One of the saddest passages I’ve ever seen is today’s Gospel. Many look at it as part of the apocalyptic literature, telling of an end-time judgment, but it’s put here in Matthew’s Gospel among other parables about judgment for a reason. It’s certainly a parable, by dictionary definition, for it is a short allegorical story designed to illustrate or teach some truth, religious principle, or moral lesson, and it’s a statement or comment that conveys a meaning indirectly by the use of comparison or analogy.
But what makes it sad is Christ’s description to both the sheep and the goats. Looking at what He said to the sheep: “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.”
On the one hand, the blessed, the sheep, asked “when” they had done all these things – and yet, they didn’t recognize God within the people they helped. They helped because they were good people, and like the Samaritan, recognized their neighbor. They were judged worthy, to take their inheritance, the kingdom prepared for them since the creation of the world.
On the other hand, the cursed, the goats, asked “when”. They had done none of these things, because they didn’t recognize God within the people they passed by. They were the Pharisee, claiming goodness, but their actions did not match their words. They were cursed into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.
Neither group recognized God within the hearts of those in need, but one group followed the greatest commandment as instructed by Christ, and one group didn’t try to find their neighbor.
There’s a story told of a young monk asking an older monk, “Father, if God is infinitely merciful, how can he deprive anyone of his heavenly kingdom?” The older monk answered, “Why do you keep turning your head from side to side?” The younger monk replied, “Because the sun keeps hitting me right in the eye and just won’t leave me in peace.” “Then you’ve answered your own question,” the older monk laughed. “God doesn’t deprive anyone of his heavenly kingdom. Some simply cannot bear the light, any more than you can bear the light of the sun.”
So let’s see if we can find our sunglasses, and look at this passage in another way. We know from the last few weeks of these judgment parables, that everyone is waiting for Christ’s return. With this parable, we know that Christ will return as King to sit in judgment upon those who have been waiting. Let’s examine our two groups again – the blessed and the cursed. Based on the criteria Christ sets out in this parable, the judgment is based upon how we have treated the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, and the prisoner while waiting. In this parable the community’s time of waiting is changed from a useless passage of time to a redefinition of community in the care of the neighbor, and from worry about the “when” of the coming of the Son of Man to the realization that the “when” has already taken place in the face of the needy.
And here is the answer to whether we are ready when the bridegroom comes, when the master returns. Christ has made us aware of the least of us among society. He described the values and practices of those who participate in the Kingdom of Heaven in the Beatitudes. He tells us:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
And Christ has told us what to do. Not only has he given us the Great Commandment, he gave us this parable, which clearly describes the “least of these”, not once, not twice, but four times within the same parable! And still, we have difficulty in walking our Christian talk.
A little girl once asked, “If God is inside of me and is so big, why doesn’t he break through?” Why doesn’t the grace and love of God break through in the way we speak, in how we act, in the many times we come in contact with others. God has chosen to work in and through us who are called to be a part of the Body of Christ. But he gave us free will as well. We can choose to let God act through us, to be His hands, His voice, to treat the least of our society as we would treat Christ.
The phrase “the least, the lost, and the last” has often been used in sermons that talk about those we should be taking care of. That’s a pretty amorphous description though. So, if we want to be like the sheep, care for those Christ has told us to care for, for as He said, as we have done to the least of these, so have we done to Him – where will we find the least?
And with that one question, we have made ourselves goats. We are looking for Christ, in order to treat Him well. We’re not looking to fulfill the Commandment, but rather trying to find the “when” did we see Him and not care for Him.
So is the answer that we try to see God in every person we meet? Do we try to be a good neighbor? Or do we, like the little girl suggests, let God break through and act through us? Do we recognize the Kingdom of Heaven here on earth, right now?
The sheep would seem to have little interest in relationships dictated by the terms of “social justice” or “evangelism,” which so often turn people into objects and abstractions. The relationships the sheep pursue, in contrast, locate them right in the middle of the least ones themselves, where the King Himself is. For these, the Son of Man is not still coming. He is already here.
And when Christ the King comes to sit in judgment, will you be among the sheep, or among the goats?