"Are You a Sheep or a Goat", by Rev. Jillian Hankamer
Are You a Sheep or a Goat?
A Sermon for Northminster Church
Preached by Rev. Jillian Hankamer
March 26, 2023
Matthew 25: 31-46
Of all the topics I envisioned myself researching for a sermon ratios of animal flocks and animal husbandry practices in the ancient Middle East did not make the list. That seems silly now in light of the hours I spent this week trying to figure out what Jesus had against goats. Commentary after commentary failed me. A pastor friend of mine who’s obviously preaching the same passage this morning took to Facebook book to ask, “Can someone explain to me what Jesus had against goats? Goats are delightful. Sheep are dumb. #Goatsarebetterthansheep.”
Disappointingly, her post only elicited other people’s love for goats and a few comments about whether sheep or goat is tastier. And this is despite us both having friend lists thoroughly populated with seminary-educated people and several seminary professors. It seems there are more important questions for scholars to answer about Jesus than the root of his dislike of goats.
But nothing daunted and spurred on by a desire to understand this farm animal discrimination, I kept searching. Eventually, I found an article entitled, “What did Jesus have against goats?” and I knew I’d hit gold.
The article references Dr. Richard Goode, a professor at Newman University in Birmingham, England, who presented an entire paper at a British New Testament Conference about Jesus and goats. As the author of the article said, “it was a great presentation, a model of clarity and with lots of slides of goats – and who couldn’t resist a paper exploring Jesus’ ‘apparent antipathy towards goats?’”
Dr. Goode began his presentation by emphasizing the importance of mixed species herds in the near east. Further west in the Mediterranean, the land was better able to support single-species herds, but in the scrubbier land Jesus inhabited, herds with sheep and goats were essential. There was an “’economic rationale’” to mixed herding in that “a herd of 2:3 goats and sheep ensured satisfactory wool production while maintaining herd security. Zooarchaeological data suggests that the goat-sheep ratio within ancient Israel could be as high as 8:2, although more typically it would be between 1:1 or 1:3 [goats to sheep].’”
As this information only seems to emphasize the importance of goats in Jesus’ culture, the next necessary step is to look at the context of this passage. This is where animal husbandry comes into play as goats reproduce faster than sheep. If a shepherd wants to keep a flock properly balanced, it’s necessary to exclude some male kids from the herd so the sheep aren’t outnumbered and the shepherd’s overall milk supply – goat’s milk was valuable – isn’t limited. This is emphasized in this morning’s reading by the use of the Greek word erifoß/eriphos for “goat,” as this is the male term for a baby goat. “So Jesus’ reference to separation [is] drawing on a well-known and regular occurrence in herding – the…culling of the young male goats the [shepherds] would do as a natural part of their work.”
To put it another way, what’s important is not the types of animals Jesus mentions, but that they are separated. As commentator Sharon R. Blezard notes, “Modern sports fans might make a better connection with a division of the Ravens and Steelers, whereas Broadway aficionados…might relate more readily to the separation of the Sharks and Jets. The point is this: use any two common images that work for you, but remember the focus is on Jesus.” After all, both groups have failed to notice Jesus.
Did you catch that detail? Both the goats and the sheep respond to Jesus with shock. Neither group denies that they’ve missed seeing him, but both “are surprised by their failure to recognize the Son of Man. Or more to the point, they are surprised by where the Son of Man hangs out.”
To be fair, this passage begins with kingly, powerful language. The Son of Man is described as coming in glory to sit on his throne where he will be attended by angels. That imagery alone reinforces the notion of God “in terms of power and might and glory and all the rest.” But the rest of these verses should give those powerful, mighty images pause as Jesus intertwines himself with “the least of these” “and thereby…undermine[s] our tendency to look for God in places of power.” As commentator David Lose notes, in identifying himself with “the least of these,” Jesus calls “into question where we typically look for God” and “actually reorients us.” For if Jesus is “always with and for those who are in the greatest need,” that means “if we want to experience God’s presence fully, deeply, and truly, we will look to God in the need of those around us, and, indeed, in our need as well.”
Never forget, the God we know through Jesus is a God of surprises. A God who shows up where we least expect, who didn’t approach earthly power by reigning in Rome but was born lowly and vulnerable in Bethlehem – an insignificant backwater in a mighty republic. This is a God who in Jesus sought out the outcast even when he had the opportunity to rub elbows with the well-to-do and powerful. Who embraced and recognized the prophetic power of women, and who welcomed children. This is a God who, as David Lose says so well, “continues to come where we least expect God to be: in the plight of the homeless, on the side of the poor, in the face of the needy, and in the company of the imprisoned.” And we are invited to meet this God of surprises “not in some distant eternal life…but here and now, in the concrete and real need of our neighbors, just as they are invited to meet and be blessed by God as they tend to our needs as well.”
Agnus Day is a comic strip created by Luther pastor, Rev. James Wetzstein, and is, according to the website, “the only lectionary-based coming strip on the planet.” It features two sheep, Rick and Ted, who “discuss one of the assigned readings from the Common Lectionary.” It’s the kind of nerdy, cheesy humor pastors and seminary students find funny, so naturally, I want to share one of Wetzstein’s creations based on this passage with you.
In the first of three frames, Ted is holding a Bible with his front hooves up in the air and is exclaiming, “Aww right! For once I know exactly who I am in Jesus’ story.” Rick, calmly holding a cup of coffee calmly responds, “Well actually, some scholars suggest that Christians are “the least of these brothers of mine.” So you’d be the face of Jesus to the rest of the world.” Ted scratches his head, thinks, and then in the third frame says, “Nah…I’m a sheep!”
Despite the temptation in this story to see sheep as good and goats as bad, that wasn’t the point of Jesus' words. Yes, the sheep are seemingly superior in their care for other people, but neither group recognizes Christ as “the least of these”. Neither group sees the face of Christ in the people they’re serving and who serve them. And while it is true that helping others is always a good thing and we should do it without stipulations, we miss the relational, tangible, barrier-breaking reality of our God if we don’t take the time to see God “in the face of our neighbor [or] meet God in the acts of mercy we offer and are offered to us, and live in the blessing of God as we seek to serve as Christ served.”
My friends, the Good News this morning is,
“that God is with us, here and now, revealed in the fellowship of broken people we call church. [God is] made manifest in the ordinary elements of bread and wine, and available to us in the seemingly small gestures of mercy we offer and are offered each and every day. It may not be where we expect God to show up, but it is just where we need God to be.”
So come sheep and goats alike. Your species doesn’t matter as long as mercy is offered, generosity is extended, help is accepted, and the surprising God we serve is recognizable in us and we recognize God in all those we encounter.
 Ian Paul, “What did Jesus have against goats?” September 13, 2018 from https://www.psephizo.com/biblical-studies/what-did-jesus-have-against-goats/
 Sharron R. Blezard, “Team Goat, Team Sheep, and the Strange King of Everything,” November 19, 2014, from http://www.stewardshipoflife.org/2014/11/team-goat-team-sheep-and-the-strange-king-of-everything/
 David J. Lose, “Christ the King A: The Unexpected God,” November 17, 2014 from http://www.davidlose.net/2014/11/christ-the-king-a/
 David Lose, ibid.