A detail many people miss when interpreting today’s gospel about the sheep and goats is that for the shepherd in Palestine the sheep and the goats look pretty much alike. We think of sheep as the fluffy wooly variety and goats as looking like scrawny billy goat types with a beard.
The sheep and goats in Palestine are hard to tell apart. That’s why the parable has so much more poignant meaning. The shepherd, on judgement day, has to look carefully and discern which is which. So, like the wheat and tares that grow together, so the sheep and goats may be in the same pasture, but when they have to be distinguished only the master shepherd is able to do so.
Furthermore, the fact that the goats look outwardly much like the sheep is a commentary on the church. The sheep live together with the hypocritical goats, and at the judgement both are surprised. The sheep were humble and so are surprised that they are redeemed. The goats were proud and are surprised that they are damned.
How to be a sheep? Serve the poor. Now, this is not just some sort of superficial spiritual blackmail to get us to do more for the poor. No, this is an indication of who the sheep really are and who the goats really are. The goats are the Christians who are all pious and have their worship and doctrine all correct and come across as the ‘good Christians’.
The sheep look like the Good Shepherd who is also the Lamb of God. They resemble him who came–out of his vary nature–to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many. These sheep may look like goats, but they just quietly get on with the job of loving God and loving their neighbor. They do so, not because they are trying hard to be good, but because (as they serve the poor) they are simply doing what they want to do.
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