Of all the things Jesus is recorded to have said, it would be hard to find a more sobering teaching than this one:
“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left. Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.’ … Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.’” (Matthew 25:31-34, 41)
Because of its pictorial language of sheep and goats, it’s sometimes falsely assumed that this is a ‘parable’ and not to be taken literally. But look again: Jesus is not spinning a moralizing fable about gentle sheep and ornery goats, but rather explaining in very graphic terms how easily He will be able to recognize His true disciples from the rest of humanity when He returns. If He were talking to us today, He might use the illustration of a grocer separating apples from oranges, or a handyman sorting nuts and washers. The point is that the Good Shepherd can easily see the difference!
And what is that unmistakable difference between those who belong on the right and the left? Jesus explains that it is loving actions shown to Him (verses 35-36, 42-43). That thoroughly puzzles the ones being sorted, because none of them can recall that they’ve ever had opportunity to do any personal favors for Jesus. When did this happen? they ask. Jesus replies:
“Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.” (verse 40 and the converse in verse 45)
Think of the implications of those words. He is telling us in the clearest possible way that when we interact with our brothers and sisters in Christ, we are in fact interacting with Him! That’s why St. Paul refers to the Church as the ‘Body of Christ.’ It is not in prayer or meditation that we encounter Jesus most tangibly, but in our daily interactions with our fellow disciples.
When I give a hug to the one who is grieving, I embrace Jesus!
When I avoid that person I find unpleasant, I shun Jesus!
When I greet that person who seems all alone, I welcome Jesus!
When I make a big deal out of my brother’s mistake, I belittle Jesus!
When I gently correct my erring sister, I honor Jesus!
When I say cruel things about another, I slander Jesus!
When I cause my neighbor to smile, I see the smiling face of Jesus!
When I cause unnecessary pain, I add to Jesus’ wounds!
We could go on and on, but do we need to? Though God wants us to be loving to all our neighbors on this earth, we have a special obligation to those who bear His name. Like those sorted to the left, we may think that our failure to love our fellow believer is no big thing – something we can ‘slide by’ because of our other virtues. But we are wrong – a failure to show love to our fellow believer is a sure mark that we are not seeing Jesus.
However, recognizing the person of Christ in our brother is not just an obligation to be obeyed, but also a blessing and privilege. For it is in those interactions that we can most tangibly reciprocate the love of Him who gave His own life for ours. It is how we give Him honor and praise in our daily lives.
“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.“ (John 13:34)