THE FACT THAT the goats are ignorant is not news to us.
When we read Jesus's parable in Matthew chapter 25, we are not surprised when those who are in cosmic hot water don't get it: "When did we see you hungry and not feed you, in trouble and not help you?" Typical, we think. The damned are the clueless. How do you say "duh" in ancient Greek?
But Jesus never seems content to tell us things that we expect to hear, and this story is no exception.
Next is the turn of the saved: and while we expect Jesus to say, "Blessed are you for you fed me when I was hungry", we might well have expected them to reply, "Yes, we couldn't let our Lord starve like that." But no. Jesus pictures the saved as being identically in the dark. "Uh, when exactly did we do that, Lord?"
NOW IN A WAY this is very unflattering. We Christians like to think of ourselves as being spiritually perceptive. Jesus's words should sober us up a bit: just like the damned, the saved haven't a clue about the spiritual significance of their actions.
But that's also somewhat reassuring. The saved are not those who are necessarily the most spiritually perceptive, not those who can see Christ in the beggar or who can crack the deep mysteries of life between thumb and forefinger of their left hand while writing the answers to the Times crossword with their right. The saved are simply those who got on with it.
I may not have done anything that appeared important today, getting on with my job, rushing and stumbling around as I always do, nearly bringing the wrong notes to one meeting and forgetfully leaving my Bible on the 282 bus. I may think that the spiritually important thing in my life is the book I've been writing and trying to finish for the past five years.
But even if I do publish the book, and even if it generates a few friendly letters from strangers, after I die and stand before the Lord of goats and sheep, he may well say. "You did well leaving that Bible on the bus: that was very useful in helping the next person to use that seat to get close to me!"
I SUSPECT the difference between the goats and the sheep is encapsulated in what I will feel at that moment.
The goat in me will want to cry out, "What?! You're forgetting the book I wrote, Lord!" (to which he may reply, "Yes, I am, fortunately for you.") whereas the sheep in me will say "You're joking!" and burst out laughing at the assurance that he's not.
So, back on this planet, it shouldn't alarm us that the saved are as clueless as the damned. It ain't about smarts. It's about love; it's about getting on with it. And it's not about striving to do the right thing, really, as much as striving to be his, in everything we do.
Dr Conrad Gempf is a lecturer in New Testament at London Bible College. He also writes for and edits the monthly webzine there.
© Ship of Fools 2001