Separation of Sheep and Goats,
After the 6th century mosaic in Ravenna,
Tesserae, glass in wooden frame
© Metropolitan Museum, New York
The shepherd separates sheep from goats
Jesus said to his disciples: ‘When the Son of Man comes in his glory, escorted by all the angels, then he will take his seat on his throne of glory. All the nations will be assembled before him and he will separate men one from another as the shepherd separates sheep from goats. He will place the sheep on his right hand and the goats on his left.
‘Then the King will say to those on his right hand, “Come, you whom my Father has blessed, take for your heritage the kingdom prepared for you since the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food; I was thirsty and you gave me drink; I was a stranger and you made me welcome; naked and you clothed me, sick and you visited me, in prison and you came to see me.” Then the virtuous will say to him in reply, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you; or thirsty and give you drink? When did we see you a stranger and make you welcome; naked and clothe you; sick or in prison and go to see you?” And the King will answer, “I tell you solemnly, in so far as you did this to one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did it to me.”
‘Next he will say to those on his left hand, “Go away from me, with your curse upon you, to the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you never gave me food; I was thirsty and you never gave me anything to drink; I was a stranger and you never made me welcome, naked and you never clothed me, sick and in prison and you never visited me.” Then it will be their turn to ask, “Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty, a stranger or naked, sick or in prison, and did not come to your help?” Then he will answer, “I tell you solemnly, in so far as you neglected to do this to one of the least of these, you neglected to do it to me.”
‘And they will go away to eternal punishment, and the virtuous to eternal life.’
Reflection on the Mosaics
Today’s reading is taken from Chapter 25 in the Gospel of Matthew. This chapter gives us some of the last teachings of Jesus before His passion and death. Therefore these teachings especially carry a lot of weight. In all of the Gospels this is 'the' passage where Jesus tells us explicitly who will be going to Heaven and who won’t make it. Jesus divides humanity into two groups: the sheep and the goats. The sheep go to His ‘right hand’, and the goats to His ‘left hand’. The sheep are blessed for they were virtuous and helped the needy in society. The goats on the other hand will be sent to ‘the eternal fire prepared for the devil’, for they did not help other people.
Our artwork, of which the original is part of the Ravenna mosaics, puts Christ at the very centre. He is dressed in a purple robe and seated on the judgment seat. His halo, including three blue jewels, is more elaborate than that of the angels flanking Him on either side. His right hand is pointing towards the sheep. On His left we see three darker toned goats. Jesus is not even acknowledging their presence. These goats are also placed on a lower level-line than the sheep. While the angels look sideways, Jesus is staring straight into the eyes of us, the viewers. Which will we be, sheep or goats?
While we don’t know what will happen at the final judgement and who will make it to heaven or not, today’s reading is a wake up call to prompt us into action and be aware of the needs of others. But probably the most poignant words in the reading are at the end of paragraph two where we read that when we help people ‘you did it to me’. It doesn’t say ‘you did it for me’. It says 'you did it TO me'. Jesus completely self-identifies Himself with the needy, the hungry, the poor. So every time we don’t help the more vulnerable in society, we ignore Christ Himself.
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