Monday, February 23, 2015

Sheep, Goats and Shepherd: Monday of the First Week of Lent

Today's Gospel is a familiar but scary story from Matthew 25.  The scene is set for the Last Judgment.  A throne is set center stage.   To a fanfare of trumpets (Matthew forgets to mention that), the Son of Man arrives bathed in the living fire the bible calls "glory."  Angels accompany him, all looking stern for the occasion.  The nations are all gathered before the throne for judgment.  You know this isn't going to be fun.  Roll is called.  The final sorting begins.  With no explanations, the Judge divides the vast flock into sheep and goats, like a Shepherd.  The mention of a Shepherd gives us hope--the Shepherd is a good guy in Psalm 23 and in John's Gospel.  We calm down a little.  The sheep are gathered over on the right, and the goats are sent to the left.  The sheep are given a push toward the gate over which the sign says, "Blessed."  The goats begin to get excited.  "Wonder what our gate will say?  "Rewarded?"  "Best?"  After all, goats are very useful creatures. 

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

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Thursday after Ash Wednesday (Short Reflection)

 During Lent, watch the blog for occasional short reflections.  The easiest way to do that is to sign up for email notification of changes to the blog (see side panel).  These are fairly spontaneous, so be kind to mistakes!

The first reading for Mass in the Roman Catholic Lectionary for today is from the Book of Deuteronomy 30:15-20  Here, Moses sets before us the essential choice we are asked to make for Lent:

  See, I have today set before you life and good, death and evil.   If you obey the commandments of the LORD, your God, which I am giving you today, loving the LORD, your God, and walking in his ways, and keeping his commandments, statutes and ordinances, you will live and grow numerous, and the LORD, your God, will bless you in the land you are entering to possess.   If, however, your heart turns away and you do not obey, but are led astray and bow down to other gods and serve them,   I tell you today that you will certainly perish; you will not have a long life on the land which you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess.   I call heaven and earth today to witness against you: I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. Choose life, then, that you and your descendants may live,   by loving the LORD, your God, obeying his voice, and holding fast to him. For that will mean life for you, a long life for you to live on the land which the LORD swore to your ancestors, to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to give to them.

Lent is the road we walk in Christ's footsteps through all the small deaths required to shed the less-than-useful habits we've acquired into at least a foretaste of the abundant life to come (cf. John 10:10).  Here, at the beginning of this season, we stand at a crossroads: the narrow road that leads to life or that nice, flat, wide, smooth road that has a different destination (Matthew 7:13-14).  Moses has pounded a signpost in front of us with two arrows: "This way life!" and "This way death!"  Pretty definite.

The road to life is laid out according to God's commandments, those itchy words of love that so easily chafe us when we would rather be doing one of the "thou shalt not's"--and how inviting they sometimes look!  But Moses begins with the First Commandment, which is not one of the ten carved on the stone tablets on Mount Sinai.  It is one of the most frequent commandments God gives in Scripture.  Benedictines recognize it immediately.  It is "Listen!"

Before we make all those choices Benedict lays out in Chapter 49 of the Rule about "devoting ourselves to prayer with tears, to reading, to compunction of heart and self-denial" and "we will add to the usual measure of our service something by way of private prayer and abstinence from food or drink.... let each one deny himself some food, drink, sleep, needless talking and idle jesting," let's spend time sitting down and listening.  

Listen to what experience has taught you since last Easter about which choices further the trip along the road to life and which ones don't.  Listen to your mistakes.  Listen to your good decisions.  Listen to what others have said to you when they didn't intend to be giving you directions.  Listen above all to the Voice of God threaded through all those experiences, helping you to sort them out.  You'll be much better able to decide then what to emphasize during Lent, what to drop from your life, what to throttle back and where to go full speed ahead, what baggage you can leave behind at the crossroad.

We often speak of Lent as a journey.  Benedict offers us some ideas about where we are headed, as Moses does.  

Blessed traveling!