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Monday of the First Week of Lent - The Sheep and the Goats

Monday, February 27, 2012
Readings: Leviticus 19:1-2.11-18; Psalm 18; Matthew 25:31-46.

Recently I was stung by an accusation that the Catholicism of the young is 'an empty piety'. The suggestion annoyed me because it is quite obviously unfair and untrue, yet it is the kind of criticism that must always be taken seriously. Complacency is the doorway to spiritual stagnation and death, the gospel should never get too cosy. If we have managed to tie down a nice safe Jesus and put him in a box marked 'piety' then at some point we will make the dismal discovery that we have been worshipping not God but an idol of our own invention. Christ cannot be made safe, he will always defy our attempts to limit or circumscribe his action. Instead He draws us beyond our comfort zones into a fuller life of love. Today's gospel from Matthew is a good example of this, Jesus' message is uncomfortable and ought to provoke some self-reflection.

Jesus announces that the Son of Man will come in glory and seperate the sheep from the goats, the saints from the sinners, on the basis of their care for the poor, the marginalized, the vulnerable: 'whatever you did for the least of my brothers, you did for me' (Matthew 25:40). Interestingly, neither the saints nor the sinners in this passage consider their encounters with the needy as an encounter with Christ. They ask 'When did we see you hungry or thirsty?' (Matthew 25:37.44). Their bewilderment matches that of St. Paul on the road to Damascus when he discovered that his persecution of the early Church had been a persecution of Christ (Acts 9:1-9). This parallel between the experience of Paul and the experience of those labelled sheep and goats in Matthew's gospel gives us, I think, a clue as to how to interpret this passage.

The theology found in Paul's epistles is shaped by his encounter with the Risen Christ. Within these writings, two themes are particularly relevant for our present purposes: justification and unity. Luther's reading of St Paul led him to conclude that it is faith alone that justifies. We cannot earn our salvation by works of mercy, no matter how noble these works may be. Now Catholics agree that it is faith alone that justifies. The difference between Catholics and Protestants is not the necessity of faith but what we mean by justification. Catholics believe that we are justified by faith, not just called just or accounted just, but actually made just (no matter how imperfectly or initially only) both in the eyes of God and in fact. This justice, infused in us by God's grace, makes it possible for us (again by the grace of God) to keep not only the law as spelt out for us in the first reading from Leviticus, but also the works of mercy demanded of us by Jesus in our gospel reading from Matthew. Indeed, we do not just become able to keep the law, we become free from the law; we keep the law and serve our neighbour not because we are obliged to but because we want to. We can expect, then, that a life lived in a state of grace will bear fruit in the gifts of the Holy Spirit and works of mercy such as those outlined in Matthew's gospel: feeding the hungry and thirsty, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and prisoners and so on. For the Catholic, faith and works come together.

Yet in practice very few of us recieve the grace to be perfect in all aspects of our life and this brings us to the second Pauline theme which is relevant to this passage: Unity. Paul understood the Church to be a body with Christ as the head (1 Corinthians 12). All of the baptized are, then, limbs of Christ. All of us, in a limited sense, re-present Christ to the world. However, just as different limbs of the body have different functions within an overall unity, so each Christian represents a different aspect of Christ to the world. Each Christian is called to play a particular part in the mission of the church. Paul outlines some of these different roles in 1 Corinthians chapter 12: teachers, workers of miracles, healers, helpers, administrators and so on. We can probably think of a few more roles we might want to add to his list. The point is that whilst the Church as a whole must serve the poor, whilst the church as a whole must preach, must teach, must contemplate, must raise children and so on, the vocations of individual Christians will usually be orientated primarily to a handful of these missions. We do not, then, have to do everything; but we must do what God is asking of us here and now. We must be the person God wants us to be, the person that deep down we want to be.

Whether or not the Catholicism of the young is an 'empty piety', then, depends on whether the young are being faithful to the particular call of Christ in their lives and nothing else. It seems to me, however, especially in this season of Lent, that all Christians should try to be sensitive to the call of Christ here and now regardless of age or state in life. If the Church is to be a beacon of hope, love, and life, then it needs all its limbs.

Nicholas Crowe OP


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