Sheep and Goats, Judgement and Ethics

Matthew 25. 31-end

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory…then he will sit on the throne of his glory….and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats…”  

            We are the 99% is the slogan to the disparate Occupy movements of recent months in North America, Europe, Australia, Asia, and the Middle East.  As slogans go, it testifies to the common human tendency to separate out the supposed good and bad guys: we are the 99% refers, with much justification, to the economic and political inequality between the majority of citizens and the super-rich.  Occupy protestors want judgement to be delivered on those who allegedly perpetuate such inequality.  Almost uniquely, the Occupy movement in London, camped outside St. Paul’s Cathedral, directly addressed how the Church might respond to the call for judgement on corporate greed and governments divorced from the common good.  What would Jesus do? asked one banner from the protestors.  Despite the rather mixed and lukewarm responses from the cathedral chapter and wider Church, the question remains a pressing one: how do Christians understand the link between judgement and ethics?
            Today’s Gospel gives us the beginnings of an answer.  It forms the end of Jesus’ discourse in Matthew about how to prepare for the fulfilment of God’s kingdom.  It gives us a sense of the link between judgement and ethics, as well as a note of warning.    Both the link and the warning might well inform how we respond to a movement like Occupy.
First, then, what is the link between judgement and ethics?  We have seen through the parables of previous weeks how Christian preparation for Christ’s Second Coming requires watchfulness, patience, and intentional activity, especially through acts of mercy and love, the badges of faith.  Now, this week, Matthew’s Gospel shifts the focus from our preparation to the judgement rendered by Christ, the King in glory at the end of the ages.  The judgement given is based upon how well the gathered people have acted: what we do, how we treat others, is of eternal importance and not just of present concern.  So far, so good, one might think.  The greed of bankers, investors, and big business certainly sits uneasily with this Gospel call to relief of the poor, and the Church should rightly recall ethics to prominence in economic and political discourse and activity.
Yet, before we simply and completely align ourselves with the 99%, we might first want to delve into the details of the Gospel and address a distinct problem.  Upon close reading, it remains contested exactly whom it is that Jesus judges in this Gospel.  We are no doubt familiar with the first possible meaning: the ‘nations’ refer to the whole of humanity, and the ‘least of these who are members of my family’ are the needy in general.  Judgement is rendered according to how well or badly people treat those in need.  There are reasons, however, to think that the judgement of the nations may well be more narrowly directed towards the Church rather than a general call to live well.   ‘The nations’ can translate as ‘the Gentiles’, while ‘the least of these’ could mean ‘followers of Christ’.  The kingly judgment, then, may well be directed towards non-Christians who mistreat Christian missionaries, identified with Christ himself since they are his messengers.  This second reading reminds us that the Gospel message remains fixed on the eternal judgement of Christ, on the need to proclaim Christ, over and above the passing problems of each age.  That is not to dismiss ethics, but it does stress the need to proclaim Christ rather than ever see the Christian faith as an optional but ultimately disposable extra in the moral life.
  These difficulties in identifying the sheep and the goats should render us cautious in too glibly supporting the so-called 99% and judging the 1%.  In today’s Gospel, it is only Christ the King who can discern the truly good from the truly bad.  We are called to live in the time before such divine clarity and recognise that, in truth and in our own ways, we are the 100% who are sinful, worthy of judgement.  Beyond those in the City, the web of greed and exploitation in modern capitalism extends such that we are as much caught up in it as bankers and merchants.  In light of this complex web, how then shall we live, as both under judgement and as trying to live well?
One prepares for the end times in the daily living out of the imperative to love one’s neighbour and by proclaiming Christ, especially (but not exclusively) to the marginalised.    By all this will we be judged on the far side of eternity.  Such acts move us beyond slogans and into ethical reformation.  It is the mundane reality of feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and visiting the sick in the name of Christ which give a glimpse of God’s kingdom and has the power to transform other people’s way of being.  Metanoia, turning around, repenting, flows from a recognition of falling short, of missing the mark; but repentance also comes from the sense that, as Anthony the Great puts it, “virtue is not far from us, nor is it without ourselves, but it is within us, and is easy if only we are willing.”  The simple, daily, unobtrusive acts of corporal mercy done in the name of Christ identify the Church with what Jesus would do in the Occupy debates.  They remind us that all are called to be the sheep of the Good Shepherd, and that call goes to the sinner first, whether in the 99 or the 1 %.  Indeed, Christian acts of mercy show a shape of life, and life abundantly, such that we may inherit the kingdom prepared [for us] from the foundation of the world.  Through them, we might all be accounted as sheep rather than goats.