The Parable of the Sheep and the Goats in the Economy of Salvation

This is a long post. It has the goal of deepening the spirituality of Blessed Charles of Jesus and deepening the Gospel sources of a contemplative vocation lived “in the mud”. It also purports to engage in some practical anti-anti-Semitism. If any of these points interest you, please read on.

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When Blessed Charles de Foucauld read the Gospel parable of the sheep and the goats, he found in it something that no other statement had so much transformed his life: whatever we do to Jesus’ brothers, we do to him.

When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that 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 something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” (Mt 25:31–40 NRSV)

Following Brother Charles have been many others. The Lay Fraternity, the Little Sisters and Little Brothers of Jesus, the Little Sisters and Little Brothers of the Gospel, and many more in Charles’ spiritual family follow the same inspiration: We will be judged by what we do to Jesus; therefore let us see Jesus in our neighbour and pray and act accordingly.

In fact, this point of view is not restricted to Blessed Charles’ spiritual family. I have heard more than one homily on the subject. Saint John Chrysostom famously said the same thing as Charles. The Church has emphasized and sorted these corporal works of mercy. Throughout the exegesis and practical spirituality of (Gentile) Christians, there is a strong, living tradition: The parable of the sheep and the goats applies to us, so do to your neighbour as to Jesus.

There’s just a slight problem with this. It’s actually not so simple. The parable of the sheep and the goats, in the context of Saint Matthew’s Gospel, doesn’t refer to Christians being judged. It refers to the goyim (גוים), “the nations”.*

Cardinal Lustiger: The PromiseI lived quite happily for many years without realizing this. However, when I read Jean-Marie Cardinal Lustiger’s book The Promise, a little part of this bubble popped.

It really is quite obvious in context. Immediately prior to the parable of the sheep and the goats, in Matthew 25, we find the parable of the talents:

A man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them. (Mt 25:14 NRSV)

In other words, he called his proper servants, the ones that he had chosen. He called Israel and the disciples of Jesus (the Church in its aspect as having become Christians through the sacramental life of the Church). In the economy of salvation, those are the two who are called immediately and in that economy in that way by God.

Of course, others are called. Those from “the nations” are called, too. They are the ones who have acted well towards their neighbour in the parable of the sheep and the goats. They aimed to live, as Saint Paul says in Romans 2, according to the natural law. And they will be rewarded. They had a call in a different way. They answered.

But in the parable of the talents, we have Israel and the Church (which is actually Israel, insofar as faithful and consciously understanding of Jesus, and the particular Gentiles who are grafted into the Church). Cardinal Lustiger comments:

The talents are evidently riches of grace, the riches of the Kingdom… In reality, the Lord gives to each one according to what he judges suitable: five talents, two talents, one talent. And the proper mission of the servants is to manage the riches of the kingdom according to the logic of the master and not to put it aside as a deposit…

The servant must act according to the revelation made to him of whom the master is and what he wants.

This intimate, personally revealed knowledge of what the master wants only makes sense for his proper servants, those whom he speaks to openly (not in obscure, masked ways like “the nations”). That means the parable of the talents speaks of Christians and the Hebrew people.

Then, later in the same chapter, the Son of Man gathers “all the nations” (in context and in the later Hebrew mentality, excluding Israel – and thus by Saint Paul’s logic of the “graft” in Romans 11, also excluding the Church in its sacramental, visible aspect). It is to the just of the nations that Jesus says, “Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

This is not said to Christians.** This can’t be underlined enough.

In the economy of salvation as God has laid it out, where the just of “the nations” will be judged after Israel and the Church that God form in its visible aspect, it is not Christians to whom Jesus’ words “You did it to me” are addressed. It’s spoken to “the nations”.

Pop goes the bubble!

However, has the bubble popped completely? Of course not. It is not less that is expected of Israel and the Church. It is more. The baseline is to act towards other people as towards Jesus. This too is expected of the servants to whom “talents” and intimate revelation of the master have been given! This too, not less.

But over and above acting towards others as if they are Jesus, the master has given talents to his servants.

What are those talents? They vary immensely from person to person.

One thing that I am comfortable with asserting is this (because I think I know it from experience).

For the contemplative soul living in the hustle-and-bustle of the world, one talent is simply to not only act towards others as if they are Jesus (the baseline) but, because this characteristic of our neighbours has been revealed intimately to them by the master, to also see Jesus in our neighbour. This is a particular talent, a particular grace. It is the talent of “contemplation in the mud”. It is not a universal demand of the Gospel. The universal demand is in acting, not seeing; whereas the latter is a particular grace to manage, a particular “talent”.

Active lives take other talents. Active-contemplative lives take yet other talents. A contemplative life lived in the cloister, again others.

But the one talent specific to all contemplative vocations lived wholeheartedly in the world is the surpassing of acting towards others as if they were Jesus into consciously seeing others as if they were Jesus – seeing Jesus in our neighbour, seeing Jesus behind or beside our neighbour.

I’d like to think that this way of thinking, while initially disconcerting to anyone inspired by the spirituality of Brother Charles, brings (at least) twofold benefits:

  • It is rooted in our actual economy of salvation, thus preserving the economy as God intended it as regards the election of the Hebrew people and those Gentiles visibly and sacramentally grafted on as the Church.
  • It further roots and integrates the contemplative dimension of seeing Jesus in our neighbour into the eschatological parables of Matthew 25, by (1) expressing it as a possible “talent” and (2) re-emphasizing the contemplative as missionary. While it may be initially disconcerting to discover that Jesus’ words “You did it to me” will not be addressed to Christians, the ultimate result is a strengthening of the Gospel basis of the spirituality and charism of seeing Jesus in our neighbour. In the first place, we recognize that this is a particular “talent”: the talent of “contemplation in the mud”. In the second place, we are reminded of the missionary side to contemplation.

That’s the end of my reflection.

For anyone to whom Blessed Charles’ or Saint John Chrysostom’s reading of the parable of the sheep and the goats has been an inspiration, I simply ask:

What do you think?

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* Of course, being written in Greek, the Gospel doesn’t say גוים. But the meaning is there.

** Think about it this way. If Christians and the Hebrew people, to whom the revelation of Christ was given, were included in “the nations”, why would they be absolutely shocked to know that it was Jesus they fed, welcomed, clothed, and visited: “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food…?” Christians already know. It’s not shocking to them.


9 thoughts on “The Parable of the Sheep and the Goats in the Economy of Salvation

  1. So “the nations” are informal believers, I mean, non-believers? Not sure if I’m following correctly.

    • By “non-believers” I mean those who would accept readily Christ but are unaware, as opposed to those who would hold an opposition to it (Un/dis-belief).

    • Well, the full parable of the sheep and the goats says that Christ will judge “the nations”… and it might be for good… or it might be for bad. Someone may act well towards Jesus (and be surprised that he had done so!); someone may act badly towards Jesus (and be surprised that he had done so!).

      Based on what we’ve been told, it would be jumping the gun to say that they have all acted well and will all act well. I think that in your terms, some will be happy to discover that they had actually, in their actions, loved Jesus all along and would have “readily accepted” him if they had had a way to know… whereas others may not be so accepting of this.

      As to whether “the nations” excludes Christians, the term normally excluded Jews in Jesus’ day, and Gentile Christians are nothing more or less than grafted onto the “root” of Israel. (This way of thinking is also helped by the fact that the parable of the talents definitely applies to Christians, who explicitly know their Master!)

      Not disagreeing with other interpretations. But this one, which I learned from Cardinal Lustiger, seems very deep and contemplative in the history of the Church. Very good, very helpful, prayerful.

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