Christ the King/Reign of Christ A
November 20, 2011
Ezekiel 34: 11-24
Matthew 25: 31-46
Goats were not regarded fondly in either the Hebrew Bible or the New Testament. While they were not banned under Mosaic law, they were not exactly a welcome presence either. According to Nogah Hareuveni, goats were regarded as “armed robbers who would jump over people’s fences and destroy their plants” (http://www.jhom.com/topics/thieves/goat.htm#2). While sheep graze at a nice, even height, leaving several inches of grass intact, the goat “not only crops much closer to the ground, but also tears leaves, buds and fruit off trees” (ibid.) Friends of mine who have owned goats say that they’re wonderful for taming overgrown lots, but there’s heck to pay if they get loose in your neighbor’s yard, since they are basically hoofed eating machines.
Goats figure prominently in both the Torah portion and the Gospel reading for this week – and they do not receive very good press in either account. In the reading from the prophet Ezekiel, most likely written during the exile of the Jews in Babylon, the author states that YHWH will hold the people accountable for their behavior – particularly when they are behaving like goats: “As for you, my flock, thus says the Lord God: I shall judge between sheep and sheep, between rams and goats: Is it not enough for you to feed on the good pasture, but you must tread down with your feet the rest of your pasture? When you drink of clear water, must you foul the rest with your feet? And must my sheep eat what you have trodden with your feet, and drink what you have fouled with your feet?” (Ezek 34: 17-19). The message here is fairly clear: Do not make a mess of YHWH’s good Creation. Do not be so overzealous in your consumption that you stink up the pasture for everyone else.
That mandate would seem fairly simple, but judging by the state of the global environment, goats are on the loose and wreaking havoc on YHWH’s good Creation. In 2007, National Geographic magazine named the top ten most polluted places on earth. In nine out of the ten sites, the main polluters were either privately-owned
corporations or (in the case of former Soviet republics) formerly government-owned industries. In the Russian town of Dzerzhinsk, a hub of chemical manufacturing since the Cold War era, the environment is so tainted with toxic chemicals that the average male life expectancy is 42 years, and babies born there have birth defects at three times the national rate (Dzerzhinsk article). In the town of Sukinda, in the Orissa state of India, 12 chromium mines generate over 30 million tons of contaminated waste rock per year, and over 60% of
the water resources are contaminated with hexavalent chromium. A state government study indicated that 85% of the deaths in the area were due to chromium-related illnesses (Sukinda article). While these may seem to be extreme examples, many studies indicate that our climate and our oceans are at the tipping point in terms of extreme weather, pollution and species loss. Just last week, in fact, the Western Black Rhino was declared extinct, and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature states that 25% of all mammal species are now close to extinction (IUCF Red List).
This is not to say that all corporations or industries are inherently evil. The ancient Hebrews did not regard goats as evil – they simply recognized that they needed to be carefully regulated and not allowed to take over the environment. But when our own courts have granted corporations the same rights as individuals … well, that’s when we know that we are on our way to the Reign of the Goats (see Bailout Nation for evidence that the Reign of the Goats is already here).
This week’s Gospel passage also indicates that goats will be unfavorably compared with sheep during the parousia, or the coming of the Reign of Christ. In the passage, Jesus portrays the Son of
Man in the parousia as a judge: “All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left” (Matthew 25:33-34). To the “goats” on the left, the Son of Man will say “‘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” (vv. 41-43). Here we see the “passive-aggressive” side of goat-behavior. Not only do the goats foul the pasture, but then they neglect those that are left destitute and hungry as a result. The message, again, is clear: We are responsible for the outcomes of our collective actions. We cannot sit idly by while people are starving or homeless. While our culture and media tells us it is the fault of the poor that they are poor, the Torah and the Gospel tell us otherwise. On her installation as Washington’s first woman Episcopal Bishop, Rev. Dr. Mariann Budde said in her sermon, “It’s always easier to complain than it is to offer help. It’s always easier to be negative and cynical, which takes no energy whatsoever, than it is to be hopeful in the face of hard times” (Full Sermon).
For those who would think that this is “politicizing” the Gospel, I would point out that the Gospel portion above begins with “All the nations”. Sheep and goats are herd animals. We are talking about the behavior of the herd – the collective. The only way to reform collective behavior is through collective action, and “All the nations” do that by governing (either well or poorly).