A young couple invited their minister for dinner. While they were in the kitchen preparing the meal, the minister asked their son what they were having.
“Goat,” the little boy replied.
“Goat?” replied the startled minister, “are you sure about that?”
“Yep,” said the youngster. “I heard Dad say to Mum, ‘today’s just as good as any to have the old goat for dinner.’ “
So, on this Sunday before Advent we’re presented with this difficult and unpopular passage. The passage is a reasonably well known, if unpopular, one. The gist of the story is that Jesus talks about good things that have been done by people, these he calls sheep and says they will receive eternal reward. The he talks about bad things done by other people, these he calls goats and says they will receive eternal punishment.
This passage can be interpreted and considered in a number of ways, some of which are more watertight than others. What I mean is that sometimes people read the good bit of the story, miss out the difficult bit, and skip to the eternal reward. This is unsatisfactory because it picks and chooses the parts of scripture that we like, or which say what we want them to say in an allegedly plain manner. Sometimes this passage, like other difficult passages, is missed out completely. There may be times when this is not the right passage to read, but never to read it is unsatisfactory because we cannot avoid difficult parts of scripture for ever. Sometimes people say that because God is love, then, ultimately God will reward and save everyone. That may be true, but without further information or thinking to reach that stage, it leaves us wondering why we should bother to do anything good if everything will be alright in the end, and it also contradicts the apparent message of the passage.
So, how are we to respond to this passage? What are we to make of it?
First, we need to be clear about who precisely are the sheep and who are the goats. Everyone, sometimes, perhaps some more often than others, do things that they feel let themselves down, let others down, let God down. We know that. I don’t think that makes us goats, because everyone would be a goat, and that’s clearly not so.
If we’re not all goats, then who is? I think the answer lies not in the nature of what we’ve done wrong, but in our attitude. I once knew someone who had a dream, and dreamt that he was in heaven. While he was there, he met many people who had done very bad things, and this made him very angry. He asked God why this was so, and God told him, “because they asked to be forgiven”. They asked to be forgiven. So, I suggest the goats are defined by what they’ve done, but whether they regret that and ask to forgiven.
A childhood accident caused poet Elizabeth Barrett to lead a restricted life before she married Robert Browning in 1846. In her youth, Elizabeth had been watched over by her tyrannical father. When she and Robert were married, their wedding was held in secret because of her father’s disapproval. After the wedding the Brownings sailed for Italy, where they lived for the rest of their lives. But even though her parents had disowned her, Elizabeth never gave up on the relationship. Almost weekly she wrote them letters. Not once did they reply. After 10 years, she received a large box in the post. Inside, Elizabeth found all of her letters; not one had been opened! Today those letters are among the most beautiful in classical English literature. Had her parents only read a few of them, their relationship with Elizabeth might have been restored?
The goats are surely those who don’t want to be forgiven, but how does God respond to these goats? How do we reconcile the message of the passage suggesting eternal damnation for the goats with our understanding of a God of complete and mercy? The passage tells us that the goats are eternally damned, but our knowledge and understanding of a God of love and grace, which we also know from scripture, contradicts this.
God is capable of forgiving absolutely anything, even when we are not, when people regret it and ask to be forgiven. We heard the story of Sodom and Gomorrah from Genesis. In that story God is wanting to punish the city, but as God is made aware of the good people within it, he will not punish the bad people if he risks harming the good people in the process, and Abraham continually negotiates a smaller number of good people necessary for God to save the city.
In 1306 the Battle of Dalrigh had gone very badly for Robert the Bruce. On the run, dangerously close to capture by the English, the storey goes that the English put Bruce’s own bloodhounds on his trail. When the bloodhounds got close, Bruce could hear their baying, so he headed for a stream, plunged in, and waded upstream a short distance. When he came out on the other bank, he was in the depths of a forest. Within minutes, the hounds, tracing their master’s steps, came to the bank. They went no further. The English soldiers urged them on, but the trail was broken. The stream had carried the scent away. A short time later, the crown of Scotland rested on the head of Robert Bruce. Just as the stream washed away Robert Bruce’s scent, so we can be set free, forgiven, if we want to be.
So, the possibility of eternal damnation exists for the goats, but perhaps even after death, there is still time for regret and forgiveness. Of course, we won’t know until we get there, but there is also the possibility that God’s love is so great that, beyond even what Jesus could explain, tell, and show, that even the goats may be saved. But I don’t think I want to become a goat and take that risk.
If we’re clear who are the sheep and who are the goats, and the extent of the opportunities offered even to the goats, what shall we do? What it is that God wants of us, I suggest, is to try to be good and kind people. To pop round with a cup of tea simply because we thought our neighbour looked a bit out of sorts. To call on the elderly person down the road when we’re going shopping just in case they need something. To cut the hedge next door because we know they can’t cope with tools any more. Just tiny actions which say, “I care”, and which are forgotten as quickly as they’re done.
What God doesn’t want is for us to reach out to other people, but then always keeps count. To quote exactly how much we gave to any particular charity down to the last penny, from five years ago. To tell the world that we go shopping for our neighbour every week. To shout from the rooftops when we mend the fence for the neighbour. What God isn’t seeking is for us to acknowledge and help people just for the brownie points.
This parable of the sheep and the goats is about the quality of our inner being. It’s about learning to know the God within more intimately and responding to him so utterly that our heart just overflows with love. And when that happens we can’t help but respond to the needs of others, and grow increasingly more sensitive to those needs.
And at judgment day, when we stand before the throne of God, we’ll find yourself saying, “Lord, when was it that I saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that I saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that I saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And God will answer, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”