We hear the question, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?” twice in our gospel reading, but it sounds different when asked by the “righteous sheep” than it does when it is asked by the “accursed goats.” The sheep sound apologetic, as if they are saying, “Oh gosh! I’m so sorry! Did I overlook or forget someone?” While the goats sound defensive, as if they are saying “Really? I was supposed to do something? I didn’t see you hiding among them!” The reading asks us not only what we have been doing to live out our baptismal promise of discipleship, but to also look at our motivation and attitude behind our actions…or lack of action. Do we genuinely try to see the well-being of our fellow humanity as equal to our own?
The reading reminded me of a driving instructor I once had, who told his class that we would only become good drivers once we obeyed speed limits not because we wanted to avoid speeding tickets, but because we recognized that our diminished reaction time could endanger other people. He urged us all to make that attitude adjustment. Examples of the difference between this “sheep” and “goat” attitude are endless. Do I refrain from repeating a racist or sexist joke because my boss may be listening or because I find it demeaning and abusive to people? Do I pay taxes only because I want to avoid prosecution or because I see paying taxes as my contribution to the education, health care and the upkeep of infrastructure that is vital to all of us? We may be doing “the right thing”, but do we do it for selfish goals or because we understand our interconnectedness and responsibility to our fellow humanity. The “goats” were not turned away because they had done “bad things,” but because they had failed to recognize their responsibility in upholding the dignity of those around them and had failed to act at all.
Today we celebrate the feast of Christ the King, but it celebrates Jesus as king like no ordinary, earthly king. In Jesus, God became “one of us” his subjects; not to live among the governors or Pharisee leaders of his day, but to live among the fishers, lepers, prostitutes and those who lived on the fringes of society. His was not a kingship based on power or privilege but on “kin-ship;” of a leadership based on equality and service. As a model of kingship and discipleship, Jesus teaches us that as long as we allow even the “least among us” to be subjected to abuse, poverty or exclusion, we are all diminished in dignity. As Pope Francis reminds us, we will be judged as a society by how we treat the most vulnerable within our community.