Sheep and Goats…sheep get to go to heaven, goats have to go to the other place. I'm so glad I'm a sheep…..
Isn't that the meaning of this passage? That's how we normally think about it, right? The sheep are the people who are saved, who are on their way to heaven, and the goats, well, poor guys, they drove so fast to the ball game that they missed the ticket office. Sorry, but, that's not me....
Seems to me that telling the difference between the sheep and the goats is really pretty important, don't you think? I mean, I know I'm a sheep, and I know you're a sheep, at least.....
The tricky thing is, sheep and goats are sometimes hard to tell apart. A sheep says, Baaaa...." a goat goes, "Baaaa....." A sheep eats grass and shrubs, a goat eats grass and shrubs. Rams have horns and billy goats have horns. A sheep poops little round black balls, a goat poops little round black balls. I know what you're thinking: Sheep have wool and goats don't. But some sheep don't have wool, and some goats do! I have a suspicion that if you shaved a sheep and a goat down to the bare skin nobody in here could tell which was which.
But Jesus makes it very clear that there is a huge difference—the difference between heaven and not-so-heaven. It must be that the differences that matter are not on the outside, but on the inside. Sheep have 54 chromosomes, goats have 60. And....oh, yeah, this is a parable, not a biology lesson. The differences don't really hinge on physical differences. They hinge on something else. It seems they hinge on what sheep do compared to what goats do.
I saw a herd of goats once when I was a kid in Ecuador. They were feeding along the inside of a narrow draw, nibbling whatever they could find. It was a sandy draw with steep sides, and some goats found a little ledge with some grass on it. They promptly formed a line and moved down this ledge eating everything to the ground. But the ledge got narrower and narrower until finally, to maintain footing, they were leaning against the wall beside them. Finally, it gave out completely. The first goat jumped up on his back legs and spun around to face the next goat square on, and pushed by and forced him off the ledge!
I've never seen a heard of sheep do that.
Sheep and goats really are different. Goats are smarter than sheep. They think about things and work the angles on them, they try and push and get ahead by their own incessant will, like in the Old Testament reading when God says He'll judge against the ones that push with shoulder and flank and butt the weak ones and keep them from the grass and water. Goats are smart enough to think they can figure it out by themselves. Goats, for the purposes of this parable, are willful. The goats in Jesus' parable did all the things that the sheep did, but they did them willfully, not willingly. They fed the hungry and clothed the naked and visited the prisoner and tended the sick because they could manage a personal advantage out of it. They did not do it "for the least of these, my brothers." They did not meet the Lord in the face of the weak. They met their own ambition.
Sheep, on the other hand, are lost without a shepherd. European explorers in the 14th - 18th centuries had a habit of releasing goats on deserted islands and returning later for a stock of meat. All it took was a billy and a couple of nannies, And a year later there would be 46 of them! Cabrito for supper! It was so successful that in many places their descendents have become a plague that costs millions of dollars to control.
They didn't release sheep. If they came back a year later for sheep all they would have found were fat coyotes, all dressed in Armani wool. The only exception was New Zealand, that, at European contact, hosted no land-based predators. It is the only place in the world where the natural environment is so benign that there is actually a population of feral sheep!
So sheep, for the purposes of this parable, are willing rather than willful. They do what they are led to do, the go where they are led to go, and they thrive only when under good care.
There are two very important differences between willfulness and willingness that are important for us this morning. First, whereas the willful are often well provisioned, only the willing are grateful. There are people who still say, “Give my hard-earned money to the church! Are you kidding?” “Charity begins at home, I take care of my own.” “I'm a self-made person, I deserve what I've got.” It is an attitude of pushing ahead, of forging one's own way, of working the angles. It's willful and it is goatly.
On the other hand, the sheep looks at the pasture it didn't make, and the stream it didn't channelize or dam, and the shepherd standing watch, and is full of gratitude. This is willing and it is sheeply.
This morning we are bringing in our pledge cards. This is a sheeply action, full of gratitude, willing to do what is right in the face of the needs of the Kingdom. And I'll give you the bottom line. 10% registers in God's books as "full gratitude." My wife and I tithe to the church, and then give elsewhere as well. It can be done, How grateful are you? How willing?
Secondly, whereas both the willful and the willing are surprised, only the willing are pleasantly so. The goat who is always working the angles is surprised when his efforts to control the other goats fail. I know, because I've been there myself! You find yourself trying not to say things like. “"Don't be such a horn-head, that patch of daisies is for Grass-breath over here!" And, "Oops, ledge ran out, careful, I’m comin' back through!" Sooner or later our willfulness proves inadequate to the challenges of life, leaving our goat-hood in a considerable crisis.
On the other hand, the willing depend on the greater vision and wisdom of the Shepherd. When things don't go as expected, it's OK. Thomas Merton, on the drive to the Monastery at Gethsemane, Kentucky, writes that he was incredibly aware of two things within. On the one hand an overpowering desire to enter the monastery, and on the other a complete peace if for some reason he were not accepted. Iif he had been rejected his plan was to join the Army. The willing steps onto the green pasture and says, “Wow, this is incredible! The shepherd must love me so! I wonder what is coming next?”
“I wonder what is coming next?” expresses a sense of expectancy, whose personal work is not to bring about the surprise, but to be as quiet and attentive as possible so as not to miss it when it comes! Today is not only Thanksgiving Sunday, Christ King Sunday, Parish Meeting and Parish Thanksgiving Meal, it is also the last Sunday in the Season after Pentecost, and the last Sunday before the beginning of Advent. (Yes, the year has shot by us like a patriot missile!)
Our theme during Advent this year will be "Expectancy, Preparing for the Great Surprise." Next week we will introduce a little meditation aid that will help you build that sense of expectancy during Advent, and assist that willing sheep-hood within.
Yes, I can be a sheep, and you can be one, too. By loving one another and the needy of the world for Him as He has asked us to, with humble and open hearts, our wonderful surprise will be to see him in the very faces of the ones we love on His behalf.