On the solemnity of Christ the King, the readings speak about sheep and shepherds — and goats.
In Matthew’s Gospel (25: 31-46), we hear what has come to be called “the Judgment of the Nations.” Some people also call this “the final judgment.”
We all know the story — the good and “blessed by my Father” are placed at Christ’s right hand and the “accursed” go on his left.
Who is good or bad is determined by their acts of mercy — or their lack of mercy. What this all means as far as final judgment is for another place — but how did the goats get into all this?
In the reading, the “blessed by the Father” are called sheep, while the accursed are goats. What’s so wrong about goats that they should symbolize the souls who are lost?
Sheep and goats were equally valuable in ancient Palestine. Abel, Abraham and Isaac all herded sheep and goats. Jacob received a flock of goats from his father-in-law, Laban (Gn 30:35). For the Passover, either a lamb or a kid was acceptable for the sacrifice.
Sheep and goats are similar in many ways — both are herd animals, both are ruminants (meaning they have multi-chambered stomachs) and both eat plants. Both even belong to the same subfamily — Caprinae — though they are different species and don’t interbreed.
Sheep and goats were both used for food, milk and skins. Both were considered signs of wealth and both were used for other sacrifices as well as the Passover. Goat hides actually worked better for wine skins, while sheep’s wool was preferred for weaving.
Skins of both animals were even used to make two of the four coverings of the sacred tabernacle — the earthly dwelling of God — when the Israelites traveled in the desert before the Temple was built by Solomon.
So did goats get the bad rap?
Part of it was because of neighboring religions in the ancient Middle East. For example, the Egyptians had a goat-headed god (Khnum) associated with the Nile. The Mesopotamians had a goat-headed goddess of fortune-telling. But the most notorious were the Greek gods Pan and Dionysus. Pan was a nature deity who also loved orgies. He was portrayed with goat horns and goat legs. Dionysus was the Greek god of wine and parties. Known to the Romans as “Bacchus,” Dionysus was often accompanied by satyrs, who were half men and half goat.
All this earthiness and sexuality was partly why early Christians began portraying the devil with goat-like features. So goats got bad press, too.
However, the basic nature of goats might also have played a part.
Sheep’s main characteristic is that they flock: they group together, stay together and follow a leader well. This instinct makes sheep easy to herd and very social in nature. Sheep are so programmed to follow and stay together, in fact, that they can’t do anything else. This usually works in their favor; a predator will not attack a flock, preferring to pick off stragglers. However, sheep are so tuned to their flock that they will become restless and unable to eat if they don’t see other members of the flock.
Also, since sheep have great hearing, they can follow one shepherd easily. And, yes, sheep do recognize their shepherd’s voice. This is why people knew exactly what Jesus meant when he said, “My sheep hear my voice; I know them, and they follow me” (Jn 10:27).
Goats are also herd animals. However, they are much more independent and need more work to herd. Goats are also curious and love to climb — which makes it hard to keep them penned or behind fences.
Also, while you can push a sheep around, you cannot push a goat. Goats can be pulled, however, and even be trained to a leash, like a dog. In fact, they can make devoted pets.
Contrary to cartoon lore, goats do not eat tin cans; however, they do eat weeds. They are browsers and eat the tops of plants and even twigs from trees — which they climb into. Goats need, and tend to select, a more nutritious diet than sheep do, which tend to graze.
Another insight into what Jesus meant in this “judgment of the nations,” may come from the Jewish tradition of what we call a scapegoat. This is the azazel goat of Yom Kippur, the annual Day of Atonement.
On Yom Kippur, two goats were selected. One, chosen by lots, was sacrificed by the High Priest who sprinkled its blood on the Mercy Seat in the tabernacle. More blood was then sprinkled on the Tent of Meeting.
After the sacrifice, the high priest publicly confessed the sins of the people while holding his hands over the second goat. A red string was tied to the goat’s horns and it was sent into the desert alone. With it, the sins of the people were also carried away. This tradition started with Moses and his brother, Aaron, the first high priest.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, former chief rabbi of Great Britain, explains that the azazel goat was sent away for the people’s purification. He notes that the Torah (Jewish written law) lists two objectives on Yom Kippur: atonement, accomplished by sacrificing the first goat; and purification, done by the goat that is sent away. Two goats were needed, the rabbi explains, because “atonement is for acts. Purification is for persons.”
While goats are no longer sacrificed — since there is no Temple — prior to Yom Kippur, some Jews still practice the kaparot, a symbolic atonement rite. For the kaparot, a live chicken — chickens were never sacrificial animals in Jewish tradition — is passed three times over one’s head. The person prays that God accept this chicken as atonement in exchange for what is owed in judgment for one’s since. The chicken is then donated to charity. (Money is sometimes substituted for the chicken.)
Getting back to our sheep and goats, we can see that Jesus’ audience would have known about independent goats and flocking sheep, foreign gods and good shepherds, and sacrificial atonement and purification. So they would have understood that being too goat-like might not be in their own interest, or the interest of their group. No one wanted to be sent away alone — into the desert or into life.
And, with a little reflection, they would have understood that being part a healthy flock not only meant being cared for — but also caring for others. After all, we need each other.
Sources: Mercer Dictionary of the Bible”; “The Collegeville Bible Commentary”; “Smith’s Bible Dictionary”; sheep101.info; Oklahoma State University, Animal Science; christianitytoday.com; chabad.org; biblehistory.com; biblestudytools.com; “International Standard Bible Encyclopedia”; lifescience.com; the “Catholic Encyclopedia”; and “Ellicott’s Commentary for English Readers”