Draft day is a big deal! Regardless of the sport, draft day is an exciting day where the hopes and dreams of many young aspiring athletes come true. Professional teams, as well, place great emphasis and hope on the outcome of a draft, hoping that they can turn around their struggling franchise or else build upon an already good team. If you think about it, we’ve all experienced a draft day of sorts, even if it was the dreaded choosing of teams in PE from childhood! One thing that’s common across the board about draft days is that players are drafted based upon their athletic abilities and prior experience and not their love of the game or their belief in its importance. Draft day hinges on actions and abilities.
As Protestants, we place a great deal of significance on belief. The one who confesses their sins and believes in the Lord Jesus will be saved, after all. (Romans 10:9) This is well and good. And yet, the account of the separation of the sheep and the goats from Matthew 25, curiously, has nothing to do with belief and everything to do with action.
In this passage, the Son of Man, Jesus, the faithful One, returns and gathers up the sheep into his right hand, granting them the very Kingdom of God! Likewise, he gathers up the goats into his left hand, “sending them to the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” (25:41b) The deciding factor in this separation is said to be the provision of food for the hungry, water for the thirsty, clothing for the naked, care for the sick, and visitation of the prisoner. (25:36-37) Interestingly, those deemed sheep, who are granted the Kingdom, are not aware of how or when they did such things for Jesus, who says to them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” (25:40) Likewise, those that are cast aside with the Devil and his angels are charged with not doing these things for the “least of these.” (25:45)
What is so interesting to me is that faith plays no role in this judgement, nor does a person’s attitude and actions towards Jesus directly. Instead, people are judged based solely upon their care for others, with Jesus adding that the way they treated these others, the “least of these” in particular, was how they cared for Jesus himself. Like draft day, or the choosing of teams in PE from your school days, people here are separated based upon their actions.
We must keep in mind that this is not the only word on judgement. Certainly there are many places in Scripture that place great emphasis on the role of faith and/or belief in the process of judgement. Scripture functions this way: often painting a mosaic or weaving together a tapestry to describe rather than define. There is no one simple teaching about judgement, no clear checklist for how to inherit the Kingdom of God, except for maybe to actively love God and others. What this story does, however, is force us to include the importance of good works and care for the “least of these” into the equation or description of judgement. We are saved by grace, through faith, and not works, (Ephesians 2:8) and yet faith without works surely is dead. (James 2:26)
There’s one other point that sticks out to me about this story. Those judged, be they sheep or goats, are not aware of when they cared for Jesus in the way he describes. In other words, it doesn’t seem to be the “religious moments” that matter here. They are not judged for the way they directly treated Jesus, but for the indirect way they treated him in the form of others. As you have treated others, says Jesus, so you have treated me. It was the mundane or ordinary days and events that truly matter in this story.
What a great way to end Ordinary Time. Today we celebrate that Christ is our King, that he is the Lord of all Creation, that he reigns, and that he will come again. The cosmic nature of Christ is stressed in this reminder that care for others (and I think it’s fitting to add in creation as a whole) is, in fact, care and love for Christ. Jesus doesn’t simply care about belief and our overtly religious thoughts and actions. Jesus cares deeply for the ordinary and mundane moments of our lives as well, and for the way we treat others – all others. The Church spends almost half the year in what is called “Ordinary Time,” during which we consider the call to discipleship as we live our lives in the world. Today we are reminded that this time was well spent, for care for creation is, ultimately, care for the Creator as well.