This morning’s Gospel reading is Matthew 25:31–46:
Jesus said to his disciples:
“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit upon his glorious throne, and all the nations will be assembled before him. And he will separate them one from another, as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will place the sheep on his right and the goats on his 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. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him and say, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? When did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? When did we see you ill or in prison, and visit you?’ And the king will say to them in reply, ‘Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of the least brothers of mine, you did for me.’
“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you accursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, a stranger and you gave me no welcome, naked and you gave me no clothing, ill and in prison, and you did not care for me.’ Then they will answer and say, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or ill or in prison, and not minister to your needs?’ He will answer them, ‘Amen, I say to you, what you did not do for one of these least ones, you did not do for me.’ And these will go off to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”
Back when I managed call centers, evaluating personnel and performance were the more difficult tasks that we faced. At the time, our computer and phone systems didn’t produce direct measurement data, which probably says more about my age than anything else I’ll write today. In the earliest days, the only measure available was indirect observation through supervisors, which turned out to be a highly inaccurate method of judgment when it came to job performance. Too much of it was subjective, and disputes routinely arose over performance reviews.
Later, as systems developed to measure performance more directly and accurately, performance reviews became more routine. It helped both myself and the employees to focus on clearly established metrics, especially when those got regularly reported to everyone. We all knew what the measurements were, we all knew what they said, and we all shared the same goals.
That’s not to say that disputes entirely ended; there were always debates over whether the metrics accurately measured the fullness of job performance, and the nature of customer service inevitably leaves room for some intangibles. Still, once everyone understood the nature of the mission and the way in which all would be measured, we could focus on using those to help us achieve our mission. Everyone understood their job, their goals, and their priorities, and that helped everyone feel comfortable about their place in the organization.
Today’s Gospel reminds me of this experience in some way. What is our mission, and how will we be judged by it? Jesus explains this in the Old Testament metaphor of the shepherd and the flocks, a theme that recurs repeatedly throughout the scriptures. In this passage, Jesus offers a succinct mission statement, precise metrics, and the stakes for success or failure.
Jesus clarifies the prophecy of Ezekiel in our first reading today, in which the Lord promises to love His people as a shepherd does his sheep. When they get lost, He declares that He will “rescue them from every place where they were scattered when it was cloudy and dark.” The Lord promises to pasture His flock in peace, but then offers what might have seemed like a strange set of priorities to the shepherds of the time:
The lost I will seek out, the strayed I will bring back, the injured I will bind up, the sick I will heal, but the sleek and the strong I will destroy, shepherding them rightly.
Why would a shepherd seek to destroy “the sleek and the strong” within a flock? At first blush, one might expect a shepherd to be glad to have ‘sleek and strong’ sheep within the flock to bolster its overall health and procreative power. That seems more curious when one hears who will get saved: the lost, strayed, injured, or sick. The measurement for success seems a little off here, or at least in literal terms. The Lord, however, is pointing out that the sleek and strong often fail to realize their need for the shepherd in the first place; they don’t understand that their strength is far from enough for the true mission, which is the success of the entire flock and of all other flocks as well.
In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus makes this point clearly. He does not directly condemn the “sleek and the strong,” but He makes it clear that their strength has a higher purpose. They are to put their gifts to use for the benefit of the entire flock and not just for themselves. The “metrics” of the kingdom of God are not at all like that of this world, where strength and cleverness too often are their own rewards. At the end of this world, we will not have to answer for our own strength, but how we used it for others. We will not get credit for our gifts, but how they were put to use for the overall mission.
And that mission, Jesus teaches in this passage, has little to do with individual accomplishment. The Lord wants us to act in solidarity with each other, as He does with us. The key to the mission comes straight out of Ezekiel — to find the spiritually strayed and lost, the spiritually ill and injured, and to bring them the Good News of salvation through Christ. God has formed us in His image and wants us to experience His love eternally. We form ourselves in that agape love by emulating it with each other.
Note the manner of people that Jesus cites in this passage — the hungry and thirst, the naked, the sick and injured, all of which parallels the passage from Ezekiel to some extent. But Jesus adds a couple of others into the mix: those in prison and strangers, both of whom would normally be seen as either threats or enemies, even to this day. Jesus teaches us to love not just our neighbors but also our enemies as a way of spreading solidarity with all of God’s children, regardless of their spiritual status. We are to follow the Lord’s lead and look for as many lost sheep as we can to bring them into the flock, and that starts with using our gifts and strengths to return their dignity to them as much as we possibly can, even when they would normally seek to strip our dignity from us.
That is the mission on which Jesus sent the Apostles at the end of Matthew, and to which we are all sent. But we can take hope and heart in this image of Christ as the shepherd who loves His flock and seeks to gather it to himself across all ages. We see that in the most famous of the psalms, also part of today’s reading, which reassures us that “the Lord is my shepherd; there is nothing I shall want.” It ends with the promise that “I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever,” a sign of Christ’s love for us.
As performance reviews go, this one will be the toughest — but we can put our trust in the mercy and justice of this Shepherd.
The front page image is from the mausoleum of Galla Placidia, Ravenna, Italy (425-50 AD).
“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here. For previous Green Room entries, click here.