Ezekiel proclaims the message that the Lord says, “I myself will look after and tend my sheep” (Ez. 34). The shepherd is one who proactively feeds and cares for his sheep.
Matthew 25 brings together the image of the ruler and the shepherd in one parable. The Son of Man, seated on his throne as king, will be as a shepherd. Indeed, he is like the shepherd mentioned in Ezekiel. He brings together his sheep and gives them their inheritance in the Kingdom of God. The king acknowledges their works in caring for those in need. He even goes so far as to say that to serve the needy is to serve the king himself!
Yet, there is a twist.
The shepherd who proactively nourishes and feeds his sheep rewards his sheep for proactively feeding and caring for others. How many of you have heard of sheep feeding other sheep? Does this entire image fall apart then? Is Jesus confused?
No, in this story the Lord invites us to probe the mystery of our salvation.
This reminds me of the prayer of St. Francis: It is in giving that we receive.
The sheep who feed others are fed in their feeding. Caring for others nourishes the sheep. Indeed, it saves them.
We who are called to be sheep have been created in such a way that we thrive, grow, and are nourished by caring for those in need. For this reason, the sheep who hear the voice of the shepherd are guided to that nourishment. And the voice of the shepherd we hear in the cry of the poor, the begging of the hungry, the sobbing of the prisoner, and the chattering teeth of the naked. Even if we are not aware of it, we are hearing the voice of the king.
The voice and face of the king we can find wherever we find our suffering brothers and sisters.
The goats are the ones who do not recognize the shepherd’s voice. They do not listen to the voice of the king in the poor, the hungry, the prisoner and the naked. So they ignore the king. Perhaps they stayed out of trouble. Maybe they broke no laws. But that is a life of saying “no” to doing evil.
Christianity is not a religion of “no” but of “yes.” It is not a religion that focuses on the things we should not do. Turning away from the desert of sin is only the first step. We must also turn to green pastures. We must listen to the king’s voice, who shepherds us to those green pastures where we are fed by works of charity and justice.
In other words, we say “yes” to all the good works about which the king would have us. Every day, when we wake up, we can say “no” to sin, and we should. In addition, we can say “yes” to virtue, especially the virtues of charity and justice.
When we pray at night we can ask ourselves the questions: “how often do I say yes? How often do I look for the poor, the hungry, the prisoner, and the naked? Am I proactively seeking to grow as a follower of Christ? Am I actively seeking out the king in those who are in need? Or am I satisfied with just staying out of trouble?”
If we are not proactively working for charity and justice we are already in trouble. No one ever won any trophies for not breaking the law. And no one will win a life in heaven simply by not sinning. The inheritance of the Kingdom of God belongs to those who have been blessed by the heavenly Father. And the heavenly Father blesses those who have blessed his Son, Christ the King, present in the least of his brothers and sisters.