Support the Café

Search our Site

Sheep, goats and the social gospel

Sheep, goats and the social gospel

‘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. 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, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 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; 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, 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.” 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? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” 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.” 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; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 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.” 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?” 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.” And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.’ — Matthew 25:31-46

Sometimes the most familiar passages are the hardest to read. Oh, it isn’t that the words themselves are polysyllabic obscurities or filled with foreign words and jargon, but rather that they are so simple, familiar, and clear. Reading it today, I wonder what is so terribly unclear about it that it can be ignored so easily or even overwritten by a different kind of gospel?

The premise is, like the passage, simple and clear. If you want to be one of those receiving God’s blessing and place in the kingdom, then do this, otherwise, don’t. The sheep will go to the right, the goats to the left, and there’s no doubt that the right is the favored side.

Sheep and goats were familiar things in villages and towns. Sheep were considered “manly” animals – tended by men and whose milk and cheese were consumed by men. The rams protected their herds, were more stoic in the face of danger, and were a bit more particular about what they ate. Goats, on the other hand, were seen as more shame-ful animals, eating almost anything and definitely promiscuous with no single male having his own group of females to guard and protect (and reserve for himself alone). Women tended and milked the goats, drank the milk and ate the goat cheese themselves. A further view of the two animals revealed that sheep represented the “in” group, the Jewish males, while the goats represented everybody else — including women and “outsiders” (non-Jews). Jesus drew the parallel that marked the in-group from all others, members of the in-group (men, anyway) practiced a radical form of hospitality to members of an out-group and thus gained honor and recognition for their righteousness. Taking care of the poor, widowed, orphaned, sick and the like of one’s own group was a duty that accrued no extra honor; it was simply expected that they take care of those to whom they were related.

Today we still think of sheep and goats in terms of left and right, separating “good” and “bad”, right and wrong, conservative and liberal. Jesus’s words specifically called out duties of the “sheep”, those who were part of his in-group as well as those who followed him. Most of those things Jesus called for the sheep to do would be considered what is sometimes called the social gospel today, caring for not just the members of one’s own group but everyone in need regardless of kinship or ideology. Somehow it is sad that those who claim the right side, that side designated for those inheriting the kingdom and recognition by God of righteousness, are those who often reject what they call “entitlements” such as anti-poverty programs, humane treatment for aliens and prisoners and the like. It seems as though they are reading an entirely different gospel, one that reverses almost everything that Jesus taught while emphasizing issues that benefit the few rather than the many. So-called Leftists have always been considered to be radical and anti-establishment, ] to be fought against and overcome lest the whole world become one vast anarchy. Yet leftists usually seemed to be following the gospel more closely with their concern for the poor and downtrodden, those imprisoned unfairly or for political reasons, and those in greatest need. I wonder — would God really condemn them for that? Who really are the sheep and who are the goats?

Sheep and goats meant different things in Jesus’ time. People understood the meaning and nuances. Today, though, the lines seem to have reversed themselves. Jesus continually spoke of doing things an honorable person would do, like caring for widows and orphans, prisoners, sick people and the like. There is no honor in just doing it for people who are part of the in-group, whether by birth, marriage, adoption or ideology. The honor comes from doing it with equality for all, so how does a practice of exclusivity fit into that framework? Is what Jesus said only a cultural or a back-then thing or is it really something that is laid on us as an imperative? Jesus didn’t make this stuff up; he had a solid background of Old Testament teaching and example to go by.

What Jesus was saying is that when folks like me look at someone, no matter who, we should see Jesus himself in that person and treat them as if they were indeed Jesus. If they have needs, those needs must be met, plain and simple.

So as I look around, I wonder — who really are the sheep and who the goats? Am I earning my sheep-hood or am I just being goat-ish? I have to earn the honor of being a sheep, despite the modern conviction that sheep are easily led, are not too bright and that goats are smarter and more open to opportunity. Am I going to be pointed to the left or the right when Jesus comes again? I’m pretty sure I’m not going to be graded on how well I took care of myself but rather on how well I helped to take care of others. That, to me, is the plain, unvarnished meaning of a story so familiar and yet so difficult. Sometimes the seemingly simple things are the hardest, but if it were easy, wouldn’t everybody be doing it?

I wonder — what would the world be like if there weren’t sheep and goats but only sheep? I wonder, would Jesus say, “Now that’s what I’m talkin’ about!” It will be interesting to find out.

Linda Ryan co-mentors 2 EfM Online groups and keeps the blog Jericho’s Daughter


Café Comments?

Our comment policy requires that you use your real first and last names and provide an email address (your email will not be published). Comments that use non-PG rated language, include personal attacks, that are not provable as fact or that we deem in any way to be counter to our mission of fostering respectful dialogue will not be posted.

Oldest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

@Kevin, I agree with you. If folks help to the point where in honesty they have no more to give, then yes, government should be stepping in. If government can bail out large corporations and CEOs and upper management can still get megamillion-dollar bonuses, why can’t folks like Ginny get more than a token amount of help without being made to feel like freeloaders or not worth help?

God bless those who gave from their hearts and not just from their abundance.


It’s a lovely essay. It, and the attached comments, makes me remember some things…

As mentioned before, I live in the Ozark. A couple of years ago we had floods that wiped out many homes along the flood plains of rivers like the Meramec and the Bourbeuse. Ginny, who lost her home on the Bourbeuse, moved into a single-wide near our home. She lost it all, and I mean all. She escaped with the clothes on her back. A local church helped her find the place next door.

The locals, mostly poor themselves, lined up to help her. They provided clothing, food, furniture, appliance, pots, pans, you name it. Their generostiy was inspiring, and they helped her establish a new home.

That said, the help that she got fell short of the financial burden she now carried. They totaled nearly $40,000 and the fund-raiser for her pulled in a grand total of $2400. The locals gave til it hurt, but that was all they had.

Where was Ginny, a 67 yr old widow, suppose to go for the other $37,600? Remember, she was poor. That was why she was living on the river to begin with. She couldn’t afford flood insurance. What to do?

This is where the proper role of govt comes into play. If it doesn’t, it should. We should remember Marks of Mission #3 and #4: meet human needs with loving service and change unjust structure. If our govt is capable of helping and doesn’t, it is unjust.

Kevin McGrane


@Maria — I confess I didn’t really think much about that until I started reading a couple of things by Sr. Joan Chittister. She’s always an eye-opener.

@Chris — I live in a very conservative part of the country and I see one party cutting benefits that are the safety nets of the poor while happily passing big tax cuts for the rich. Are they sheep or goats? I think it’s all in how one looks at it. Both sheep and goats have their place in the world, both are important and both often get bad raps. I don’t think any single person or group, political or religious, should risk breaking their arms by patting themselves on the back and expecting a successful Workmen’s Comp claim for a work-related injury.

Chris H.

Coming from a conservative part of the country, articles like this imply that the half of the population that leans conservative don’t do anything for the poor, spend weekends beating illegal immigrants, and putting people in prison for the fun of it. Looking around here, it’s the conservative churches that give more to the food bank, the conservative churches that have more prison ministries, and the crisis pregnancy center-definitely not high on the parish priority list, etc. Other studies have shown that conservatives give more than liberals do.

The big difference I see is that liberals/progressives want the government to do it all and conservatives tend to prefer each person giving according to their own choice. Also, progressive groups, in pushing inclusivity and peace between faiths have gone to great lengths to prove that faith isn’t required at all for good works. If I had to give the reason I think most young people aren’t interested in church, I’d say it’s because they don’t see it as necessary. The prevailing culture seems: People are basically good, the gov’t should take care of the poor and faith is irrelevant.

If an atheist helps the poor, are they a sheep automatically? If a liberal Christian votes Democrat, but doesn’t volunteer or give, is he a sheep? If a conservative Christian gives to the poor, volunteers for the women’s shelter, but votes against Obama, expanding Medicaid, and wants immigration laws enforced, does that automatically make them a goat? Christ said love,help,give. He also had lots to say on repent, obey, believe. The balance has been lost on both sides, I think.

Chris Harwood

Maria L. Evans

Thanks for illustrating the gender bias in the sheep and the goats. I suspect that is something that is lost to the modern reader!

Support the Café
Past Posts

The Episcopal Café seeks to be an independent voice, reporting and reflecting on the Episcopal Church and the Anglican tradition.  The Café is not a platform of advocacy, but it does aim to tell the story of the church from the perspective of Progressive Christianity.  Our collective sympathy, as the Café, lies with the project of widening the circle of inclusion within the church and empowering all the baptized for the role to which they have been called as followers of Christ.

The opinions expressed at the Café are those of individual contributors, and, unless otherwise noted, should not be interpreted as official statements of a parish, diocese or other organization. The art and articles that appear here remain the property of their creators.

All Content  © 2017 Episcopal Café