Sheep and Goats

For Sunday, 22 November 2020: Matthew 25:31-46

[Jesus said to his followers]:  31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33 and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 34 Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38 And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39 And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ 40 And the king will answer them, ‘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.’ 41 Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42 for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ 44 Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ 45 Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ 46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”


I have a Navajo friend who inherited from her family the honor of overseeing their traditional sheep camp. On a visit to this site in a remote part of New Mexico one time, she gave me a tour and shared some of the wisdom of her Diné people. Sheep have long been an important part of their culture, not only providing food and wool for weaving, but also spiritual lessons of humility, gratitude, and generosity.

At the sheep camp were also some goats. Curious, I asked my friend about the difference between sheep and goats. She responded that the goats also teach lessons to people, but they were more about what not to do or be: mischievous, rebellious, a wanderer. She observed that while the sheep generally stayed together with the flock, the goats tended to roam about independently, increasing their chances of getting into trouble or danger. She also added that sheep were hardier in their environment thanks to their wool and thick skin, while the goats were more thin-skinned and vulnerable to the cold.

Sheep and goats are important creatures in the pages of the Bible as well. Both animals were used in the sacrificial system of worship by the Jewish people in the Hebrew Scriptures. For example, on the Day of Atonement, a “scapegoat” was driven away from the community into the wilderness, ritually bearing the sins and iniquities of the people (Leviticus 16:21-22). A “paschal lamb” was part of the annual observance of Passover, the remembrance of God’s deliverance of the Hebrew people from slavery to freedom (Exodus 12:1-8). In the New Testament, Jesus himself is identified as “the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29).

In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus uses a story about sheep and goats to teach his followers. He tells us that one a day an accounting of what we did or did not do must be made by all the nations of the world, all the peoples of the earth. His reference to “the least of these who are members of my family” is a reminder that just as the Creator sent Jesus on a mission, Jesus now sends his followers through the ages to continue that work: “Whoever receives one whom I send receives me; and whoever receives me receives [the One] who sent me” (John 13:20).

In short, we will be judged by how we treated those whom Jesus sends and the message they carry. Do we treat them with mercy, kindness, and compassion or with cruelty, hostility, and indifference? Have we accepted or rejected the tidings they shoulder, which is tantamount to receiving or refusing Jesus himself? Jesus is clear here. I believe his desire is for all people to be sheep, rather than goats, for it is the sheep who will hear the words, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” If a species transformation is necessary, it can begin today.

A Noble Death Song

For Sunday, 15 November 2020: Matthew 25:14-30

[Jesus told this story to his followers:]14 “For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; 15 to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. 16 The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. 17 In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. 18 But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. 19 After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. 20 Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.’ 21 His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ 22 And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.’ 23 His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ 24 Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; 25 so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ 26 But his master replied, ‘You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? 27 Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. 28 So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. 29 For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. 30 As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

There is an old saying that “the gospel comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable.” Today’s parable is definitely in the afflicting-the-comfortable genre in that the lazy servant has his entrusted treasure taken away and himself thrown into the outer darkness. Jumping ahead to the end, the moral of the story is that we are to avoid at all costs becoming wicked and lazy servants. Jesus certainly has our attention!

According to the parable, there was a master of a household who was to be away from home for a while. In anticipation of his absence he entrusted incredible amounts of money to the stewardship of his servants. Think millions of dollars by today’s standards. After a long time, the master returned and, of course, was interested in his assets. To his great joy, the master found that two of his brokers had invested his money wisely and presented to him wonderful returns. To the master’s great disappointment, however, he found that one had played it too safe and, while not losing any of the initial investment, could not provide an increase. The master is angered by the servant’s laziness and lack of creativity.

In the Scriptures we are taught that Jesus has been away for a long while but that one day he will return. “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again,” is our proclamation of the mystery of faith (BCP 363). The question raised for us in today’s Gospel is about what we are doing with those things God has entrusted to us between the time of Christ’s ascension into heaven and his return in glory to judge the living and the dead. How are we doing as stewards of all that God has given us? How are we to live while awaiting the fulfillment of history or at least the end of our mortal lives?

Chief Tecumseh of the Shawnee Nation, born in the eighteenth century, offered this wisdom from Native America: “So live your life that the fear of death can never enter your heart. … Love your life, perfect your life, beautify all things in your life. Seek to make your life long and its purpose in the service of your people. Prepare a noble death song for the day when you go over the great divide. … Show respect to all people. When you arise in the morning give thanks for the food and for the joy of living. If you see no reason for giving thanks, the fault lies only in yourself.”

We, too, will one day be called upon to give an account of how we lived our lives, an explanation about what we have done with what God has given us. It has been said that “what we are is God's gift to us and what we become is our gift to God.” What will be our gift to God?  What are we becoming? Preparing a noble death song, far from being morbid, allows us the opportunity to commit to live the kind of life we desire to be living when we are called to “appear before the judgment seat of Christ” (2 Corinthians 5:10). At that time, may all of us hear these words: “Well done, good and faithful servant … enter into the joy of your master.”


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The Rt. Rev. Michael Smith is an Assistant Bishop for the Episcopal Diocese of Dallas, an Assisting Bishop in Navajoland and a former bishop of North Dakota. He is in an enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation.