On this last Sunday of the liturgical year, the church uses kingship as a metaphor to celebrate Christ’s universal lordship - a more elegant way of saying god must be absolutely our number one, overarching, priority - with no equal on earth.
What can we know about that final moment of judgment before God? This parable of sheep and goats sheds some light. I would like to make three points.
First, Jesus tells us that our decisions in life do matter. We have responsibility, and this parable warns us to accept it. Some think that all people will be eternally reconciled with God, that God’s love will over-power any human resistance. Wishful thinking in the light of today’s Gospel!
If God’s love is non-coercive, and it is, then we cannot be sure that some will not resist that love after a lifetime of rejecting god’s offer of love.
The Scriptures teach that it is not God’s desire that anyone should perish. Today’s Gospel makes clear that our daily decisions have lasting consequences.
Experience has shown us that our decisions in this life both unite and separate us from each another. The sum total of our decisions effectively unites or separates us from God.
Second, God, not by us, sets the criterion for judgment. Jesus suggests that when the sun sets on human history, God will separate us on the basis of our hearts. He gave us two commandments. We did not hear that his judgment will be based on the ten commandments on which so many folks base their sacramental confessions, but on the extent to which we listen to Jesus’ articulation of the love of God / neighbor spelled-out in today’s Gospel.
He looks to both our decisions and the motivations for our decisions in our care for the least powerful in society with whom he identifies himself. Doing or failing to do for them is doing or failing to do for him. If we have been motivated by personal recognition, we heard in another place, “They have already received their reward.” The one required motive is love.
It is significant that both the sheep and the goats were surprised at the criterion for judgment. Whether the sheep fed and clothed the poor, or the goats ignored them, they acted or failed to act from their loving or unloving hearts. Jesus is advocating genuine selflessness here. The “goats” ignored the poor, the “sheep’ cared for the poor, not knowing that they would receive any reward for their service. It was that attitude of loving concern that god rewarded.
Third, Jesus, like those who preceded him, offers this parable to help prevent a sad judgment. We heard in the first reading from Ezekiel: “I myself will look after you and tend my sheep.” Our responsorial was a prayer praising the tenderness of the divine shepherd toward us. Examples abound.
Through Moses, God warned pharaoh of the coming plagues - trying to help pharaoh avoid those plagues. Through Jonah, god threatened judgment on the wicked city of Nineveh - as a last effort to help the city avoid destruction. Through Jesus’ teaching on sheep and goats he tries to help us comprehend the consequences of our heart’s attitude.
Today’s Gospel is as if God is offering us a copy of the final exam early. He does this because it is his will that we should be with him forever.
If God gives us even the example of Jesus to model the way, how can any of us refuse to listen?
We do like closure, don’t we? We have all left a movie or finished a book with a sense of frustration because it did not end adequately. Perhaps, it just stopped without really ending, or left some scenes hanging. Scripture agrees with our frustration. It tells us that as surely as god called human history into being, God will bring it to conclusion. Time ends at the feet of Christ the king of our hearts.