31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit upon his glorious throne,32 and all the nations will be assembled before him. And he will separate them one from another, as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.33He will place the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.34Then the king will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.35 For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me,36naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.’37Then the righteous will answer him and say, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink?38When did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you?39When did we see you ill or in prison, and visit you?’40 And the king will say to them in reply, ‘Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.’41 Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you accursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.42 For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink,43a stranger and you gave me no welcome, naked and you gave me no clothing, ill and in prison, and you did not care for me.’44 Then they will answer and say, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or ill or in prison, and not minister to your needs?’45He will answer them, ‘Amen, I say to you, what you did not do for one of these least ones, you did not do for me.’46 And these will go off to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”
Ezekiel 34:11-12, 15-17, 1 Corinthians 15:20-26, 28
This week we celebrate the Feast of Christ the Eternal King, and our readings will focus on the final judgment at the end of time, including the parable of the sheep and goats. Each parable of Jesus is a unique creation of our Lord. The normal way of telling a story is challenged by a shocking element that the audience never sees coming. The parables are also open-ended, leaving the reader in some doubt as to their precise meaning. Jesus uses parables to get the attention of his ever-growing audiences and demands from them additional theological consideration after the parable ends. Those who heard the parable in person—and we who read it today—are challenged to draw our own application from the story, and the parable of the final judgment is Jesus at his challenging best.
The scene opens with the appearance of the “Son of Man” who comes in glory with his angels and then sits on a throne from which he will judge all the nations. The title refers to the divine figure who rides the clouds into the throne room of God and then receives an eternal blessing in Daniel 7:13-14. Since the time of the prophet Daniel, “Son of Man” had become synonymous with “Messiah.”
The nations that assemble before the Son of Man suggest an appearance of all those alive at the time of the final judgment. This group may or may not include the Jews, but most certainly includes all the Gentiles, who are routinely called those who are of “the nations” in the Old Testament. These assembled peoples will be separated like a shepherd separates sheep from goats. The separation of animals in a shepherd’s flock is a common scene that everyone in the time of Jesus can relate to. Every day just before sunset the white sheep are gathered and penned in for the night while the black goats are sent away to fend for themselves. It is an evocative image.
In the parable a final judgment scene follows. The sheep are summoned to the right side of the throne—the side of favor—and the goats are summoned to the left. Those on the left will face a severe judgment. The use of the images of sheep and goats is expected during the time of Jesus. Sheep were the preferred animal of sacrifice. They were considered honorable animals because they did not bleat or cry out during the sacrificial process and the rams would protect the ewes in the herd. Only the lead ram would have access to the females; all other males would be kept at bay. Goats, on the other hand, were (and are) loud and destructive. The males did not protect their females and allowed any other male goat access. The Greeks and Romans understood. Their gods associated with excess and revelry were imaged as goats (Pan, Bacchus) and the great gods of the pantheon as rams (Zeus, Apollo).
The shocking aspect of the parable is the criteria for judgment. No one sees this coming. Deeds are going to trump creeds as those judged as righteous will discover themselves on the right side of the King because they acted mercifully toward the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the sick, and visited people in prison. The rejected ones will be judged for their failures on the same criteria. All those judged will be surprised. “When did we see you …?” will be the question both groups ask the Son of Man. All had the same opportunity to help others but some acted and others did not. The determining factor for each group will be how they treated “the least of these brothers of mine.”
In the end, at the final judgment some will go away to eternal punishment but the righteous, those who acted on behalf of others they found in need, will be welcomed into eternal life. The good news is that the ratio of sheep to goats in an average flock in the time of Jesus was ten to one—ten sheep to one goat. The odds are stacked in our favor if we are willing to serve others with acts of kindness and gestures of compassion.
A great deal of ink has been spilled trying to discover what Jesus means by term “the least of these brothers of mine.” Is Jesus talking about the Jews? Is he referencing all people who are or will be in need? Or is he referring to his own disciples, eventually called Christians, who will find themselves in situations of need and even captivity before the end of the age? I lean toward the last option, the opinion that Jesus expects his followers to be persecuted and hounded right up to the end of time. Men and women of good will and kindness will be rewarded for taking care of the basic needs of the brothers (and sisters) of Jesus.
But really, isn’t the “who” question a moot point in the end? We don’t really need to know “who” as much as we need to know “what” in regards to the acts of service that the Son of Man will honor at the final judgment. It is not so much about who serves the needs of the less fortunate as it is about what those who do serve will do for those they find in need. Jesus said that the poor will always be with us and that we can give to them whenever we can (Mark 14:7). God expects his followers to be willing to give alms and bless the less fortunate at every turn. We have a duty to serve, and God provides people around us to give us opportunities to fulfill that command. As it turns out, what we do for those in need is the very thing this scene of the final judgment will be based upon. What will you and I do to serve those in need?
A prayer to the Holy Spirit would be appropriate this week because we will need help in discerning how to serve those in need. This prayer allows us to ask the Holy Spirit to guide us to those most in need of God’s mercy so that we can display in loving acts of charity.
“Come Holy Spirit and fill the hearts of your faithful and enkindle in us the fire of your love. Send forth your Spirit and we will be created, and you will renew the face of the earth. O, God, who by the light of the Holy Spirit, did instruct the hearts of the faithful, grant that by the same Holy Spirit we may be truly wise and ever enjoy your consolations.”
And now it is time to act. It’s time to live our faith in the world. The commended activities of the righteous in this passage have been renamed the Corporal Works of Mercy. They correspond to the actions we do, in the name of Jesus, to bless others in the world. The Corporal Works of Mercy include feeding the hungry, giving water to the thirsty, clothing the naked, sheltering the homeless, and visiting the sick and those in prison. It is not our place to judge anyone “worthy” of these gestures of mercy.
In the parable not even the righteous knew that what they did for those “least of these brothers of mine” was going to be recognized and honored by the Son of Man as having been done to him. The wicked had the same opportunities to serve but failed to give even a cup of water to someone in need. We don’t want to be on that side of the ledger. The good news is that those in need of mercy and displays of loving kindness are all around us. God puts “the least of these brothers of mine” into our lives so we can serve them with our time, our treasure, and our talents. Find a way to give to those in need and do it in the name of the Lord. An extra check to a favorite charity or a donation to a homeless shelter in your city would be a great way to get started. That is how a good habit starts—one action at a time.