Are You a Sheep or a Goat?

In our oppressively politically correct society some are bending over backwards to do injustices of the past. Of course, we must learn our history, understand previous prejudices and admit indiscriminate discriminations. We must undo them and seek to never repeat them. However, this needs to be done with common sense and prudence. What should not be done is seek to re-write history, change texts and conduct witch hunts on the past. This overreach has extended into Christianity by changing the text of Holy Scripture. For example, to overcome oppressive patriarchy the word “Father”, which refers to God the Father, is changed to “Begetter, Creator, or even Mother.” In another example, to combat racism, words like black or dark are eliminated altogether. These changes, while well-intended, can have serious consequences because they change the meaning of the text.

   Some blame early preferences for right-handed people on the Bible text. And today’s Gospel reading from Meatfare/Judgment Sunday in Matthew 25:31-46 would be one of those passages.

31“When the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the holy angels with Him, then He will sit on the throne of His glory. 32All the nations will be gathered before Him, and He will separate them one from another, as a shepherd divides his sheep from the goats.

33And He will set the sheep on His right hand, but the goats on the left.

Knowing that those on the right will be inherit the Kingdom of God (vv.34,46) and that those on the left will go into everlasting fire and punishment (vv.41,46), I wonder how the goats feel about it? Of course, this passage is not a put down of left-handers but it sure seems critical of goats. Does this have a deeper meaning or could Jesus have just as easily used lions and tigers?

Well, first of all, we must remember that, in this passage it is the behavior of the sheep and the goats that determine how they are judged. It is the sheep who feed the hungry, give drink to those who thirst, who welcome strangers, who clothe the naked, who visit the sick and those in prison (vv.35-36). That’s why they inherit the kingdom, because they helped the poor, needy, homeless, and those who suffer. The goats on the other hand, did none of these things (vv.42-43) and that’s why they are cast out with the devil and his angels (v.41).

But is there a real difference between the character of sheep and a goat? What do we know about them? One source says, “An adult male sheep is called a ram and an adult female sheep is a ewe. Young sheep are lambs. An adult male goat is called a buck or billy, and an adult female goat is called a doe or nanny. Young goats are called kids. Sheep are most comfortable with their flock, and they tend to run if approached or spooked. Goats are more independent, intelligent and tolerant of interaction in general. Sheep like to graze on grass, while goats prefer to graze on anything they can, including leaves, twigs and anything edible they can reach.”

How are goats and lambs referred to elsewhere in the Scriptures? Interestingly, Abel the son of Adam and Eve was a shepherd, a keeper of sheep. Their other son, Cain, was a George, a tiller of the ground (Gen.4:2). Jesus often refers to His followers and the people of Israel as sheep. 36But when He saw the multitudes, He was moved with compassion for them, because they were weary and scattered, like sheep having no shepherd. (Matthew 9:36). He even refers to them as “lost sheep” (Mt.10:6; 15:24; Mk.6:34; Lk.15:4,6). Jesus refers to Himself famously as the Good Shepherd (Mt.10:1-16). After His Resurrection, Jesus intimates that His followers/sheep will constitute the Church and that Peter, and all those who love Christ, will take care of them (John 21:15-17). In the Law of Moses (Torah, Pentateuch), as recorded in Leviticus and Numbers, goats are often used as sacrifice for sin offerings. Jesus only refers to goats in today’s passage about the Last/Final Judgment.

Sheep are known for their strong flocking or herding instinct. They like to stick to together because there is safety in numbers. They are also known for a strong “follow the leader” character, even to their own detriment. This caused the death of 400 sheep in 2006 in eastern Turkey. The sheep plunged to their death after one of the sheep tried to cross a 15-meter deep ravine, and the rest of the flock followed. Sheep are known as very social animals, needing to be in groups of at least five to feel comfortable. When separated from their flock, sheep become very agitated. On the other hand, while goats are highly intelligent, among them might rules, and so does nepotism. They communicate often by biting each other and they tend to butt each other to bully their way around.

So, what can we learn from this information. Well first, we need to be careful not to be strict literalists or fundamentalist in reading the Bible. If we were so, then we look down on black people, left-handed people and goats. Secondly, neither should we take liberty in interpreting the Scripture. The Apostle Peter said, 20knowing this first, that no prophecy of Scripture is of any private interpretation (2Peter 1:20). In addition to daily reading of Scripture to understand its context and language, we must consult the Church Fathers and the Saints, and listen to homilies and sermons to correctly understand their meaning. Third, we must become like sheep in relationship to Christ, seeing Him as our Shepherd, listening to Him and following Him. Most of all we must become obedient to Christ by serving others, especially those in need, those who are hungry, thirsty, homeless, sick and in prison. Lastly, we must avoid becoming goat-like, seeking our own, pursuing power and control, butting and bullying others. And, when we have acted more like goats than sheep, repenting and confessing our sins. Be a sheep, don’t be a goat. Be a true, active Orthodox Christian, not merely one in name only. Amen!