Note to self and to you: Get over the sheep and goats thing. It only figures in the first three verses and then, abruptly, goes away never to be seen again. The whole separating talk is meant to recall that shepherds did that sort of thing knowing quite clearly which critter was which and knowing fully well what manner and form of animal husbandry they were going to mete out on each species. The sheep were the sheep and the goats the goats and a known progression of events was now to follow. Dinner was involved, as was cheese and warm clothes.
Next, a King appears and that is the image for the rest of the parable. The King also has a Father — Trinitarian alert. The matters at hand are pretty clear. As Epiphanius the Latin would point out, once you are told where to stand in relation to the throne of a king, you pretty much know exactly of what esteem you are being held at court and how, or if, you are leaving the castle after the audience is over.
By the time this meeting with the king is happening, by the time the shepherd parts the critters from one another, it is already the time of reckoning. The idea that now the Lord will turn goats into sheep is a desperate wish of gentle hearts that pray that ultimately, everyone gets saved and that it is never too late, even after the judgement has started. I pray for those gentle hearts to be heard by the King. I truly do. But, that is not what the parable is saying. It is saying, in continuity with what came before, there will be an end, there will be a “too late,” there will be a reckoning.
There will be, says the parable, a lake of fire prepared for the devil and his minions. (25:42) Note who it is prepared for. One makes allegiance with that crowd by choosing to have that lake as a final destiny. Matthew is of the opinion that plenty of opportunity is being given to repent. In fact, now that Jesus is here, God’s plea not to enter the lake of fire has intensified ever so greatly. Other generations only had prophets. This generation has Jesus. Those former generations will scoff at those who do not hear Heaven’s plea now. (12:40ff) Heaven is hoping to save you from a horrible choice.
There will be an inheritance, an inheritance that is from the foundation of the world and therefore the intent of the creator for his creation, for those blessed by the King’s Father. What do these blessed ones have in common? They have Mercy. They seem to have lived a life of Mercy toward the least of the King’s brother’s and sisters. Blessed now are the merciful they will receive mercy from the Father. (5:7) They have given the cup of cold water to the stranger because they were on the side of Christ and they have certainly not lost their reward. (10:42)
When Abraham is commissioned the job came with a purpose: Abraham will be a blessing and God will bless those who bless Abraham and curse those who curse him. (Gen 12:2b-3) These little ones, they are the children of Abraham through Jesus Christ grafted into the line. (Ro 9:8)
These children act like the Father. That is the preceding parable. Those truly owned by the house of Heaven are acting like the children of the house, or they better. The member of the house who buries treasure in the ground against the house’s ways has already received his judgement. Now it is time to judge the nations. How will they be treated? It is a question that keeps me awake at night. How will the prophets of peace and mercy found in other religions be treated? By what standard will they be judged?
The answer, the parable suggests, is mercy to God’s own. They have acted in accord with God’s heart. They have furthered the mission of the Son by showing hospitality to the Messiah’s little ones. Messiah was with them as they were on mission and hungry and destitute or persecuted and noted the mercy extended to those who carried him to far venues. Angels watched as Christ’s own were in mission and reported everything in the heavenly courts. (Matt 18:10) Surely, they who showed God’s own possession favor will not loose their reward.
When Matthew writes Jesus’ genealogy, he includes a few names that are to remind us of the history of Israel. One of these is Rahab, survivor of the conquest of Jericho. She and her family are the only survivors because she showed mercy to the spies, Israel’s own, God’s own. (Josh 2; 6:17)
This is what kings do. Those who are on the side of their mission will find their favor. When Joshua meets with the commander of God’s armies he finds out that even Israel is counted as merely an ally to God’s plans. The angel is not on Joshua’s side. He is there to do the work of God at that moment. He is not on Joshua’s side or Jericho’s side. He is the commander of the army of the Lord, he has now come, there will now be a reckoning for those who stand in the way of God’s plan. In Joshua 6, it just happens to be Jericho that stands in the way and it will be reckoned with.
St. Ignatius, the father of the Jesuits, writes this contemplation into his Spiritual Exercises that all Jesuits must undergo.
[I will] put before me a human king chosen by God our Lord, whom all Christian princes and men reverence and obey.
[I] look how this king speaks to all his people, saying: "It is my Will to conquer all the land of unbelievers. Therefore, whoever would like to come with me is to be content to eat as I, and also to drink and dress, as I: likewise he is to labor like me in the day and watch in the night, that so afterwards he may have part with me in the victory, as he has had it in the labors.”
This meditation is to be answered by the pilgrims with an urgent “Yes. Count me in.” (For Cursillo veterans, the call of the king is in the rector’s meditation on Saturday) If it is not your aim and purpose to serve the King of kings and thereby join the battle plans and foreign policy of Heaven, it is time to depart now. If it is your conviction that the mission and plan of Heaven are misguided and you will not stand for them then it is time to find your asbestos swimwear.
The thing about kings and their armies is that, plainly, the foot soldiers don’t get to define the mission, the scope, the tactics, or the timing. Very undemocratic, I admit. But, maybe, that is why we need to celebrate Christ the King — and Christ clearly is the King in this parable (25:34) — Sunday.
Where is the good news in all this and in this liturgical festival? Well, Christian, frankly, you know the King. You know his house and his ways. Now, maybe you know what he thinks of your friends who are not part of his house. Maybe you can trust him with these? They are people of mercy, yes?