But the sheep hold up the process. They're confused. "Why 'Blessed'," they ask. They don't remember ever doing anything particularly great. The answer surprises them. Apparently as human beings they fed the Judge when he was hungry, gave him a drink when they found him thirsty, clothed him when they saw him naked, visited him when he was sick or in prisone, and generally treated him kindness and generosity in his times of need. They're a little confused. They're murmuring behind their hands, "But I never saw this guy before in my life!" And he explains that whatever they did for human beings in need, even street people and addicts and irritating neighbors and anyone else who seemed unimportant in life, they did for him.
At this point, the goats start to get a little nervous. They've never seen the Judge before either, but they can't remember ever doing all those good works for which he praised the sheep. Maybe they did something else just as good? They certainly didn't treat anyone badly! But sure enough, they get sent off into the neighborhood where the devil and his angels are already toasting in the fire. Why? Precisely because they didn't do the good works attributed to the sheep. And the one they didn't do them for turns out to be the Judge.
That's the parable's double punchline: whatever we did or didn't do for "the least," we did or didn't do for Christ, and our deeds and neglects are what determine our future, not all the pious stuff we thought really counted. The story is meant to scare us out of our complacency into paying attention what we have done for others and what we have neglected to do, especially to those we maybe thought didn't count for much.
But I can't help stopping to think about the Shepherd, the one left sitting on the throne when the flock is gone. Surely the Shepherd cared about all those sheep and goats, tried to find them and rescue them when they were lost, hooked them back from cliff edges they wandered too close to, got them into green pastures beside fresh waters whenever he could, accompanied them safely through the valley of the shadow of death, protected them from wolves and lions. He speaks to the goats sternly during the judgement scene, but when they're gone to their fate and he's left behind, does he sit on that throne grieving the ones he has lost?
That thought puts me in mind of St. Benedict. In the Rule, he admonishes us pretty sternly at times about good behavior according to the gospel. In the Prologue, he threatens us with a dark future if we don't get busy with the works of obedience: "In his goodness, he has already counted us as his sons, and therefore we should never grieve him by our evil actions. With his good gifts which are in us, we must obey him at all times that he may never become the angry father who disinherits his sons, nor the dread lord, enraged by our sins, who punishes us forever as worthless servants for refusing to follow him to glory" (Prologue 5-7). Throughout the Rule, he alternates between encouragement and dire warnings, with an obvious sense of urgency that surely reflects the great Shepherd.
I don't like the grim bits. I don't like being scared with the threat of a stern Judge--I'm pretty good at imagining that for myself. I like the encouraging words, the images of hope, the pushes and tugs with which Christ's love moves me somehow toward what St. Benedict calls the tent of his kingdom, at the top of that mountain that the Book of Revelation makes look so inviting. But sometimes, from stories like this one about the sheep and the goats, I get a glimpse of how much love it takes for the Shepherd, whether Benedict or Christ himself, to try to shake me out of my invariable tendency to choose that broad straight flat road that does NOT lead to the mountaintop, even if his urgency makes him sound harsh. In the Shepherd's book, harshness now isn't attractive even to him, but it sure beats the grief that awaits him if even one goat has to walk off through that second gate, tail down, feet dragging, misery engulfing every fiber of his being. After all, the Cross was a pretty harsh measure, especially for him. But that didn't stop him.
Copyright 2015, Abbey of St. Walburga