Be you Christian, Jewish, atheist or otherwise, you are not a goat. It is rather unlikely that you might one day change into a goat. Or a sheep, for that matter. No, you are a human being—a “son of man” in Christ’s day—and valuable to God. That’s what St. Matthew believed, the Jewish author of The Parable of the Sheep and the Goats. So let the fire and brimstone image go because your Father loves you. Those plagued by self inflicted goat trauma can breathe easier with a few short words from the shepherd to his flock:
—except God alone.
Any shepherd can tell you that goats are helpful animals. Goats protect the herd. They bully the sheep in order to save them from harm, which might be the reason why Matthew chose this image. For more than 1,600 years those lazy, shameful goats have kept the flock safe. But Matthew’s story scares almost as many sheep away from the shepherd and our loving father.
Is the sheep and goats story itself a goat?
Among the lost sheep you will find my name. While in Catholic grade school I simply could not accept what my teachers said. My perfect, loving father will burn me—forever—if I should mess up. I didn’t know much about theology back then, but I knew my father in heaven. And I knew that something scary prowled among those fluffy sheep and goats. This parable is horribly wrong! I thought.
Much later I found that Sheep and Goats 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 Christic teachings, including grace, are notably lacking in Matthew’s terrifying story. On top of that, or maybe because of it, 1,400 years of goat-like pulpit thumpers 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. So how is that a problem?
Most important to know is that Matthew was not a Christian by today’s standard. Christ himself was a Jew, the same as many of his early followers. Thus Simon Peter—the Jewish founder of what we now call the Christian Church—founded a JEWISH church. That’s right. The early Church we find in Book of Acts and the epistles is based on traditional Jewish beliefs. So, when reading Matthew’s story it is vital to remember that 1) you are not a goat, and 2), the term “hell,” for Jews, holds a very different meaning.
Christ did not preach eternal punishment.
Next, in order to cage the goat-like terror raised by the evangelists circa 600 CE, we must realize that Jesus’ and Matthew’s concept of hell is a vastly kinder and gentler one. A person would have to work quite hard to go there. And, while hell is thought to be an eternal realm, the cleansing period has an end. Still, at some point St. Matthew’s words got twisted into “eternal punishment.”
Gehinnom, the Goats’ Destination
In Judaism the terms used for “hell” are Gehinnom, or She’ol. According to most sources, the period of purification is limited to twelve months. After that the soul [the person] ascends to Olam Ha-Ba. Or, if it is utterly wicked, is destroyed. (Jew FAQ)
“Hell is not a punishment in the conventional sense. It is in fact the expression of a great kindness.”
Rabbi Aron Moss
You are Not a Goat — Heaven Seekers
Sheep and goats = people.
The debate on the true meaning of the sheep and goats sets grace through works against grace through belief. Should we view these animals as people? If so, are the “goats” those who simply hold faith in Christ? Either way, you are not a goat. And for those of us who worry about reaching heaven, indeed we shall, because Godall of us.
Recall the two criminals who were crucified along with Christ. Jesus promised them that on that very same day, they would see him in heaven. Now think of the Roman guards who mocked him, stole his robe, and pierced his abdomen. None of those men asked for forgiveness.
So how did Jesus, as he neared his death, 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 — Kingdom Seekers
Sheep and goats = belief systems.
As the Gospel’s most zealous kingdom seeker, St. Matthew knows the path to the kingdom of God. And for those of us on the narrow road he knows how to teach it. At its deepest level, this story casts us as the son of man, with Christ (the King) helping us to judge healthy beliefs (sheep) from toxic thoughts (goats). Our goat beliefs are, of course, sent to the endless fire while we live.
At the same time Sheep and Goats implores seekers to love those in need just as much as Christ loves us. But we must not judge people. Instead we yield to all, like a sheep does, and hold no favorites. This, the most difficult part of the work, is our path to the inheritance.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world.
— Andrew Michael (about)