Classic works of art and literature, like Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel and Dante’s Inferno, reflect an enduring fascination with the final judgment. Juxtaposed in vivid contrast are angels and devils, fire and clouds, the anguish of the damned and the joy of the redeemed. There is something satisfying in the thought that at the end time those who have done good will be rewarded and those who have not will be punished. To have a king who keeps an account of each one’s actions and who then decrees who is blessed and who is cursed has appeal. This image is most satisfying, of course, to those who consider themselves upright and who suffer because of this, while observing that evildoers often prosper.
The image of an all-powerful, punishing divine king stands in strong contrast, however, to the image of God as shepherd in the first reading and the responsorial psalm. These depict God as personally tending the sheep, going after the lost ones, gathering them in from every place they have wandered, binding up the injured ones, healing the sick and leading them to green places with plentiful food, restfulness and refreshment—a very different approach to addressing those who miss the mark than fiery banishment. Many times in Matthew’s Gospel as well, Jesus speaks of himself as shepherd and teaches his disciples how to be like him. He has compassion on the crowds when they are like sheep without a shepherd (Mt 9:36). He sends disciples to seek out the “lost sheep of the house of Israel” (10:6) and urges them to leave 99 sheep who are safe to seek out the lost one (18:10-14).
In today’s Gospel, Matthew holds in tension both his eschatological theme that there is an end time when one’s life choices become final and irreversible, while at the same time reprising his theme of Jesus as compassionate shepherd. Jesus is both an all-powerful monarch who sits upon a glorious throne and a loving shepherd. What stands out most vividly in Matthew’s parable is not other-worldly visions of eternal glory or unrelenting damnation but the face of the hungry, thirsty, immigrant, naked, sick and incarcerated Jesus. The fourfold repetition of this list underscores that Jesus is present and unavoidable at every turn, in those crying out to be shepherded. As often as Jesus’ followers respond to these sisters and brothers in the way the divine shepherd did, he lives.
The shepherd’s power over the sheep, as described in the Gospel of John, comes from intimate union (10:14), knowing each one by name (10:3), and from an unsurpassable love that impels the shepherd to lay down his life wholly for the sheep, even to the point of death (10:11). This is power fueled by love, a shared and persuasive power, quite different from that of a monarch who is removed from the people and who makes unilateral pronouncements. Today’s parable warns not of a king who wields frightening power over unsuspecting subjects who did not realize their actions or omissions could damn them for all time, but of the deadly consequences if one ultimately rejects the shepherd’s gracious beneficence. Such persons seal their own fate, choosing to be separated for all time from that empowering love.
If I may be permitted a personal note: It has been a great grace and privilege to share reflections on Scripture with you each week during my three-year tenure as the Word columnist. I am grateful for the many messages from readers, and I continue to pray for you as you break open God’s word with others.