Today’s selection from the gospel of Matthew is very appropriate for the feast of Christ the King because it portrays Christ as a king who presides over the scene of final judgment. The sheep, being economically more valuable than goats, represent those who have been found worthy of final victory and reward.
The central point of the story concerns the criterion that will be used for determining who will be judged worthy and who will be rejected. We are told that the decisive factor in rendering judgment will be an account of how well we have cared for the less fortunate people among us. They are listed twice in the gospel story so that there can be no doubt about their identity: they are the hungry, the thirsty, strangers, the naked, the sick and prisoners. These are, of course, only examples of a more general category of the powerless and needy ones.
The gospel then gives us the surprising information that Jesus has chosen to identify himself with these powerless ones, so that our attitude toward them will reveal how we really feel about Jesus also. In some respects we can say that the Bible is too big for its own good. There are so many words in it that we feel obliged to be selective, and being selective can often mean passing over passages that should never be ignored. This story of the final judgment is certainly one of those indispensable passages.
We need always to ask ourselves about our concern for the needy people mentioned in this parable. However, the primary emphasis should be placed on the unselfish love that ought to animate us and which will reach out to all who are more in bondage than ourselves. This may very will include many rich and powerful people who are desperately in need of love and peace and hope.
The whole process of salvation can be reduced to an initial cry for help, followed by an experience of God’s liberating love (mediated often through good people and the beauty of creation), from which comes a sense of confidence and freedom. Then we are asked to convert our freedom (such as it is) into love and concern for others, so that they too may become free and confident. All this is summed up in the words of the First Letter of John: “Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another” (4:11).
Some of the neediest among us are those who are living in the bondage of low self-esteem. This kind of bondage often hides behind a façade of feigned self-sufficiency or even joviality. The loving, sensitive person will know how to penetrate such defenses and to bring a degree of freedom to such unhappy ones. I have often thought that perhaps the only question that will be asked of us at the last judgment will be taken from the story of the Exodus: Did you let my people go? Our strong inclination is to hoard our precious freedom and to use it only to protect ourselves against the needs of others.
The thought of a final judgment is often a source of fear and anxiety. However, it will be a wonderful experience for all those who have helped to free others from the bondage of paralyzing fear and guilt and low self-esteem. In this way, they will have become one with Jesus, who came into our world for that very purpose.
Demetrius R. Dumm, O.S.B.