Sheep and Goats

File:Fra Angelico 009.jpgWatching for the Morning of November 26, 2017

Year A

Christ the King / Reign of Christ:
Proper 29 / Lectionary 34

So Atticus Finch turned out to be a racist – kind of a soft, benevolent racist, but a racist nevertheless. And Charlie Rose turned out to be I’m not quite sure what, but hardly the warm, intelligent, nobility he portrayed on television. Power does some ugly things. It gives rein to the perversities of the human heart. We begin to think we will not be accountable for our actions.

You have set our iniquities before you, our secret sins in the light of your countenance.”

This is not our psalm for this coming Sunday; it was the psalm last week. But its voice lingers. And we have heard the words of Jesus when he says For nothing is hidden that will not be disclosed, nor is anything secret that will not become known and come to light.” I don’t know for sure what Jesus’ meant. I think it had more to do with the reign of God that is now hidden ultimately shining forth, but Jesus repeats the idea in Luke 12:2 when he is talking about hypocrisy. Where the light shines, what lurks in the shadows is revealed.

So Sunday brings us to the final Sunday of the church year and the great assize – though there is no inquest here, no examination, no discovery, just a passing of sentence: the great judgment. All the nations are gathered before the Son of Man in his glory. The jig is up. Some are sheep. Some are goats. And it’s time to divide the flock. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it.

It is a great story about the importance of simple kindness – as Tolstoy expressed so wonderfully in the story of Martin the cobbler. It declares what is valuable in the eyes of God. In it’s simple form it reprises the Sermon on the Mount and embodies the character of God’s reign: justice and mercy. Fidelity to one another is fidelity to God.

So Sunday we will hear God speak through Ezekiel about judging between the fat sheep and the lean sheep and the promise to appoint a new shepherd. And we will sing with the psalmist that God is “a great King above all gods.” We will hear the author of Ephesians write of Christ risen from the dead and seated at the right hand of God “far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come.” Together they will bear witness that Christ is the final measure of our lives and the final goal of all creation. It will stand against the claim of all earthly rulers to our faith and allegiance.  It will also stand against all human pretension.

For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment. (Romans 12:3)


The Prayer for November 26, 2017

Eternal God, Lord of all,
before you every human community and every human life must stand,
and by the example of your Son, Jesus, be measured.
Grant us an abundance of his Spirit,
that as he brought your grace to the fallen and your healing to the broken,
we too may be agents of your compassion;
through your son, Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever.

The Texts for November 26, 2017

First Reading: Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24
“I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep.” – God speaks a word of judgment upon the shepherds of Israel (the leaders of the nation) who take care of themselves rather than the people in their care. God will be their shepherd and gather his scattered flock. He will judge between the fat and the lean sheep and appoint a new David to govern them.

Psalmody: Psalm 95:1-7a
“O come, let us worship and bow down, let us kneel before the Lord, our Maker! For he is our God, and we are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand.” – In these opening verses of Psalm 95, the poet calls the community to acclaim God, the creator of all, as their king.

Second Reading: Ephesians 1:15-23
“He has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things.” –
With soaring poetry, the author of Ephesians offers his prayer for the community – prayer that rises into praise of God who raised Christ Jesus “above all rule and authority” and placed all things under his feet.

Gospel: Matthew 25:31-46
“When the Son of Man comes in his glory… All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.” – The final parable of Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel is this vivid declaration that the nations will be judged by their treatment of “the least of these” with whom the Son of Man identifies himself: “as you did it to one of the least of these…you did it to me.”

Image: Fra Angelico [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


Every beastly empire

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Saint Michael, the Archangel, slaying the dragon


Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14

As I watched,
thrones were set in place,
and an Ancient One took his throne,
his clothing was white as snow,
and the hair of his head like pure wool;
his throne was fiery flames,
and its wheels were burning fire.
10A stream of fire issued
and flowed out from his presence.
A thousand thousands served him,
and ten thousand times ten thousand stood attending him.
The court sat in judgment,
and the books were opened.

The artists of the medieval church gave us graphic and frightening images of the last judgment. Christ and his apostles sit over a scene where demons drag the condemned down into the fiery pits below, while angels escort the righteous up into the heavenly city. It is an image repeated often. On the town clock in Prague a skeleton turned an hourglass at the tolling of the hour to remind us all we were one hour closer to death and judgment. The ministrations of the church were required to save you from the pits of hell and, even then, we were not ready for bliss without the millions of years required to purge us of our sinfulness.

It is a vivid image, now mostly forgotten. We live in a society where there is either no afterlife, or the afterlife is a blissful reunion with loved ones open to all. The notion we are all destined for peace is not shaken by texts such as this from Daniel – for the scripture has lost its authority. We know better. Or, at least, we prefer our own sentiments to those of the ancient world recorded in the holy books.

We think we are so much wiser than the ancients, though we still do not know how to build a pyramid. Humility is called for. And some care and caution – for most of humanity has believed for most of human history that there is accountability in the life to come for the way we have lived this life.

But careful reading of the scripture is also called for – for here, in this vivid imagery from Daniel, it is not the individual life that is called to account; it is the beastly kingdoms of the world.

The author of Daniel had very specific kingdoms in mind, writing as he did while Antiochus Epiphanes IV was seeking to “modernize” Israel’s ancient faith. In typical imperial form, he imposed his will on the people, slaying those who refused to eat pork or secretly circumcised their children. When rebellion broke out, he cleverly attacked on the Sabbath, slaughtering the mass of Judeans who refused to break the law by lifting the sword on the Sabbath.

The human imperial impulse manifests itself again and again in death. There are no end to wars, no end to the slaughter of innocents, no end to the stirring of hate and shutting of hearts and doors to those in need. And empire follows empire. The author of Daniel looks back upon Babylon, Medea, Persia and Alexander and his generals. Since then we have had Rome and Caliphates and the Imperial powers of Europe who have left such a devastating inheritance to Africa and the Middle East. We have had Hitler and Stalin and Pol Pot and the American corporate empire. And, in the small spaces in between the great empires, many small terrors of every political stripe. The Arminian Genocide. Rwanda. Idi Amin. South Africa. The Congo. Isis.

Daniel’s vision is not a threat that our lives will be judged; it is a promise that kingdoms will be judged. Every tyranny shall be thrown down, every beastly empire. And, in the end, shall come an empire like “a son of man,” like a human being. An empire from God (thus the clouds) not out of the remnants of the primordial chaos (the sea). A reign of justice, faithfulness and peace. A reign of grace and life.

Daniel saw this promise embodied in a vision. We have seen this promise enfleshed in Jesus. For he brought a reign of healing and life. And he has given us his Spirit. And the day shall come when the beasts are judged and the crucified and merciful one alone shall govern. Every land. Every heart. A world made new.


Image: By Bourgogne, second quart du XIIe siècle (Neuceu) [GFDL (, CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or CC BY-SA 2.5-2.0-1.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

Sheep or goats?


Matthew 25

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A Nubian (aka Anglo-Nubian) goat attempts to eat their prize ribbon at a Scottish fair. By John Haslam from Dornoch, Scotland

32All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats,

Jesus calls them “my brothers,” the sick, the imprisoned, the hungry. If we could just pause here long enough, we might begin to understand the true power of the parable. We might begin to understand the true power of Jesus. He has claimed those that others have scorned.

Some have argued that the word ‘brother’ means a follower of Jesus, that the nations will be judged by their treatment of the disciples of Jesus. The suggestion is that the ‘nations’ are Judeans scattered throughout the Hellenistic world, and their response to the oppressed and persecuted witnesses of Jesus will reveal whether they are sheep or goats.

The other possibility is that Jesus has declared these ‘least’ are members of his family. If you ask me, this latter sounds much more like Jesus. He had that pesky idea that everyone was our neighbor, not just people like us – and therefore you should welcome the outcast and show steadfast love even to enemies.

We call this parable the Last Judgment, but it is not a judgment scene. It is a sorting. No lives are being weighed. No actions are being evaluated. The mass of humanity is simply being sorted out. Some are sheep. Some are goats. The sheep go over here. The goats over there.

Jesus’ hearers understand this idea: goats need to be kept warm at night; sheep can remain outside. The flocks are taken out together during the day to graze the hills, but at night they must be sorted.

So we shall be sorted.

Sheep don’t have much symbolic significance for me. I haven’t known any. I have known a couple goats. They were cute. At a motel years ago, high in the Rockies with my daughters, there was a couple with some baby fainting goats. They were adorable just gamboling around. But when you clapped your hands, they fell over. They passed out. Kerplunk. No twitching. No stumbling. At a loud noise they just fell right over. It was hysterical. And darling. Anna wanted one. Anna really wanted one. So, to me, goats are cute and sheep are just sheep.

But just as we invest animals with a certain symbolic character, so did the ancients. When we call a man a ‘dog’ it has a strong cultural meaning – so, too, if we call him a ‘puppy dog.’ Or a ‘lion’. Or a ‘fox’. And calling a man a ‘fox’ has a different meaning than calling a woman a ‘fox’.

To Jesus’ audience, sheep were honorable; goats were not. Sheep symbolize honor, virility and strength; goats are unrestrained and lascivious. (This was my experience of my friend’s goat – entertaining, but always into trouble). An honorable man will protect the honor of his family. In particular, he will defend his wife from the sexual advances of others. A ram will not allow anyone but himself to approach one of his ewes; goats, apparently, have no such compunction. A cuckolded man was called a goat. Zeus and noble Apollo were associated with the Ram; Pan looks and behaves like a goat.

This sorting of humanity into sheep and goats is more than just sorting buttons. It is a gathering of the honorable and a setting aside of the dishonorable. It evokes the parable of the weeds and wheat that grew side by side until the harvest.

It is not a judgment scene; it is a sorting – a sorting by whether we have acted honorably towards the poor, the outsider, the needy. What a surprise if American Christians are to be sorted by the hospitality shown to Muslims! Did we extend our protection to the stranger? Did we give water to the thirsty and bread to the hungry? Did we tend the sick or send them back to Liberia? I understand the fear, but the church’s first response to AID’s was not particularly honorable. We could probably come up with an uncomfortable list.

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him.”   No books are opened. No witnesses are heard. No records are examined. The Lord knows who have treated others with the grace of heaven and those who have not.

We need to do more than pray for mercy.

There is grace here. The shameful will not govern the earth forever. The faithful will be gathered. This is a great promise and a profound assurance in a world with too much evil.

But there is also a challenge. And the question is not whether we will pass inspection, whether we have the right religious heritage or the right religious experience – the question is whether we have lived hospitality and compassion towards the poor and the outcast. Have we shown ourselves to be sheep or goats?