The Sheep and the Goats This Sunday’s gospel reading, from Matthew 25, used to really worry me. If it was all about the final judgement, then it seemed to say that everything was black and white, and that you were either a sheep or a goat, either all good or all bad. I’ve always reckoned that I’m a bit sheep and a bit goat – there have been plenty of times when I’ve fed the hungry, visited prisoners and the rest, and plenty of times when I could have done, and didn’t. Where does that leave me? And how would any of us know whether we’d done enough of the good stuff to be called a sheep rather than a goat at the last judgement? In fact, since Jesus is elsewhere pretty clear that the judging isn’t up to us, it would be odd if he’s provided us here with a formula that we could apply ourselves.
That’s just one of the things that makes me think that perhaps this parable isn’t fundamentally about the last judgement at all, but is about something else. It’s about several other things, in fact, but two of them are particularly intriguing: It seems pretty clear that it’s generosity, kindness and self-giving that are the characteristics the king wants to commend. Faith without works is nowhere in the picture. Is there hope here for those who lived lives of kindness, but who never expressed an overt faith in Christ? ‘When did we ever feed you or clothe you, or visit you?’ they might say, and yet still find that Christ recognises their service to their fellow human beings as being service to him.
That’s how we get to the climax of each part of the story: ‘whenever you did (or didn’t) do this for the least of my children you did (or didn’t) do it for me’. To serve one another is indeed to serve God, because each of us is made in God’s image. For me, this is the parable that best unpacks the two great commandments: love God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength, and love your neighbour as you love yourself. Because these two commandments are not two, but one. To love God is to love what God has made; to love one another is to love the one in whose image we are made. And to love our neighbour as ourselves is to recognise the divine image in others and in ourselves.
There is, in essence, only one great commandment, the commandment of love, and real love is always manifested in action. And, when it comes down to it, it’s living lives of love that will build the kingdom of God here on earth. The more we have, by God’s grace, built a little bit of heaven on earth, the less we have to fear any kind of final judgement.