What does Jesus have against goats? – Matthew in Advent day 21

While shepherds watch’d their flocks by night,
All seated on the ground,
The angel of the Lord came down,
And glory shone around.

In the pasture lands of the western Mediterranean, flocks are often either sheep or goats. In the east, where land is more scrubby, herds would have been mixed, goats can graze harder ground. Next time you sing “While shepherds watched” or hear the Gospel reading from Luke’s Gospel, picture that there would have been goats there among the sheep.

The east window at Holy Trinity Church, Huddersfield, lower panel, depicting, "For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, "I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me."
The east window at Holy Trinity Church, Huddersfield, lower panel.

The Gospel of Matthew is written as a series of six narrative sections, telling the story of Jesus’ life, interspersed with five sections of teaching. The beginning of the Gospel links back into the past of the Old Testament. This, the last of the teaching sections, links forward to the future. Advent is a time when we look forward to the return of Christ.

The final judgement part 2 – Helping others is a value of the kingdom?

31 ‘When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.

34 ‘Then the King will say to those on his right, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was ill and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.”

37 ‘Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you ill or in prison and go to visit you?”

40 ‘The King will reply, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”

41 ‘Then he will say to those on his left, “Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was ill and in prison and you did not look after me.”

44 ‘They also will answer, “Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or ill or in prison, and did not help you?”

45 ‘He will reply, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.”

46 ‘Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.’

Matthew 25:31-46 NIV UK

In yesterdays blog I said that the focus in this story is not who the sheep and goats are, it is about the ultimate sovereignty of the Son of Man as the king and universal judge. Today I am going to talk about the rest of the passage, where the focus is not who the sheep and goats are but about the act of separation. This is how a flock would be separated back in those days.

The males would be separated from the females. From the females those animals which were beyond producing milk or breeding would be separated out. Then from the males the best examples would be separated out for breeding and for temple sacrifices and returned to the herd and the rest would be added to the older and infirm females. As goats are more prolific breeders than sheep to maintain the balance of the herd there would me more goats than sheep in the group going to cull. Also to maintain the balance of the herd some female goat kids would be added to the cull. The cull was an annual feature.

Jesus did not have anything against goats. Goats were more highly valued than sheep, they produced larger quantities of milk, an smaller quantities of better wool than sheep. But at the cull you ended up with a flock where the majority are sheep and are kept and another group which are mostly goats.

There are two ways of interpreting this passage. The one I usually go for is that the ‘least of these, the hungry/thirsty, strangers/naked and sick/imprisoned are to be helped by us, it counts as our outworking of our faith. It ties in well with God who supports the poor, the widow and the orphan. But there is an older reading. When the east window at Holy Trinity, Huddersfield was installed that is not how this passage would have been understood, (the lower panel showing the hungry and thirsty being fed, strangers welcomed etc is pictured above).

What I am talking as the modern version is one which was unknown in protestant circles before the mid 1800s. It was at that time that the view of society changed, and this brand new view of a big society changed the interpretation of this passage. The best way to tell if which understanding the preacher is using is do they use phrases such as “Are you a sheep or a goat?” That is the new understanding.

The old understanding is that we Christians are neither sheep or goats, we are the hungry, thirsty, strangers, naked and sick and imprisoned. The sheep are the ones who help us.

I am trying to write an account of Matthew’s Gospel thet is consistent with what is in Matthew’s Gospel. At the end of Jesus instructions in sending out the disciples, where he warned about persecution, Jesus says, “And if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones who is my disciple, truly I tell you, that person will certainly not lose their reward.” Matthew 10:42. Jesus in the sheep and goats passage is warning that Christians should expect because of persecution to be hungry, thirsty, strangers, naked and sick and imprisoned; those who help us will get their reward in heaven.

In Luke’s Gospel the parable of the Good Samaritan does the same thing, we are supposed to put ourselves in the place of to the man who was mugged, the man who was helped. But it ends with Jesus saying, “Go and do the same.” We are supposed to go and help others.

Not that a passage cannot have two meanings. I have in this blog used the modern interpretation of this passage because it speaks into the modern (and post-modern) views on society, whether ot not Matthew intended it that way.

The Son of Man, on the throne as king and judge co,,ended those who helped the hungry, thirsty, strangers, naked and sick and imprisoned. Even though there is no justification in the passage, Jesus’ followers being the ones who are helped, I believe it is justifiable to end this like Luke, “Go and do the same.”


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