Flicking through the lectionary, I noticed that the Gospel for Sunday week is the sheep and the goats. It is one of the stories that Jesus told during his final days in Jerusalem. I never fully understood the story until a few years ago, when we were living in the country outside of Downpatrick in Co Down.
We had a goat living in our garden; she was a friendly creature with a dark brown coat and a fine pair of horns. She was called Peggy and her kid was called Billy. Peggy was a smart creature at times, when she heard the sound of the metal feed bucket she sprang into life.
At other times she was a very stupid creature. She was tethered one afternoon, but managed to squeeze through the gap between the top of the ditch and the bottom strand of a barbed wire fence, which separated our garden from a field of cows. She had got the long rope tangled round her legs and had pulled so much that the rope had tightened round her legs and she had tripped over. If she had moved backwards even a few inches the rope would have gone slack and she might have got free, Peggy didn’t seem to understand the word backwards.
I heard her bleating and went to see what was wrong. She was a pathetic sight, looking like a trussed-up chicken. The more she struggled to move forwards the tighter the rope pulled. Very gingerly I climbed up onto the fence. Beginning to lose my balance I jumped down the other side, managing to get cow dung all over my shiny black shoes and grey clerical trousers. Peggy was freed in a matter of seconds; getting cleaned up afterwards took me much longer. If the stupid goat had only realized that sometimes you need to take a few steps backwards in order to go forwards.
Maybe people aren’t much wiser than goats. We all know people who are determined that they are going their way regardless of what it costs them or anyone else. Maybe if we realized that, sometimes, going backwards doesn’t mean you’ve given in, it just means you’re looking for a different way forwards. It would save a lot of problems in many families if we could learn that simple lesson.
But back to the story of the sheep and the goats: I often wondered why Jesus talked about separating people at the last judgment as being like a shepherd separating the sheep from the goats. ‘Why should those who were condemned be like goats?’ I thought. I always preferred goats to sheep, which seem very dull and stupid creatures
Seeing Peggy tangled in that rope made point clear. Being self-willed and determined to go our own way means that we choose to separate ourselves from God and, on the last day, warns Jesus, if we refuse to change, then God will separate himself from us