The Sheep and the Goats

During what is known as a holy season of light in many faith traditions, and as Christians prepare to celebrate the birth of the most famous poor baby in the world, I often reflect on a passage from the Gospel of Matthew that comes long after the Christmas story. Matthew 25:31-46 is often known as the parable of the sheep and the goats:

31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.

34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’

44 “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’

45 “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’

46 “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”

As the daughter of a Baptist preacher, I’ve read and reread these verses all my life. I long believed they were about each person’s individual responsibility to treat everyone we meet—especially the poorest and neediest—as a child of God. But I finally came to understand they are also about our collective obligation. These verses say the people gathering to be judged will come in nationsWhat is the citizen role, the community role in how we care for each other? Are we sheep or are we goats?

If Matthew 25 and the prophets in every other major faith tradition are right, there should be no poor child in our rich nation. MIT emeritus professor of economics and Nobel Laureate Robert Solow was prescient thirty years ago when he wrote in a foreword to the Children’s Defense Fund report, Wasting America’s Future: “For many years Americans have allowed child poverty levels to remain astonishingly high . . . far higher than one would think a rich and ethical society would tolerate. The justification, when one is offered at all, has often been that action is expensive: ‘We have more will than wallet.’ I suspect that in fact our wallets exceed our will, but in any event this concern for the drain on our resources completely misses the other side of the equation: Inaction has its costs too…As an economist I believe that good things are worth paying for; and that even if curing children’s poverty were expensive, it would be hard to think of a better use in the world for money. If society cares about children, it should be willing to spend money on them.”

This is a season when many people focus on individual giving to others they know and love, but we as a nation are also called to care individually and collectively by working to ensure systemic justice for children and young people and vulnerable neighbors and strangers all year long. We must always be sheep and not goats.