Sheep and Goats

Feast of Christ the King (A) – Matthew 25:31-46

The Last Judgment. The separation of sheep and goats. “Whatever you did for one of the least brothers (or sisters) of mine, you did for me”.

Most of us are quite familiar with this teaching of Jesus. It has inspired many saints – known and unknown – throughout the centuries. Works of art and hymns, as well as many of our social justice teachings, have been based on it. This scene has become integrated into the very fiber of our being as Catholic Christians. 

However, knowing a story that well may keep us from noticing aspects of it that don’t fit in neatly with our usual ways of understanding it. These aspects can open our minds and hearts to a richer and fuller appreciation of these words of Jesus. In this post, I’ll focus on one aspect of this passage that points to shades of meaning that are in harmony with our usual understanding of it, while also bringing in dimensions that we may not notice.

Let’s begin with our usual understanding of this passage. It is normally interpreted as a teaching on how the Lord will judge all believers at the end of time. The sheep are those who have proved faithful to Jesus; the goats, those who have not. The standard of the Lord’s judgment: how we have treated the “least of my brothers and sisters”.

This interpretation is certainly true, in that it agrees with other passages throughout the Old and New Testaments: from the constant refrain in the Law of Moses to be especially compassionate to the most vulnerable people of that time (the orphan, the widow, and the foreigner) to how Jesus countered his disciples’ debate on which of them was the greatest by bringing a child among them and telling them that whoever receives one such child, receives Jesus himself. Many Scripture passages declare that we will be judged based on how we have been merciful (or not) to those who are most in need of mercy – because we ourselves have received overwhelming mercy as an unmerited gift. This gift cannot be truly accepted without it being shared in the same spirit of utter generosity.  This generosity is especially evident when given to those who cannot repay us in the usual worldly ways.

The Lord, however, has inserted something unexpected into the story; something that doesn’t fit in neatly with this interpretation. Notice that neither the sheep nor the goats – neither the just nor the unjust – know that the Lord is found in the least of his brothers and sisters. Think about that for a moment. Even the just do not know that, in serving the least, they serve the Lord.

How can they not know that? Given the definition of the Church as the Body of Christ; given so many other passages of Scripture that make similar points; how can good Catholics or other Christians possibly be unaware that they are serving Christ by serving the least of his sisters and brothers? That belief is so basic to our understanding of who we are and who Christ is.

What are we saying, then? Does the Bible have inconsistencies and contradictions? If so, does that mean that we can dismiss these words as illogical? By no means. Remember, we do not judge the Word of God; ultimately, the Word of God judges us. If we spot something that appears to be inconsistent, then perhaps our own understanding of it is incomplete, inadequate. It may be an invitation to enlarge our point of view so that we can take in more of what the Lord wishes to teach us. The Lord often throws in such difficult or seemingly contradictory lines precisely to force us to stop, think, pray, and learn more from him.

So, what can we say to this? How can we understand that seeming contradiction?

There are (at least) two interpretations of this which would make perfect sense, in that they would be in harmony with everything else that the Lord has revealed to us.

How can the just and the unjust not know that the standard for serving Christ is how they serve the least of their sisters and brothers? This may be a way for the Lord to say to us that the whole point of Christian service is that we are not in it for ourselves, or anything that we might get out of it from the world’s point of view. The just serve the least of the people because it is the right thing to do – not because of what’s in it for them. The unjust fail to serve the least precisely because they see nothing in it for them – from a worldly point of view. It’s as though the unjust were saying to the Lord, “Well, if we knew it was really YOU, and not those LOSERS, we would have been right there with you!”

Of course, the Lord does promise a true reward for those who believe in him and live his commandments. However, it is not like the rewards we normally give and receive in this life. We need to be cleansed of our tendency to self-centeredness (making everything about ME!!!) so that we can be prepared to receive the far greater gifts that the Lord wishes to give us. One of the signs that we are indeed on the right path is when we are able – at least some of the time – to do good to someone who has nothing to offer us (in a worldly sense) in return. No money, no status, no praise, no reciprocal gift. We do good because it is good, and for no other reason. It takes many years for most of us to arrive at this point with any consistency. When we are there, we can truly love the least of our brothers and sisters in the same way that the Lord does, as we have been changed by his Spirit and love with his love.

The second possible interpretation broadens our view a little more. Jesus tells us that “all the nations” will be gathered before him. What if he literally meant “all”? Including the non-believers? Including all those in history who lived and died without Christian faith through no fault of their own? Have you ever wondered what would happen to such people in the end?

Following this interpretation, Jesus is saying that he will save them as well, provided that they have responded to his grace (as they knew it) with all their hearts. The primary sign that they had said yes, even if they did not know the Lord as Christians do? Their ability to love the least ones in their midst, without thinking of what was in it for them. The primary sign that they had rejected the Lord’s grace? Their refusal to love the least ones – because there was nothing in it for them.

Notice the consistent thread in all I have been saying: Jesus’ “punch line” in our passage connects everything: “Whatever you did (or failed to do) for the least of my brothers and sisters, you did (or failed to do) for me”. This may be, at the same time, one of the best-known and least-observed of all Jesus’ teachings! As the Catholic apologist G.K. Chesterton once said, “It’s not that Christianity has been tried and failed; it’s that Christianity has not yet been tried!” Throughout history, our tendency has been to find some loophole or other in this teaching. We have wanted to find some reason to say that this person or that group of people doesn’t really qualify as “the least of my brothers and sisters”. But the Lord does not give us any escape hatch. He offers no loophole. In his parables and deeds, he went out of his way to include the most overlooked and despised of his day – even pointing to some of them as examples of people who really “got” it – even as he showed that all the self-appointed experts in God’s law did not “get” it. Indeed, the Lord called people who, in their day, were among the overlooked and despised, to become means of grace and blessing for many. St. Francis of Assisi, in choosing to be seen as one of the least, is merely one example.

So, then. Who are truly the “least” in our day? We must be cautious in replying to this question. I say this because each section of our political spectrum comes with a list of those who are the approved ‘least’ and those who can still be discriminated against without any qualms of conscience. Our secular culture still retains many aspects of Christian faith, but these aspects have been altered to fit one’s political point of view. Therefore, it may not be easy to discern who is truly ‘least’. From the point of view of our faith, of course, we do not love only the ‘least’. We love everyone with the love of Christ. Our ability to love those who are truly ‘least’ is ultimately the greatest proof that our love is genuinely Christlike and not primarily self-serving.  That is why it is the standard on which the Lord himself bases his judgment.

The Lord gives us, as always, much food for reflection and self-examination. May each of us be open to the Lord’s presence at work, even now, in our hearts.