The Parable of the Sheep and the Goat story is the most fitting gospel lection for Christ the King within this Year of Grace. After all, at the coming Day of Christ’s coming, he will be seated upon the judgment seat as king, dividing the nations as a shepherd divides the sheep from the goats. Here is our sovereign Lord, not in judgment upon the Cross, but at the end of the age. At that time, Jesus will be revealed as the One who reigns over heaven and earth and of whose kingdom there will be no end. But as a prelude to such glory, there is a separation of those in all the nations,…sheep and goats divided and blessed or cursed.
The parable, as we can understand, has evoked major discussions within the church starting right from after the New Testament writings were completed. Only the Sermon on the Mount received more attention than this Sheep and Goats story in the Gospel of St. Matthew. And, as we would expect related to a parable dealing with judgment and division, Christians ever since have been divided in their reading of the parable, turning in judgment on those who offered the other major point of view. By the time of the great fourth and fifth century theologians and bishops, this division was sharply drawn and focused on one core question: who were “the least of these…”? What did Jesus mean when he identified this congregation of the poor and hungry, the homeless and the imprisoned? And this question remains center stage in New Testament commentaries and on the latest Christian blogs. Through two millennia, the line of reasoning seems to be this: “If eternal glory or damnation depends on how we answer this question, then we better get it right.” So on this Festival of Christ the King, St. Matthew once again relates to us our sovereign Lord’s parable of the sheep and the goats.
It is fascinating that two giants among the Fathers took opposite sides on this question, St. Augustine of Hippo in the West and St. Chrysostom in the East. For the Western bishop, St. Augustine, his interpretation is provided during the Great Fifty Days of Easter to the newly baptized at the Easter Vigil. He teaches those “new babes in Christ” that to be numbered among the sheep, they will be careful to seek out the members of the community of faith who are poor and hungry and who lack shelter or who simply thirst for a drink of cool and refreshing water. It is those persons who are “the least of these.” These practices of compassion are critical to the church’s life together and witness in the world. These newly baptized, probably still wearing their baptismal albs, are gathered by their bishop and taught to be vigilant for any within the Body of Christ who suffer and remain on the margins. The newest sheep in the Lord’s fold need to be instructed that their ministry is to be toward those others in the flock of God who are the most vulnerable and the most in need. But there is a reversal in St. Augustine’s teaching; over and over he identifies precisely the newly baptized as among “the least.” They are indeed vulnerable and real novices in their Christian journey, even with the best catechetical formation. So they are taught to look after the least and the marginal within the household of faith, all the time, being in that community themselves! Perhaps they will soon make that dual teaching their own. They will turn to ministries with their suffering and neediest members of the Body while turning as well to the newly baptized who are coming after them. It works both ways.
So if St. Augustine of Hippo were our guest preacher this Christ the King Sunday (Eve), he would be calling us to an attentiveness toward the most suffering and most needy members of Christ’s Body,…those who are the faithful, yet on the margins. Christ calls us to be there with them. But more, we meet our King in the ministry to these little ones. This ministry, of course, begins within our parish—discerning the little ones and turning to care for them. But St. Augustine would call us to a broader vision—Christians anywhere who are on the margins are “these little ones” as well. Suburban parishes that enter into partnerships with struggling inner city parishes are glowing examples of such ministry within the Body of Christ. And, of course, the promise holds true—the “missioners” find Christ in the midst of those to whom they are in mission. And there is another surprise. The gifts of the parishes on the margins wind up blessing the ones who come from the center of comfort and affluence. In one such partnership, the servant ministry was progressing so effectively, both churches decided to join their choirs together for a Sunday evening concert. The suburban majority church choir reveled in learning the “soul” underlying Black gospel music, while both choirs also joined in a Bach chorale. Everyone agreed it was the greatest musical event of the year for both parishes. Each community encountered Christ in the gifts of the other and there was an ebb and flow throughout the evening as to which of the singers was among the least of these who received gifts from the other. St. Augustine would proclaim, “Now that is what I was trying to tell those newly baptized!” Christ the King calls us to such servant ministry with other disciples who suffer out there on the margins.
Now the conversation would not end there. St. Chrysostom would not be shy with his proclamation of the gospel even in the presence of the Emperor and his wife. So he was unlikely to remain quiet simply for the West’s greatest theologian at that point. Imagine his reply to the Bishop of Hippo. “Alright, Augustine, what you say is good enough, especially your emphasis on care for the newly baptized. But Christ’s love does not end at the boundary of the baptized. No, his care and compassion extend to all who suffer want, who hunger and thirst, who are ill-clothed and alone. The sheep at that great Day of the King will be those who did not ask first if the one in need was baptized or not. Sufficient that this man or woman was in need and was among those who suffer.” So St. Chrysostom takes a more expansive meaning of “the least of these…” He regards no borders beyond which we are relieved from caring for those in need. His model of the church—using Cardinal Dulle’s analysis*--was that of the church as servant, following faithfully in the footsteps of its Servant Lord. For this bishop, the sacraments that welcomed the catechumens into the Body of Christ and fed them with the Body and Blood of Christ also instructed and equipped them for their servant ministry in the world. So in one of his homilies, Chrysostom teaches,
You want to honor Christ’s body? Then do not neglect him when he is naked. Do not honor him here (at Mass) with silk garments while you leave him outside perishing from cold and nakedness. For he who said, “This is my body,” and by his word confirmed the fact, also said, “For I was hungry and you gave me no food,” and “Just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do to me.” Here (at the Eucharist) the body of Christ needs no clothing but pure souls; there, it needs great solicitude.**
Go through the waters of Holy Baptism and you are raised with Christ and made a member of his holy, servant church. “The least of these…” include all who suffer and hunger, and are oppressed.
In this conversation--an amazing debate between these two saints of East and West--there were centuries in which St. Augustine’s perspective held sway within the church. Orphanages were founded, new religious orders came together for this apostolate, and hospices were built for care of the faithful poor. But more recently, St. Chrysostom’s perspective has gained a central place in the church’s teaching and practice. The Second Vatican Council*** taught that “a special obligation binds us to make ourselves the neighbor of absolutely every person,…” Pope Paul VI preached on the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats at the conclusion of the Council and St. John Paul II spoke on this parable again and again in his many journeys throughout the world.
It is not that the churches have set aside St. Augustine’s perspective on “the least of these.” If there is one person in our parish who is new to the faith or troubled and suffering, our ministry is to care for that one in Christ’s name,…and to meet Christ in the brother or sister. But the line is not drawn there between those whose need compels our servant ministry and those outside the household of faith. One theologian put it this way: “The difference between the followers of Jesus and those who do not know Jesus is that those who have seen Jesus no longer have any excuse to avoid ‘the least of these’.”****
There is one other surprise that comes out of this conversation between our two saintly bishops. Both do agree on this as they teach us these insights into the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats. They point out that the faithful are surprised when they come before Christ the King. “Lord, when did we see you…?” they ask. Hungry or naked or homeless or in prison? They are surprised, and disclose that they were not about these acts of mercy for any reward,…to earn their way into heaven. Rather, the blessed served their Servant King because they imitated his ministry, received his grace in the sacraments, and joined with others in ministry both within the church and out in the world. They were placed among the sheep not because they were consciously about tasks that would merit them such a place and blessing. They were following their Lord and King and delighting in meeting him in such unlikely places and among such unlikely people. Now, on this festival day, listen to the word the faithful servants of the King will hear from his own lips on that Day:
Come, you who are blessed by my Father.
Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.
*Avery Dulles, Models of the Church, expanded ed. (New York, NY: Doubleday, 1991).
**St. John Chrysostom, Homily on the Gospel according to St. Matthew (Homily 50. III).
*** In Gaudium et spes.
****Stanley Hauerwas, Matthew: Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos, 2006],