Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St Dominic Church, NOLA
To the sheep on his right our Lord will say on the Last Day, “Come, you who are blessed of by my Father. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you…” To the goats on his left our Lord will say on the Last Day, “Depart from me, you accursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the Devil and his angels.” As we might expect, the accursed goats object to this judgment and Jesus lays out the reasons for his judgment against them. What’s interesting (and unexpected) is that the blessed sheep are surprised by their judgment. After welcoming the sheep into the kingdom, our Lord explains his judgment saying, “…I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink…” When the goats object to their sentence our Lord justifies his judgment by pointing out the chief failures of the goats, “…I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink…” What these two groups have in common is their surprise at having served or not served the Lord unawares. Both groups ask, “Lord, when did we see you a stranger and welcome you (or, not welcome you), or naked or thirsty and give you drink (or, not give you drink)?” Jesus’ resounding answer is almost harsh in its clarity: “Amen, I say to you, whatever you did (or did not do) for one of these least brothers of mine, you did (or did not do) for me.” Always the good Jew, Jesus is showing his disciples how the Law is worked out with the Messiah in their midst.
Not a few Christians dislike this part of Matthew. I’ve found it to be a particularly sore subject for more tradition-minded Catholics who see the emphasis on “social justice/good works” as a possible danger to sound doctrine and proper devotion. They are not wrong to worry about this. I’ve heard many an eager Catholic say, “Oh, all we need to do is feed the hungry and clothe the naked. Leave all that rigid dogma stuff and sentimental devotional nonsense alone. Just help the poor!” Unfortunately, both groups miss the point entirely. This apocalyptic scene of sheep blessing and goat roasting from Matthew is most certainly about the Last Judgment and what counts as a ticket to blessing or roasting. However, this scene is also—and I would bet mostly about—Jesus being a good Jewish teacher and showing his disciples what it means to not only follow the letter of the Law of the Decalogue but to fulfill its spirit for Christ’s sake. For—Christ’s—sake. That phrase is the difference that makes the difference btw an eternal life of bliss or an eternal life of blisters.
Remember now, both the sheep and the goats wonder when they have served (or failed to serve) the Lord. The Lord’s answer is beautiful in its simplicity: when you serve them (or fail to) you serve me (or fail to). When we serve the hungry, the foreigner, the thirsty, when we serve them and not our secular social justice agenda and not our corporal works of mercy devotionals and not our applications for college or med school and not our guilty consciences and not our community service hours for confirmation—when we serve them as brothers and sisters, we serve Christ. This follows the letter of the Law from Leviticus—“Be holy, for I, the Lord, your God, am holy…[therefore] you shall love your neighbor as yourself”—AND it fulfills the Law in our Messianic age—“…whatever you did for the least of mine, you did for me.” Our psalm this evening says it perfectly, “The precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart. The command of the Lord is clear, enlightening the eye.”
When faced, at last, with our Lord on his judgment seat attended, let him see your joyful heart, your enlightened eyes. . .and your callused hands and sore back, your body bent from doing NOT the just thing or the pious thing, but all the merciful things that make us just and pious sheep.______________
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