For an introduction to this series, click here. Also, please note that to avoid possible negative consequences, names of preachers and/or parishes are not always disclosed in this series.
Readings: Ezekiel 34:11-12, 15-17; 1 Corinthians 15:20-26; Matthew 25:31-46.
Today’s gospel and the whole sense of the “end times” intrigue me on many levels. Matthew says that when the Promised One comes, all the nations will be assembled below the royal throne for judgment. Although no actual demographic data is available for 99% of the span of human stay on Earth, and there is no common agreement on when “human” life (as distinct from humanoid life) actually started, estimates put the total number of humans having lived on Earth at somewhere between 90-108 billion people. That would mean that, if the “final judgment” were to come soon (next month according to the Mayan calendar!), according to those estimates, there would be somewhere between 90-108 billion people in that grand final assembly before the royal throne. It’s going to take a while to separate all those sheep and goats!
And, another point of intrigue for me - if the judgment doesn’t come until the “end times” when the good “will inherit the riches prepared for them” and the evil ones “condemned into the everlasting fire”, where have all of those 95 billion or so folks, good or bad, who have died up to this point in time been hanging out for the last several hundred thousand years while waiting for this end times reward or punishment?
So much for that overly literal interpretation! On to another theme in today’s readings, that of the relationship between the shepherd and the sheep. Ezekiel speaks of the tender care which God, as the shepherd, gives to the sheep, a relationship with which many of that day could identify as they cared for their own sheep. But Ezekiel uses that understanding of a loving, caring relationship as a challenge to the leaders of the day who do not model that relationship. God says “I shall judge between one sheep and another, between rams and goats.” This warning of Ezekiel might well be relevant not only to the kings in Ezekiel’s time but also to our own time. In fact, according to Monika Hellwig’s commentary on the readings, “the interdependence between rulers and ruled, between popular values and expectations and government actions, is even more evident in our democratic situation.”
Which brings me to the main idea I want to address today, the difference between sheep and goats. I’ve often wondered why the goats get the bad rap in this Gospel reading. So I did a little research on sheep and goats. Sheep are very docile, gather in flocks, follow the shepherd, and are easily led.
Think about that for a moment. Think of those characteristics in humans. Very docile, gather in flocks, follow the shepherd, easily led! Let’s put that in the context of this recent election and leadership in the church and nation today. Let’s assume that, just as Ezekiel recognized the kings of his day as the shepherds, we recognize the church and government leaders of our day as shepherds. (I said, let’s assume, not take that for granted!) In that context of the church and government leaders of our day as our shepherds, consider the sheep-like characteristics of the flock – very docile, follow the shepherd, easily led. Not the best relationship in that case!
Goats, on the other hand, are aggressive, very independent, wander off from the flock deliberately at times and cannot be led. When the shepherd calls the sheep, they respond immediately. When he calls the goats, they come when and if they want to. Sheep like to graze in pastures and fields. Goats like to explore and browse along the edges. Goats sometimes rear and butt horns to establish dominance or their point of view.
Again, in the context of this recent election, and in the context of leadership in the church and nation today, I believe that we need some goats, some good goats, to be – perhaps not aggressive but more assertive. We need good goats to challenge the hierarchical dictate to “pray, pay and obey”. We need good goats who are not easily led, who do wander off from the flock deliberately at times to explore and browse among soul-enriching alternatives. We need good goats who are not afraid to rear up and butt horns at times against the establishment when they perceive that that that leadership fails to be good shepherds. I believe that Roy Bourgeois is a good goat as are the Leadership Conference of Women Religious and those who support them, the “nuns on the bus”, those who opposed the constitutional amendments.
We need to listen to the parable which Jesus shares in Matthew’s gospel in which he repeats four times the actions which God requires of the just - to feed the hungry, to give drink to the thirsty, to welcome the stranger, to clothe the naked, and to visit the ill and imprisoned. I think that we, as Spirit of St. Stephen’s Catholic Community, are good sheep in that regard. But I also believe that we are, and continue to be challenged to be, good goats just as I believe Jesus was.