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Posted by on Nov 24, 2023

Sheep and Goats – Which?

Sheep and Goats – Which?

Sheep and goats represent a frequently recurring image in both Hebrew and Christian scriptures. I don’t know about you, but I have not personally had a great deal of experience with either sheep or goats outside of petting zoos.

Given my great lack of knowledge of either sheep or goats, I asked my sister, who raises alpacas and has a sheep as well, to help me understand how sheep and goats are similar and how they are different. Her daughter-in-law, my niece, raises goats, so my sister also got feedback from her. It made for a very enjoyable afternoon’s texting.

Here’s what I learned.

  • Goats are smarter than sheep and can figure out puzzles, “like how to open a gate.”
  • “Goats are leaders, sheep are followers.”
  • “Goats are hardier and easier to take care of than sheep, in my experience…”
  • Both have similarities regarding food and other animal habits, but there are differences.
  • Sheep will knock over anything or anyone, including the shepherd, who is in the way of where they want to go, especially if they are frightened or in a hurry.
  • Sheep are very food and instinct oriented and will ask for food and water even when they already have them.
  • “Sheep are complete idiots and rude,” quoth the goat herder in a short text.
  • Endearing qualities of goats? “They love treats and are a lot hardier.” Again from the goat herder.
  • Goats will come up to a person and wait to be petted. If they think they are being ignored, “they will stick their heads over the fence so you can scratch their nose or between their horns.”
  • Both sheep and goats can be sources of milk and fiber/wool. Some types are more suited to one or another product.
  • Goats can be used to pull carts. Their horns make it easier to keep a halter on those with smaller ears.
  • Sheep can sleep outside in the snow – their wool keeps them warm under the snowy blanket. When they wake, they can eat snow rather than needing to drink water.
  • Sheep will ‘Pogo’ when they are happy or in a hurry to get somewhere – “hop, hop, hopping … their little feet hitting the ground.”

Many thanks to these two lovely ladies for their insights.

These exchanges left me wondering why it’s the sheep who get the good press in the Bible.

In the Book of Ezekiel, the king and religious leaders of Israel get the blame for having caused the great troubles of defeat and exile of the nation under their leadership. Ezekiel, in a passage before the one we see this day, decried the fact that they had taken advantage of the poor, the sick, the injured, and those who were lost souls among the people. The job of the King and religious leaders, in God’s view as expressed by Ezekiel, is to look out for those who can’t take care of themselves and need help.

Speaking through Ezekiel, God proclaims, “I myself will look after and tend my sheep.” (Ez 34:11-12, 15-17) God promised to rescue these sheep from everywhere they have been scattered and bring them to a safe pasture. This shepherd will go out and find those who are lost, tend the wounds of those who are injured, and heal the sick ones. But “the sleek and the strong” will be destroyed – those who did not use their strength to help and protect the others.

On a final note, the prophecy declares, “As for you, my sheep, … I will judge between one sheep and another, between rams and goats.” (Rams are unaltered male sheep.)

There we go again. Sheep versus goats? There must be something else beneath the surface that a non-shepherding culture doesn’t notice.

It is possible to have both sheep and goats in a herd. Goats can help protect the sheep from predators, because they tend to be more aggressive. They’re not going to turn and run away in panic when they perceive a threat. They eat different plants than the sheep, so the pasture can support more animals.

Ezekiel is not the only one to speak of sheep and goats. In Jesus’ description of the end of times when he will return in glory with the angels and sit in judgement over all the nations, he speaks of sheep and goats as well. Matthew’s narration of this event is the only version of this that we see in the Gospels. (Mt 25:31-46)

People will be divided into two groups, just as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. The sheep will be gathered at Jesus’ right hand and the goats at his left. Then he will tell those on the right, “Come … inherit the kingdom prepared for you… For I was hungry and you gave me food…” These were the ones who took care of the hungry, the thirsty, newcomers, those without adequate clothing, the ill, the imprisoned. They are surprised to be singled out for this, especially since they didn’t recall ever doing any of this to/for Jesus personally. He explains that doing it for “one of the least brothers of mine” was the same as doing it for him.

Those on the left-hand side are chided for not caring for the hungry, thirsty, naked, and so forth. Again, they don’t recall ever seeing Jesus needing these things. Yet Jesus applies the same logic to them. What was not done for the little ones, the least of God’s people, Jesus’ brothers and sisters, was not done for him.

Here we still are, with the sheep getting the good press and the goats getting the bad.

I think part of what we are seeing is that the ancient Hebrews started as shepherds, so there’s a long history with these animals and their care. Abraham was a shepherd. He probably had both sheep and goats in his herds. Both species have useful qualities and together they can provide a more complete set of products for supporting a household, especially a group of herders who travel from place to place with their animals. Goats, with their intelligence and tendency to be more aggressive, might be a bit more challenging at times. But these same qualities would make them a useful addition to the mix. The shepherds and their dogs could use the help of other animals in protecting the entire herd. Still, if there are too many goats, it could also be a problem, especially when it comes to growing the herd and mating time. Intermixing the species is not a successful strategy in such instances.

Another thought that comes to mind is that sometimes, it’s best just to follow the rules and do what is the right thing, even if it’s not the most clever or flashy. When we get too clever and try to outfox the rules to get a better deal for ourselves, it’s not going to lead to our serving the poor or those who can’t get a leg up in life on their own. We too easily get focused on our own needs and wants and find ways to justify meeting those first. God, the shepherd, wants us to look out for each other and will support us as we do. We don’t have to go running off slyly on our own like the goats, figuring out how to unlock the gate to have a good life.

One other thought, which comes from Catherine Cory in the Workbook for Lectors that we use in our parish, is that the words translated as sheep and goat do not necessarily refer only to the animals we categorize by that name. She suggests that the term translated as sheep refers to small grazing animals, not just sheep. The term translated as goats refers to small creatures that are “woolly.” She suggests that those Jesus called sheep are the mature ones who are ready to enter the kingdom of God. The others are unready to enter. They have not matured properly and become ready for the kingdom. The way to become ready, is to serve the hungry, the thirsty, the imprisoned, the sick, and so forth. We call these tasks the Corporal Acts of Mercy and we are all called to this service.

As we end our liturgical year with this Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe, let’s pray that we have grown in maturity this past year and will continue to grow in the year to come. It’s not just the sheep in my sister’s yard who should go hop, hop, hopping quickly towards a special treat or person. We, the sheep of our Lord and God, need to hop, hop, hop along together in joyful service, meeting our Savior in all those we encounter.

Readings for the Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe – Cycle A

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Posted by on Nov 20, 2022

A King with the Common Touch

A King with the Common Touch

Most of the time, we Americans don’t pay a lot of attention to what’s going on in the world of royalty, except for the times there are scandals or public disagreements among the royals. But this year was different. Queen Elizabeth of England passed away and we witnessed the transition of positions among members of her family. Her son Charles is no longer Prince of Wales. He is now King Charles. His own firstborn son is now next in line for the throne, becoming Prince of Wales. There was much pageantry, much emotion, and great interest in the process, not only in Great Britain, but around the world.

Part of the reason for so much interest in the lives of royalty is that most of us have lives that are far from royal. We are fascinated by the power and the privileges of these men and women. We don’t see the day-to-day reality of their lives as human beings behind the scenes of their royal duties. Privacy gets maintained for the most part by those who work in the palaces and for members of the royalty. But the freedom to slip out of the palace and go to the grocery store or down the street to the park on a short walk is not part of the reality and privilege of royal life. What we might call “the common touch” is not a general feature of life for kings, queens, and their families. They are kept in a royal bubble.

As we come to the last Sunday of our liturgical year, the question of kingship arises. This is the Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe, more commonly known as the Feast of Christ the King. What does it mean for us to say that Christ is King? We don’t have kings and queens whose actions affect our daily lives. The majority of humanity does not. Yet we speak of Jesus as King of the Universe.

This feast celebrates the reunion of the human with the divine. The readings remind us of the ways kingship and down-to-earth relationships with ordinary people go together in God’s world.

We begin with the story of how David, a former shepherd boy, came to be king of all the tribes of Israel. (2 Samuel 5:1-3) David was anointed by the prophet Samuel to be the second king of Israel while Saul was still king. He was the youngest son of his parents and not at all seen as a person who might one day be king. However, the Lord told Samuel that each of the older brothers was not the one He had chosen. Finally, after Samuel had met and rejected each of the older boys, David’s father called him in from tending the sheep. Samuel anointed him immediately and David went back to tend the sheep.

As time went on, David left the sheep to take supplies to his brothers in Saul’s army. There he defeated Goliath, then as time went on, led soldiers against the enemies of Israel, avoided being hunted down and killed by King Saul’s armies and allies, and eventually was asked to be king of some of the tribes. After Saul’s death, the leaders of the tribes joined together and asked him to be king of them all. They noted, “The Lord said to you, ‘You shall shepherd my people Israel and shall be commander of Israel.’” This man, who had literally been a shepherd, was entrusted with the care of all his people. There was no hereditary monarchy yet in Israel. Saul’s sons did not inherit their father’s throne automatically. A man with the common touch, who knew a life of caring for animals and people, became the leader and ruler of the tribes.

St. Paul, in his letter to the Colossians, (1:12-20) reminded his brothers and sisters to thank the Father for making them ready to share in the life of God’s kingdom, for rescuing them from the power of darkness and transferring them to the kingdom of the beloved Son. He quotes a beautiful statement of the role of Jesus in history: the image of the invisible God, firstborn of all creation. Creation came about through him. All things are held together in him. He is the beginning, the firstborn, head of the church, the one who holds all together. And how can this be? “All the fullness was pleased to dwell” in him and “through him to reconcile all things for him.” Jesus, through his death, made peace between heaven and earth once again. This King, this word that brought all into being, didn’t hesitate to become a human being, a “common person.”

As Jesus hung on the cross, a sign was placed above his head. The sign read: “This is the King of the Jews.” It was a mocking notice to all who passed along the road that opposition to Roman rule would not be tolerated. Those passing by saw the sign and taunted Jesus, “If you are King of the Jews, save yourself.”

St. Luke described the scene for us. (Lk 23:35-43) Two men were crucified with Jesus. One of them joined the folks who were taunting him, but the other spoke up. He reproached the other man and then spoke directly to Jesus. “Remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus did not look down on or condemn the man who was being executed for having committed a serious crime. Instead, he promised, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.”

Jesus had the “common touch.” He was an ordinary person, who just happened to be the one in whom the fullness of God was also dwelling. He brought the Almighty and the created ones into union again. He was and is a King in the best sense of the word. He is also one of us, in the best sense of what that means.

Today we celebrate the gift of such a King. We are called to live as he did and help build the kingdom through our daily lives. He led the way. We follow and model our lives on his. And in times of trouble, he reaches out from the place of suffering that he experienced and holds us tight, helping us bear our pain and remain trustingly in his embrace, until we too are raised to new life. He did it for the thief on the cross. He does it for each of us too. We give thanks for this great gift.

Readings for the Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe – Cycle C

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Posted by on Nov 21, 2021

King of the Universe!

King of the Universe!

Sometimes when children are playing, one or another will exclaim, “I’m King of Everything!” Today we celebrate the final Sunday of our liturgical year, The Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe. In this case, it’s not a question of the exuberant, excited cry of a child in a game. The Christian community, through the centuries, has proclaimed this truth, both in direct statements and in apocalyptic images.

Predictions of the coming of a savior often appear in the Hebrew Scriptures during times of exile and persecution. This savior comes and acts as the agent of God in opening the final age of salvation history, the time in which God will become the ruler over all things. The human (Son of Man) who is the instrument of God in all this upheaval and transition is to be raised to a heavenly level, implying a divine status of some sort.

Our reading from the Book of Daniel (7:13-14) describes a vision received in the night. Someone like a Son of man is coming, but not with a human army or traveling in a normal human way. This individual is coming on the clouds of heaven. The destination of this Son of man (human) is not a standard one either. The Son of man comes to the Ancient One. Who is the Ancient One? This is a title for God. This human, who has served as agent to open the new age, comes before God. God gives him dominion (authority as a ruler), glory (renown, magnificence, splendor), and kingship over all times and peoples. This new status and role will continue for all eternity.

In Psalm 93, the term Lord is used. In this context Lord is the word used to speak of God. Jews do not use God’s actual name, because if a person knows the name of another, there is some power over the other individual. Call that individual’s name and the individual will respond. God made clear from the beginning that no one else will be in charge. This is the reason for the prohibition on using God’s actual name and substituting the word Lord.

The Lord is king, dressed in strength, making the world firm and ruling from everlasting to everlasting. The decrees/statements/commands of the Lord are worthy of trust. This is a hymn of great trust and joy.

The early Christians had to figure out where their friend and teacher, Jesus of Nazareth, fit into the whole picture. The book of Revelation was probably written sometime in the years 81-96 CE, during the persecution of Christians under the reign of the emperor Domitian. The identity of the author is unknown, though the name John is assigned to this person.

Today’s reading is from the very beginning of the book (Rev 1:5-8). John sends greetings to the seven major Christian communities (the churches) of Asia. The greeting is also extended in the name of Jesus, faithful witness and firstborn of the dead. Jesus is identified as ruler of the kings of the earth. It is through the death of Jesus that the new kingdom has been brought into existence. Jesus is coming and all will see him. His sisters and brothers will be raised through him, conquering sin and death, triumphing over persecution and unbelief. The Lord is the beginning and the end, just as the Greek letters Alpha and Omega represent the beginning and end of the alphabet. (The Christian scriptures were written in Greek, making this a relevant note.) God’s life-giving power now operates in the world through Jesus, the Christ.

On this feast of Christ the King, we leave the Gospel of Matthew and instead hear from the Gospel of John (Jn 18:33b-37). Jesus stands as a prisoner in front of the Roman governor of Palestine, a man named Pilate. Pilate was responsible for keeping the territory free of revolutionaries and imposing Roman law. He asked the leaders of the Jewish court why they had brought Jesus to him for judgement. They responded that they could not legally condemn him to death.

Pilate is not interested in religious arguments between Jesus and the Jewish authorities. Their reason for the death penalty was blasphemy – the claim to be God. However, the most important issue for Pilate is whether this man standing before him has committed treason by claiming to be a king. Only Caesar in Rome gets that title. Anyone else will be executed. So Pilate asks Jesus directly, “Are you the King of the Jews?” He is expecting a simple Yes or No, but Jesus instead asks Pilate a question, essentially, why are you asking me this? If Pilate is interested in Jesus’ teaching, the conversation has potential. If not, then other issues arise. Pilate makes clear that he is not asking because he has heard of Jesus and his teaching and wants to know more. What he wants to know is: “What have you done” that the authorities of your country have turned you over to their enemies for execution?

Jesus does not answer the way Pilate expects. He explains, “My kingdom does not belong to this world.” He points out that if he were a king in the worldly sense, he would not be standing there alone. Others would be fighting for him. But his kingdom is elsewhere. Pilate takes this answer as a statement that Jesus is claiming to be a king and asks for confirmation of that interpretation. Legally it matters. “Then you are a king?” But Jesus still refuses to claim an earthly kingdom. “You say I am a king.” He doesn’t deny being a king, but he is king in a very different way. He explains that his mission is to present the truth of God’s love for humans. Any who accept that truth will be members of his kingdom. God’s gift to humanity, the self-giving love leading to God’s becoming one of us, is the source and power of this kingdom. Those who belong to the truth, listen to Jesus.

Here’s a person who really is King of Everything! Do I listen to his voice? Do I hear the truth of God’s love and the Kingdom of Love? When he comes, will I be ready?

Today let’s not get bogged down in worries about how we are doing in following our Lord. Let’s take some time and simply celebrate the wonder of this gift from our Father. He loves us so totally that he became one of us. Jesus brings this love to each one of us each day of our lives and with every breath of our bodies. Long live Christ, the King of the Universe!

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