Shepherds and Sheep

Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M., Administrator

The imagery evoked by shepherds, sheep and goats is frequently used throughout the Scriptures and points to the importance of King David as one of the central figures of Israel's history. None of the subsequent kings of Israel came to the throne after tending his father's flocks, yet it became the predominant image for leadership in the Scriptures. Ezekiel's condemnation of the leaders of Israel is juxtaposed with his image of God as a true and righteous shepherd who takes the job of tending the flock seriously in all of its aspects: pasturing, seeking, binding up, and healing.

Matthew builds upon this image by likening the second coming to the shepherd's responsibility of separating the sheep from the goats. The separation of sheep from goats is really a rather benign image since the shepherd separated them for their own good. Sheep, because of their thick fleece, were able to withstand the cold night air; whereas goats were unable to do so. The shepherd was responsible for providing the goats of the flock with a warm place to spend the night. However, the Gospel strikes an air of punishment by identifying the righteous and the unrighteous as sheep and goats.

Goats have always been symbols of less than perfect behavior. The less noble gods, such as Bacchus and Dionysius, were imaged with goat like features. Those whose brides had been guilty of adultery were often referred to as goats. Goats are known to be indiscriminate consumers. Place a flock of goats in a pasture and they will destroy it if left to their own devices.

The Gospel also speaks to the communal aspect of judgment. Matthew notes that it is the "nations" which are gathered before the Son of Man. Sheep and goats are not solitary figures; rather they appear in groups. This should not surprise us since the Middle Eastern person could not conceive of themselves as individuals. They saw themselves as members of a family, a clan, a tribe, a nation. Israelites spoke of themselves as "chosen people," not chosen persons.

The Scriptures for the day thus remind us not only of the shepherding nature of our King, but also of the fact that we are part of the group. As such we must remember that our responsibility for the needs of the "least" among us is a communal responsibility, one for which we are responsible not simply as individuals but as a society.

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