At other times, Jesus says he does not come to condemn the world but to save the world (John 3:17; 12:47). The word is κρίνω, to separate, or to judge. He did not come to judge us. But here today he comes in his glory with all his angels and sitting on his glorious throne before all the nations and he separates us into two groups (Matt 25:31-33). It seems he's making a judgment – a κρίσις, a separation – and that this is his coming "day of judgment" (Mat 12:36).
In the parable, he is separating sheep from goats as would a shepherd (25:32). And much is often made of the difference in character between a sheep and a goat. I have to admit I have pretty limited experience with farm animals, but I have encountered both sheep and goats. I once held a lamb, and I found it to be the most receptive, docile, and pleasant creature I've ever touched. And then once in a petting zoo, I encountered a goat. I became particularly well acquainted with its horns as it butted me, trying – successfully – to get me to drop the feed I was carrying and run. So my own experiences prejudice me against the goat and in favor of the sheep. And I'm therefore tempted to go along with the usual narrative that we ought to be more like sheep and less like goats.
But I want to challenge this narrative just a bit. I'm not sure that the Lord really has anything against goats. God made them too, you know. And a goat can't help being a goat any more than a lamb can help being a lamb. They are as God made them, and God did not make us for damnation. He made us for himself, out of love.
So, pushing the metaphor too far, you might end up with something rather like Calvin's heretical doctrine of double predestination, wherein God creates some for salvation and others for damnation – wherein the theological virtue of hope is rendered really rather pointless.
So I think we should see this separation of animals rather as a simple image of judgment than as a commentary on the character and destiny of goats. And this is important because it affects how we regard one another. We might be tempted to regard our enemies as hopeless, irreformable goats, but this is not a Christian attitude toward anyone. Certainly, it’s not our job to judge the goats. And our attitude toward others, our regard for others, and our relationship with others is really the heart of this parable.
The light of Christ illumines every relationship. When all the nations gather before the glorious throne of our King and our God and his light shines upon us, the reality of all our deeds toward others will be brought into his light. It isn't that Jesus is condemning anyone, but rather that some condemn themselves by living without love of others.
Fr. Thomas Hopko says that “it’s important to see that the judgment is simply the presence of Christ.” This is like a judgment with no judge. If we love Christ in the least of his brethren, to be in his presence is our salvation. To be in the presence of Christ is also judgment.
God is love. If we come into the presence of love himself unlovingly, our own hearts stand in judgment against us. In his presence, what we do in secret, which our Father sees in secret, is brought into his light and our own actions judge us (cf. Matt 6:3-6). Christ does not condemn us. We condemn ourselves every time we fail to welcome the stranger, even if the stranger is a foreigner or of a different race or follows a false religion, even if we’re a bit afraid of him. We condemn ourselves every time we fail to visit the sick, even if they’re irascible, and the imprisoned, even if their crimes are heinous. We condemn ourselves every time we fail to clothe the naked, to feed the hungry, and give drink to the thirsty, even if they seem like goats to us (Matt 25:42-43).
This is what the judgment comes down to: How do we treat each other? Do we love each other? I've been teaching our first graders about this greatest commandment. Love God and love your neighbor as yourself - as yourself. This is remarkable. The command is not to love your neighbor as you love yourself, as it is sometimes rendered. Rather, it is to love your neighbor as yourself (Lev 19:18; Matt 22:39; Mark 12:31: Luke 10:27).
It's true that we should love ourselves, but it's all wrong and unhealthy to imagine that this means that we should have a preferential love for ourselves over and against our neighbors. In fact, this doesn’t make any sense and the very opposite is the case. It is in our neighbors – our enemies and our friends – that we find our very selves. You won't find yourself in the mirror. It's just cold glass - an illusion. We find ourselves in our spouses, in our brethren, in our friends, and even in our enemies.
Love your neighbor as being your very own self. If you are hungry, what do you do? You go get something to eat. If your neighbor is hungry, what should you do? Go and get him something to eat. This is how we can find ourselves and come to know ourselves – in other people. The other kind of self-love is a sin condemned by the fathers because we, like God, are essentially relational. That is, totally cut off from others, we have no selves. Our selves exist in relationship – even in relationship to the least of Christ’s brethren.
Who are the least of Christ's brethren? This is an important question because Jesus says that it is on how we treat these that we are judged. I think that the least of Christ's brethren are whoever we love the least. Who is your worst enemy? Who do you dislike most? It is based on how you treat that person or group of people that you are judged. The love we have for the Lord and his Christ is equal to the love that we have for the person or persons we love the least.
We’re not to worry about whether or not a person is a goat or a sheep – and therefore worthy of our love – before we decide to love them. Judgment is not our job, thank Christ. The presence of Christ is the judgment. And Christ chooses to identify himself with the least of his brethren. What we do to those we love the least we actually do to Christ.
He also gives us a new commandment to love each other as he has loved us. We are to love as Christ loves. We are to be as Christ to others. This puts Christ on both sides of the equation – both in the self and in the other. So, as Christ, we are to love the least of his brethren – as Christ. Christ is all, and in all (Col 3:11). Glory to Jesus Christ.