Be you a Christian, a Jew, an atheist or otherwise, you are not a goat. It’s rather unlikely that you might one day change into a goat. Or a sheep. No, you are a human being, a “son of man” in Jewish terms, and valuable to God. That was the truth for Matthew, the Jewish author of Parable of the Sheep and the Goats. So let the fire and brimstone image go, because your Father loves you. But don’t trust my word. If you’re plagued by self-inflicted goat trauma, you should know what Rabbi Christ believed.
“Hell is not a punishment in the conventional sense. It is in fact the expression of a great kindness.”
Rabbi Aron Moss
Any good shepherd can tell you that goats are helpful animals. They protect the herd. Goats bully the sheep in order to save them from harm, which might be the reason why Matthew chose this imagery. For more than 1,600 years, those lazy, shameful goats have kept the flock safe. But Matthew’s story also drives a great many sheep away from our Shepherd and his loving Father.
Is the sheep and goats story itself a Goat?
My name is listed among the lost sheep. While in Catholic grade school I simply could not accept what my teachers said. That my perfect, loving Father will burn me—forever—if I should mess up. I didn’t know much about theology in those times, but I knew my Father in heaven. And I also knew that something nasty prowled among those fluffy sheep and goats. This parable is horribly wrong, I thought. Later in life I realized that it does not even qualify as a Christian writing. Where is Jesus’ missive of forgiveness? Why don’t those selfish goats get the chance to repent? Several important Christian beliefs are notably lacking in Matthew’s terrifying story. On top of that, for over 16 centuries church teachings such as this one have caused many lovers of Christ, myself included, to flee our churches and never return.
All of this trouble is due to the fact that Parable of the Sheep and the Goats was expertly written by a repentant Jew who dearly loved his Master. And therein lies the problem.
The first thing to know is that Matthew was not a Christian by today’s standards. The supposed author of this parable was a devout Jew. Christ himself was a Jew, the same as most of his disciples and early followers. Thus Simon Peter—the Jewish founder of what we call the Christian Church—founded a JEWISH church. That’s right. The early Church we find in Book of Acts and the Epistles follows traditional Jewish beliefs. So, when reading Matthew’s story it is vital to understand that the term “hell,” for Jews, holds a very different meaning.
Everlasting punishment is not a Jewish belief.
Next, in order to escape the goat-like terror campaign launched by the evangelists around 600 CE, we need only realize that Jesus’ and Matthew’s concept of hell is a vastly kinder and gentler one. The fire is eternal. The punishment is not. Even so, at some point these words got twisted into “everlasting punishment.”
Gehinnom – the Goats’ Final Destination
In Judaism the terms used for “hell” are Gehinnom, or She’ol. According to most sources, the period of punishment or purification is limited to twelve months. Then the soul [person] ascends to Olam Ha-Ba. Or, if it is utterly wicked, it is destroyed. ( Jew FAQ )
You are Not a Goat – for Heaven Seekers
The debate over the meaning of sheep and goats compares faith through works to faith through belief. Which is best? Do the sheep represent people who help others? If so, are those who simply believe in Christ labeled as goats? Either way it’s all good. You are not a goat. But for those of us who still worry about reaching heaven, indeed we shall. No matter what we’ve done, God forgives us. Recall the two criminals who were crucified along with Christ. Jesus promised that on that very same day, they would see him in heaven. Now think of the Roman guards who mocked him, stole his clothes and pierced his abdomen. None of those men asked for forgiveness. So how did Jesus (a Jew) respond to the guards’ sinful behavior?
Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”
You are Not a Goat – for Kingdom Seekers
The Gospel’s most ardent kingdom seeker is St. Matthew. He knows what he seeks, and for those of us on the narrow road he knows how to teach it. As a seeker myself, I recognize that the sheep and goats story calls me to hold fast to myor sheep thoughts, and release my demons, or goat thoughts. According to Matthew’s gospel, this is how one may reach the earthly kingdom that God created for us long, long ago.
Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world.
Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the earth
— Andrew Michael (about)