The Gospel reading for today is the familiar story of 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 the early-1990s, when I was rector of a small country parish 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 the rectory garden from an adjoining field of cows. Peggy 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 been able to free herself. 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.
There was a realization that people aren’t often little wiser than goats. Some of us can be determined that we are going our own way regardless of what it costs us or anyone else.
Maybe if we sometimes realized that going backwards doesn’t mean you’ve given in, it just means you’re looking for a different way forwards. It might save a lot of problems for a lot of people 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 that 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