Did what? Feed the hungry. Visit the prisoner. Tend the ill. Welcome the stranger. Whatever is done for, with, and to the “least of these,” then God’s love through Jesus’ ministry is revealed and strengthened. In Henri Nouwen’s always relevant The Wounded Healer (published in 1972), he imagined how and where the Messiah will be found: “sitting among the poor at the gates of the city.” Nouwen forever challenged us with the “wounded” Messiah, the One ready to tend the wounds of another.
But I struggle with some verses before the “least of these.” You see, I like goats.
In all of the Gospels (including The Gospel of Thomas for you impertinent scriptural renegades) goats are only mentioned once. Yup, only here in Matthew. Indeed, the only other time goats make an appearance in the entire New Testament is Hebrews 9 and 10.
But like goats I do . . . even though Matthew predictably casts them as the bad boys. Sheep are good (protected by the Son of Man’s right hand), while those lousy goats will be yanked away by the awful left hand.
With goats, I think of stubborn and independent traits. And sheep? Well, they are so darn sheepish!
There’s more than an attitude difference between these ruminant mammals. I remember my first taste of Humboldt Fog cheese. Delicious. Soft. Mouth-watering. And it’s not a cheese from cows. Nor sheep. The divine, award-winning Humboldt Fog is goat’s cheese. Take that you cute little lambs! Goat cheese rocks!
For years, around this time of the year (including our recent October 2017 adventure), my wife and I have traveled to the Paso Robles wine country for several days of relaxation with friends. On a past grape-inspired jaunt, we stopped for a picnic lunch at a new winery. Our table was located near a shed and corral. While munching on a sandwich, I heard baaing. Sheep?
I followed the noise. Goats!
Goats with curved horns and speckled sides and all loudly baaing. They first sounded like sheep, but they were distinctly, aggressively, and boldly . . . goats. And they all gathered at my left hand. And the right one too! I think they thought I had treats. Scoundrels all. I loved ‘em.
Goats have received uneven marketing. Blame the Bible. My Merriam-Webster Word Histories reminds me about the word scapegoat:
On Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, the ancient Hebrews were able to make a fresh start for the following year simply by transferring their sins to a goat. The high priest took two goats, one to be sacrificed to the Lord, the other to carry the sins of the people away into the desert…
Ah, the scapegoat. Orthodox Christian theology would see Jesus as the ultimate scapegoat. But that hasn’t elevated the goat’s image too much.
How would Christianity be received if Jesus were the great goat herder instead of the shepherd of the sheep? What if John the Baptist proclaimed, “Behold the kid of God, who takes away the sins of the world” rather than “lamb of God” (John 1:29)? Does that get your goat?
Goats. Sheep. Kids. Lambs. Does it matter? As images go, maybe so. As a Christian, aren’t I supposed to be more sheepish than stubborn? More a dependent lamb than a feisty goat?
According to commentaries I’ve read, goats in New Testament times were often black. Sheep were white. Hmmm? Easy to separate? Everything was black and white? Frankly, especially with my modern sensibilities, the white-is-good, black-is-bad notion leaves me unsettled.
The writer of Matthew, truth be told, powerfully complicated the first easy, image-driven verses. The sheep and goats, whether white and black, or good and bad, or right hand versus left hand, provide little help in wondering where the Christ spirit will be experienced.
Christ, always the wounded healer calling wounded ones to follow, will be found where least expected . . . and often enough discovered just when we’re ready to give up.
Matthew’s author also, like a loudly braying sheep or goat, frets about the end times. About eternal judgment. And yet I read through the eyes of faith today. Today, Christ-like, I am called to welcome the stranger. Some will be sheepish, others as stubborn as goats (and all, like me, will be wounded). On my best days, I won’t take the time to wonder if they or I will be headed to the left or right hand.
I just need to offer a hand.
And sometimes, when I’m both sheepish and stubborn, I need to grab onto to the hands reaching for me.