Sheep and goats: beyond the parable

The first goat I ever met as an individual, got to know as a person, as it were, lived in an urban back garden in Oxford, England. He did not, however, necessarily stay there. One evening, doing the dishes after a housewarming dinner at my boyfriend’s new digs, I looked up and out of the kitchen window to see a salt-and-pepper goat idly snacking on the laundry hanging from the clothes line. “Gareth,” I called through to the living room. “There’s a goat in your garden.”
The goat had a collar (and a name, which i’ve forgotten), so we put a string on it and took it through the house to the front, intending to go door to door until we found its home. As it happened, we didn’t have far to go. We knocked at the next door neighbour. “Is this your goat?” we asked. It was. After that, it was an ordinary occurrence to find the goat in Gareth’s garden, eating laundry, and we would just heave it back over the fence. There was a brown goat lived there, too, but it didn’t come over as often, which was a good thing, because it was grumpy and had a tendency to bite.
I’ve never met an individual sheep in the same way, even though, growing up in Wales, there were sheep around practically every corner, except in the centre of town and on the trains. But the sheep hang around in flocks, for the most part, and huddle together going “baa” if you try to go and introduce yourself to them.
Science says that sheep know one another as individuals; a sheep given a test to remember the door behind which a treat is hidden finds the correct answer by recognizing the face of the individual sheep associated with the snack.
Sheep know one another as persons, but to the casual observer, their strength is in their communal nature and flock mentality.
Which plays really will into the parable of the sheep and the goats.
Goats are no respecters of property, boundaries, or rules of civil engagement. They bite, they eat the clothes of others, they run away from home without leaving a note, they kick, and they do so despite repeated entreaties not to. They simply do not care about anyone but themselves.
Sheep, on the other hand, are all about encircling the lambs, protecting the weak and vulnerable. They recognize one another’s faces, and they expect good from one another. They belong closely to one another. They love one another in a deeply woolly way.
Goats are cute and appealing, in a rakish, roguish way; and sheep are good. For spontaneity, perhaps, goats have the advantage, but a sheep is more reliable.
All are God’s creatures, and all beloved. But for fellow feeling and community, the sheep are the ones to follow. They are much more likely safely to enter the fold than to jump the fence into outer darkness.

About Rosalind C Hughes

Rosalind C Hughes is a priest and author living near the shores of Lake Erie. After growing up in England and Wales, and living briefly in Singapore, she is now settled in Ohio. She serves an Episcopal church just outside Cleveland. Rosalind is the author of A Family Like Mine: Biblical Stories of Love, Loss, and Longing , and Whom Shall I Fear? Urgent Questions for Christians in an Age of Violence, both from Upper Room Books. She loves the lake, misses the ocean, and is finally coming to terms with snow.
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