The Good Sheep

July 05 2020 | by

“WHEN the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left” (Matthew 25:31-33). 

An internet video records shepherds dividing such a mixed flock where most of the sheep congregated together and most of the goats, although intermingling occurred. Like these beasts, people generally mingle with those like themselves, although sometimes seeking less similar groups. To the untrained eye, goats and sheep look alike. Likewise, hypocrites can mimic sincerely good people.  

Just as God can tell who is genuine, so shepherds can distinguish sheep from goats and lambs from kids. In the video, three shepherds worked patiently and persistently first to divide a large flock into two groups, one predominantly sheep and the other predominantly goats. They then began to cull from each flock the animals that belonged with the other group. Like the action of the Holy Spirit, their work was unhurried, quiet, gentle. Occasionally an animal would bolt into the wrong herd. Then the shepherd would lunge at it, catch it, and carry it to the correct flock. Having no idea why they were being herded, the sheep and goats appeared edgy and confused. The shepherds’ calm authority reassured them as the flocks became distinct and were finally led to two different pastures.


Familiar technique


Jesus’ audiences were familiar with this technique of flock division. They possibly thought that they, the children of Israel, were the sheep in the parable while the goats were the Gentiles. Jesus concluded otherwise.

“Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me’” (Matthew 25:34-37).

No matter who was the object of their compassion, the righteous were ministering to the Son of Man (God) when they ministered to others. “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” (Matthew 25:39).

On the contrary, those on his left were “accursed” and sent to “the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels,” because they did nothing for the king. When these objected that they had never had a chance to minister to the king, he contradicted them. “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” The unrighteous would suffer “eternal punishment” while the righteous would inherit “eternal life” (Matthew 25:41-46).


Service to others


By different routes, both Francis and Anthony came to understand and embrace this parable’s message. Their sanctity did not derive from their extreme penances or their success at converting their audiences. It was their service to others that proved the veracity of their faith.

Generous by nature, Francis practiced generosity in almsgiving because he aspired to knighthood, and knights were expected to be courteous and generous. The transition from good knight to holy saint began with generosity. At one point, the Holy Spirit made Francis realize that generosity at a distance was something the goats might do, but generosity up close and personal was the sheep’s trademark.

One day while giving alms, the Holy Spirit nudged Francis to do more than simply hand out coins. Francis saw, as he frequently did, a needy leper. But this time he saw that the leper needed more than just money. He needed love. He deserved love because he, like everyone else, was made in God’s image. Francis realized that, when he embraced the leper, he embraced Christ. He had actualized the king’s declaration: “Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

As a youth, Francis had been arrogant and wealthy. Then Christ’s poverty and humility captivated him to the point that he radically rejected wealth and arrogance to embrace the contrary virtues and give himself fully to God.


Love of purity


Christ’s purity first attracted Anthony. We know little about Anthony’s youth other than that he, a pious child, entered religious life as a youth in order, he said, to save his soul. In the Augustinian Order, Anthony encountered holiness of words, but sinfulness of life in Prior John, whose illicit sexual encounters became public. The scandal deeply influenced Anthony, who preached chastity, honesty, and transparency as keys to the Kingdom.

When Anthony met poor Franciscan friars who were on their way to Morocco, he was struck by their holiness, poverty, faith, and joy. Since they were going to preach to the Saracens, they would, he knew, reach heaven through martyrdom. Although Anthony sought the same shortcut to the Kingdom, God denied it to him. Eventually Anthony realized that God, not he, would determine his path to holiness. His task was to surrender everything to God’s Will, as Christ was, and to be obedient.

That Will unfolded as Anthony was sent to preach, counsel, and hear confessions. Like the righteous in the parable, he saw Christ in each soul and served Him there. His greatest success was among society’s least: the poor, robbers, prostitutes, debtors, peasants. Although some wealthy and powerful nobles were among his staunchest followers, others from the same ranks became his greatest enemies, some even trying to kill him. Even in them, Anthony saw God’s image, although sullied and distorted. He ceaselessly called his enemies to repentance while praying fervently for their conversion. While among the good sheep at the Son of Man’s right hand, Anthony, himself a good shepherd, sought to snatch those mingling with the goats to bring them into the flock of the righteous.


Covering sins


Consider this one sample, among many, of Anthony’s preaching. In one voice, he castigates the sinner while drawing the same to total self giving to God through personal repentance and trust in God’s mercy: “The Son of God veiled his face (on which the angels long to gaze) to restrain the curiosity of our eyes. He was dumb before, not just his shearer but his murderer, and when he was ill-treated he did not open his mouth, so as to check your talkativeness. His side was opened by the lance, so that he might draw out of you the moisture of lust. His hands and feet were fastened with nails, to drive cruelty from your hands and feet. Take your son, then, your mirth, your flesh, and offer it completely as a holocaust, so that you may be wholly on fire with charity that covers a multitude of sins” (Sermons for Sundays and Festivals I, p. 59; translated by Paul Spilsbury; Edizioni Messaggero Padova).

This charity is that which, when practiced, separated the sheep from the goats in Christ’s parable.

Updated on July 05 2020