Overcoming the way of the goat
When I was a boy, my family raised dairy goats. One of my daily chores was to walk our big mama goat, Nanny, on a tether from our barn to a pasture a few hundred yards away.
To reach the green grass of the pasture, we had to cross an asphalt parking lot, full of cinders and stones.
Inevitably, as soon as we got to the parking lot, Nanny — who at that point weighed more than me — would take off. She knew I would either let go of the tether, and she’d be free; or I’d be drug across the cinders. Some days I was dragged. Some days she got loose, and contented herself eating the neighbor’s flowers. Eventually, I’d drag her back onto the path and to the pasture. And the next day, we’d do it all over.
Each of us has within us the nature of that goat. We know the path we’re supposed to take. But, all-too-often, the goat drags us off the narrow path, seeking pleasures and comforts, this way and that.
Jesus speaks to our goat-like nature, and to the narrow path of the sheep, in today’s Gospel reading, the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats, also known as the Judgment of the Nations.
In this parable, Jesus predicts himself as Christ sitting on the judgment throne, separating us by the ways of sheep and the ways of goats.
He tells the sheep: “‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’”
The righteous — the sheep — ask when they could have done these things. After all, how many of us would say we’d served Christ in person?
He answers: “‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’”
When we love and serve the marginalized, the poor, the suffering, the lonely and forgotten, we are serving Christ. And Jesus tells us that’s not in some detached, impersonal way. When we serve the least of God’s children, we’re serving Christ directly, because Christ is within each of these.
Of course, that means the converse also is true: when we ignore God’s suffering, hungry, lonely and forgotten children, we are turning our backs on the very real presence of Christ in our midst.
Jesus tells our goaty nature: “‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’”
When did we fail to do these things for Christ?
“‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
In our everyday lives, we seldom make this distinction, between the sheep and the goats. After all, we live in a world dominated by the way of the goat.
The way of the goat may seem tempting in the here and now. It is comfortable. It requires very little attention or effort. And this world rewards the goat. We’re all, from our earliest days, trained by popular culture to laud and strive to become the strongest goat.
But the way of the goat, in the end, leads us away from God, and into darkness.
But, what of the way of the sheep? It can seem overwhelming when we start thinking of the immense need surrounding us in this world ruled by goats.
When I think of feeding the hungry, satisfying the thirsty, welcoming the stranger, clothing the poor and comforting the sick and imprisoned, I think of titans of Christian charity like St. (Mother) Teresa of Calcutta. I think of Christians bringing the witness of Christ’s love to migrant camps on both sides of the Mexican border. I think of Franciscan friars serving scared children — Christian and Muslim alike — in war-torn Syria. I think of Christians arrested for carrying water to those dying of thirst in the desert. I think of my wife Tammy’s grandfather, Jake, who spent decades visiting prisoners in jail. I think of the great throng of priests, deacons, pastors, monks, nuns and lay people who have died serving those suffering this world’s worst diseases.
And, when I think about them, if my thinking isn’t aligned properly, I can feel inadequate. Insignificant. A failure.
But, Christ doesn’t call us to serve all sheep, in all places, in all ways. Christ calls us to serve the sheep he puts in our path, one at a time.
And, as Mother Teresa said, “If you can’t feed a hundred people, then feed just one.”
We don’t have to go to Calcutta, or the desert, or Syria to find God’s children in need of love. God will put them directly, smack in the middle of our path. The question we must face, daily, is: Will we allow comfort and fear — the way of the goat — to drag us off this path, and away from those we’re meant to serve?
Again, drawing from Mother Teresa: “Stay where you are. Find your own Calcutta. Find the sick, the suffering, and the lonely, right where you are — in your own homes and in your own families, in homes and in your workplaces and in your schools. You can find Calcutta all over the world, if you have eyes to see.”
If we have eyes to see.
The goat sees only what pleases and scares the goat. It flees from the latter to chase the former.
But, as sheep, we’re called to see Christ in every child of God that crosses our path. In the homeless mother. In the addict. The prisoner. The hungry child. In the wealthy and well-fed, imprisoned within the spiritual dungeon of their own comforts. In those who hate us, revile and mock us. Christ is in each of them.
In order to overcome our goat-like ways of the world, then, we must train ourselves to see Christ in all we meet. We must see Christ in them, and then serve and love them as if we were falling at the feet of our Lord. Because we are.
Ultimately, if we are to see Christ in all we meet, this must begin with seeing Christ within ourselves. Lent calls us to go within ourselves, to seek out Christ there, and then clear away any obstacles we’ve built — obstacles that stand in the way of Christ welling up from within us to shine forth into the world.
We must see Christ within ourselves. And then, let Christ within us guide our hands, our feet and words. When we do this, we will see the narrow path broaden, and the real work begin of building up the Kingdom of God.
Lord Christ, help us to search you out within ourselves. Give us the strength, courage and clarity of vision to break down any internal barriers between our true nature in you and the world in need of you. Give us eyes to see you within ourselves first, then within every one of your children you place within our path. Lord, let us then act according to your will, in selfless, unbounded love. Amen.