say more independent, curious, and troublesome, which is possibly why they were cast as the bad guys in this parable.
And finally, I dare say that in many cases , only an experienced shepherd would be able to successfully separate the two, it would need to be someone who knew his flock.
I believe that is why Jesus used the shepherd with his sheep and goats as an example, and a visual aid, to help his followers understand what judgement will be like — because judgement is at the heart of this parable.
That said, I think there are two alternative interpretations of what we heard read even though I feel they are both related. The first is probably the way the parable was originally intended and the second is an extrapolation of the text to apply to all people.
Firstly then, Jesus explained that, when the day of judgement arrives, people will be separated into two groups:
Those who have lived good lives by supporting each other and have believed in God will be taken to one side and be allocated a place in Heaven.
Those who have rejected God and have sinned, through acts of negligence towards their fellow travellers whilst they were seeking a closer relationship with the Father, who will be separated out and be sent to Hell.
But this simple explanation raises two questions: when will the judgement take place? And is the final decision between good and bad or good and evil as binary as this passage makes out? — if it is I have a horrible feeling that a number of us, and I have included myself in that number, are going to struggle.
Many Christians believe that after death, they will be taken into the presence of God and be judged for the deeds they have done or failed to do during their lifetime. But whilst some believe that this judgement will happen when they die, others believe that there will be a Day of Judgement at the end of time, a day when everyone will be judged at the same time. Yet others, try to keep their options open and believe that judgement will happen in two stages: an initial personal judgement when you die, followed by the definitive judgement at the end of time. To be honest, my view is that it doesn’t really matter WHEN the judgement will come, it’s the fact that it WILL come that we should be more concerned about.
So let’s turn our thoughts to the question of those sheep and goats, two distinct species representing Good and Evil in this story.
As Christians, we have a responsibility to behave in a correct and moral way in line with the teachings we receive through God’s Word. This includes: keeping God’s laws and following the teachings of Jesus by practising such things as love, compassion, forgiveness, kindness and generosity.
The problem is that God created us with another attribute called free will. Free will means that we are able to make our own decisions, rather than having life predetermined for us. Without free will, we couldn’t be described as moral beings, because we would never have to make conscious decisions in order to live and act in a moral way.
Yes, free will is a gift, but it is a gift that we have to learn to use wisely. We have the ability to choose right from wrong, and therefore we can sin if we choose to do so and if we are to face judgement with certainty, we will need to keep our negative human desires in check and ensure that we continue to work for the good of others feeding the hungry, providing water for thirsty, inviting the stranger in for shelter, clothing those in need and helping the sick.
Those words could refer to spiritual nourishment and the need to offer others protection from the darts and arrows of the ungodly, but remember at the outset of this address that I said there are two ways this parable could be interpreted and the second is that it could be physical food, and water, and shelter, and rescuing that are required.
I believe that everyone belongs to God’s family regardless of their faith, background, or ethnicity so ultimately we all belong to the one loving Father who is the creator of all. That means that when we see poverty in our world, when we see hunger and thirst, when we see need or injustice or illness, we have a moral and Godly duty to act as Christ would have acted, with love, compassion, forgiveness, kindness and generosity.
So let me finish with a question. Taking everything I have said into account, what are you, are you a sheep or a goat?
The issue that we all face is that we are human and none of us is either a perfect sheep or a perfect goat. Very few things in nature, if any, are truly binary; on/off; black/white; good/bad. The world around us is full of various shades of grey with fuzzy edges.
There will be times when all of us will be very much like sheep, grazing in open pasture, but there will be other times when we will be more like goats, climbing onto walls and eating other people’s hedges.
As for myself — well I think I am trying to be a good goat! I like pushing at the boundaries, I like being a bit mischievous, I like to be adventurous, I like to have fun, but at the same time I want those around me and in the wider world to flourish and come to no harm, in fact, I want them to thrive surrounded by the love of God and, like you, I want to play my full part in accompanying them and supporting them in their journey.
So let us end in prayer: Lord, forgive us when we miss opportunities to show your compassion in the world; and open our hearts to our neighbours both near and far and to all your creation, not in fear of your judgement but out of love for you. Amen