I imagine the separating, by Jesus, of sheep and goats is something only a farmer, a modern day shepherd, could truly appreciate.
But the message of the gospel, the key to understanding what Jesus does, lies in the verb “to see”. Matthew speaks of the Lord’s arrival amongst us as a coming in glory, a beauty visible and irresistible to any and all.
The sheep, to the right, says Jesus, saw and tended to the poor and to the lame. They served the Lord, via his people, when they were in need. The goats to the left saw nothing and did nothing. Jesus tells them so and they admit such. The question for us then is: are we awestruck enough to see and to appreciate God’s glory; to accept our own imperfectness before him? Can we see the God given goodness in flawed humanity, and respond to it? Or need we separate, distinguish sheep from goats.
What are we able to see?
The year was 1925. Europe and the colonies had only recently survived what became known as World War I. Violent dictatorships were on the rise, international combat was, arguably, more destructive and less civilised than it had ever been; Christian Europe was as divided as ever. If people of God ever needed leadership, a Messiah who would liberate or a Prince who would reign in their hearts, it was between the two world wars. And so Pope Pius the XI, aware of the depressed state of humanity, particularly Catholics, invoked this feast in honour of Christ the one true King – a just protector of sheep and goats.
As citizens in a democratic society, accustomed to dialogue and consensus models, we do not easily perceive God as absolute authority and judge. I do not naturally find comfort in a being who should care little about my opinion, an absolute monarch, so to speak, who would, in theory, possess no reason to respect my feelings. Yet, on this feast of Christ the King, we celebrate a God who is Lord and Judge; and yet a God who is Servant and Saviour. Jesus Christ, the King, is a God entitled to and deserving of honour and praise, yet a God who behaves as a good and loving Shepherd.
A story is told of a little girl who, with her mother, was crossing a bridge. Before stepping onto the bridge the mother, instinctively cautious, said to her daughter, “Sweetheart, please hold my hand so that you don’t fall into the river.” The little girl replied, “No, mommy, you hold my hand!” Puzzled, the mother shot back: “What’s the difference?” “Mom,” the little girl said, “there is a big difference. If I hold your hand and something happens to me, I may let go. But if you hold my hand, I know for sure that no matter what happens, you will never let go.”
For people who like to be heard, and have their feelings honoured, inferiority is never desired, but attentive concern is always appreciated. Personally, I take little comfort from a loss of control or responsibility, although I can see how some might. But the idea that God actually cares when I am in trouble, that God is committed to my well-being, and that God never lets go, resonates. If Christ the King is a Good Shepherd, he is welcomed to reign in my heart!
The world we live in is challenged. To a certain degree, despair abounds in everyone. And sometimes reality becomes so burdensome, we are so divided, that the goodness of Creation, the presence of God in our brothers and sisters, is invisible. Though we long, we cannot to see.
If this Feast of Christ as King does anything for us, might it be a reminder of the trustworthiness of God. Might we believe that both the sheep and the goats are in good hands, that we can leave judgement to the Judge and allow Peace to reign in our hearts.
The fact is, that if all people, even all Christians, were able to see together, if we were awestruck by a the same glorious Lord, we would have little need to fight; we would have little need to draw lines between ourselves, and peace would reign in our hearts.
In the care of the good Shepherd, may all find peace. May Christ reign in our hearts. And no matter how despairing reality is, regardless of our ability to see his glory, may God never let go of us.