Tuesday, November 25, 2008

On Sheep and Goats and Humankind

Scripture cited today includes Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24; Ephesians 1:15-23; and Matthew 25:31-46.

Come to church and learn more about sheep than you may have ever wanted to know. Clearly, they were a big deal throughout the entire sweep of both Hebrew and Christian scriptures. I don’t know what we have in our society that carries all the meaning that sheep and shepherds do in the Bible: the herdsman fed and dressed his family by the animals he raised, an entire economy depended on sheep and shepherds, and Israel’s religion, built on blood sacrifice, would have had to close up shop without sheep. Look at our altar and see the Messiah, Jesus, represented by… a lamb, the Lamb of God.

What would we show as the sustaining centerpiece of our culture? What would be so globally important and valuable that it could wind up as a symbol of the divine? Would it be a laptop? Nah. At least a lamb is animate, alive. How about a Texas longhorn? Many eat steak, and there certainly is a cattle industry. Maybe mentioning Texas brings to mind oil— but I don’t think a barrel of oil is going to make it onto any altar I’d care to worship at. (Now, promise me not to spend the rest of this sermon coming up with the perfect answer to what was meant to be a rhetorical question…)

The point is: in the Bible, sheep rule. At least among metaphors.

What I didn’t realize—never growing up close to sheep—is that there are bullies in that species, as there are in our own. That fact helps Ezekiel get the most out of his metaphor and insist that a time will come when God the shepherd will gather together the whole of his flock, scattered and injured by war and famine and injustice, and will impose on the flock a reversal of fortune whereby the weak will be strengthened and the strong will be, well, turned into mutton.

That sounds downright merciless in Ezekiel’s oracle today, but this does tend to be the prognosis for sheep, doesn’t it? Bred to be useful, sheep fulfill their destiny in a variety of ways that make us glad we aren’t sheep.
What’s surprising about Ezekiel’s vision of flock and shepherd is this ecology of justice that he describes. Stockyards are not known for mercy or justice, nor are sheepfolds, however bucolic they may sound. Nature is now and was then red in tooth and claw, and that pushing and butting Ezekiel cites is animal nature in the sheep pen and pasture just as it will be next Friday at Best Buy and Target.

But it is not to be so in the Kingdom of God. Justice will shape the flock, even train the behavior of the sheep, and it will be up to the shepherd to see to that. Who is the shepherd? As “sheep” represented the people of Israel in this realm of metaphor, the shepherd is in some verses God, and in others it is the king. To prophets like Ezekiel, to be a good king is to reflect the justice of God.

Methodist Bible commentator Katheryn Pfisterer Darr writes, “In Israel’s ancient Near Eastern world, kings were expected to “tend” their subjects justly, especially those who were most vulnerable to abuse: widows, orphans, the poor, infirm, and displaced. Israel’s past shepherds neglected such responsibilities, Ezekiel charges… But Yahweh, Israel’s divine king, shepherds the entire flock including its weakest members… How a society and its leaders treat those who struggle against disadvantages speaks volumes about that society’s true values—not the ones it professes to hold, but those revealed in policy and action.” By God’s values, she says, the elderly will not be neglected, the homeless will not be disparaged, and the sick will not be stigmatized. Nor, we might add, will foreigners be denied the basic rights we expect for ourselves.

Nor, she points out, will God’s creation be treated as ours to exploit, as Judah’s former kings exploited the flock entrusted to their care. “Neither are we, like the strong, selfish members of the flock… free to take more than our share of its resources, consuming at will and polluting what remains. Ezekiel’s world knew the devastation of flood and earthquake, of famine and drought, of warfare and plunder. We too know of such things; perhaps we have even experienced some of them. But Ezekiel’s world did not know the devastation of nuclear waste and chemical landfills, of cracked-open oil tankers and mountains of non-biodegradable trash. Today, chapter 34 (of the Book of the Prophet Ezekiel) speaks with a piercing relevance the prophet could not have imagined.”

All of which sets us up for another unanticipated lesson about sheep, brought to us by the Gospel of Matthew, where we learn that sheep are preferred over goats. Go figure.

Goats, like sheep, were one of man’s earliest successes in domestication. They were the principal source of milk in Israel. Their flesh was eaten, their waterproof hair used to make tent fabric, their skins tanned for leather, their hides as skin bottles.

They were commonly herded together with sheep in the ancient culture. They were considered acceptable for religious sacrifice—even the Passover lamb could be a kid. But will you see a goat on a Christian altar? “With their beetling brow and thrust-out lower lip they could easily represent power and belligerence,” writes Jack Vancil, contributing to the Anchor Bible Dictionary. “Their overbearing temper and aggressiveness required the shepherd to keep close watch over the flocks so that the sheep would not be harmed.”

Ah, we’re back into the realm of butting and shoving—not just the animals, also the humans. I’ll venture the guess that eventually shepherds and goatherds went their separate ways. Mr. Vancil tells us that goats are destructive to cultivated areas, and I suppose I would know that firsthand if I had one. In a primarily nomadic culture, sheep and goats coexisted side by side. In a settled culture of gardens and pastures, shepherds and goatherds would compete for land and water and prime pasture.

Perhaps Jesus raised goats. He (or Matthew) assumed that most of his hearers wouldn’t have raised an eyebrow at the disparaging destiny that meets the so-called goats in his vision of the last judgment. Somehow, those goats had to represent humanity at its worst: self-involved, chomping away the neighbor’s lawn without even noticing, nose to the ground taking care of Number One, head-butting anyone in the way.

Maybe you could call this story “How to Really Get God’s Goat.”

But let’s lift our own heads out of the details enough to remember that when we hear a Gospel, we’re hearing Good News. Life is full of the other kind. Here, Matthew brings us Good News.

Jesus is closer to us than we know. Jesus is closer to us than we know. And we are called to know him, to recognize him wherever he is, in the stranger longing for the embrace of welcome, in the sick person who opens us to the call to compassion, in the prisoner who requires us to face our own fear of jails.

The good news is that Jesus is with us. The good news is that Jesus pushes the boundaries of that tiny word “us”, stretching it to include all the Bad News Bears we can think of, whom we will want to include even if by nature we don’t want to include them. He is so them that to keep them at a distance is to keep him at a distance. They, with whom we have wanted little to do, are the ones he sends to bring us to our senses, and save us from our own belligerence, our own proclivity to strip the earth bare and to be satisfied only when our tanks are on full. He lifts up those whom he calls “the least members of my family” to reveal to his whole family what matters most.

The apostle, whom I have so far neglected, sings a lovely hymn praising God and in the same verses admires the Christians at Ephesus for really hearing the Good News and acting on it. They are full of Christ. They are the body of Christ in the world, and Christ is the head of that body, filling them with his vision and wisdom, freeing them to know the hope to which he has called them, the riches he has given them in their community of love and service, the immeasurable power of faith he has planted in them. They, his church, are “the fullness of him who fills all in all.”

The good news? Those words spoken to the Ephesians are spoken to us, of us, for us. “They” are “we”. We too are called to take our part in God’s filling all in all. Our fullness becomes treasure only as we put it to God’s use. This season of insecurity and distress will not be empty, but rich in opportunity to turn what fullness we have to God’s purposes. Your responses to this parish’s appeal for the new year show your understanding, your acceptance of the baptismal call to become good shepherds.

Friday, a young Mom came to the parish office to deliver the gift that her little boy had requested for his birthday this week. He asked his family and friends to give food to a food pantry in place of toys and gadgets, of which (he said) he has plenty. It took two of us to haul in the great bin of all his gifts, now ready on our shelves for Jesus when he is hungry.

I had never met this Mom, who is a friend of our Youth Minister, Jacki. I sure would like to meet her son—wouldn’t you? I wrote to him immediately. He’s showing that fullness of him who fills all in all. He’s got the makings of a mighty good shepherd, don’t you think?

(Katheryn Pfisterer Darr’s commentary is found in Volume VI of “The New Interpreter’s Bible”, pp. 1467-1469. Jack W. Vancil’s entry “Goat, Goatherd” is found on pp. 1040-41 of “The Anchor Bible Dictionary”, Volume 2.)