The parable of the sheep and the goats was one of Jesus’ last parables. In the Gospel of Matthew (25:31-46), just before the Passion narrative, we find this story about the last judgment. It is sometimes called “the Judgment of the Nations.”
Interestingly, it’s one of a few stories Jesus used that included images of sheep: Think of his referring to himself as “the Good Shepherd” in John’s Gospel, and of the shepherd with 99 sheep who went off to search for the one lost one in Luke. In Matthew’s story of the judgment, the sheep are separated from the goats, with the sheep placed at the king’s right hand and the goats going off to the left — and eternal damnation.
Why? What did the goats do wrong? More correctly, it’s what the sheep did right. They performed what we would now call “the corporal works of mercy.”
During the upcoming Year of Mercy — which starts Dec. 8 — Pope Francis has asked us, as the Church and the Body of Christ, to “announce the mercy of God, the beating heart of the Gospel.”
One specific way to announce God’s mercy that the pope wants us to practice during this holy year is doing the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. Pope Francis believes these offer us “a way to reawaken our conscience, too often grown dull in the face of poverty.”
The corporal works of mercy are all — but one — found in this Gospel story about sheep and goats. And we can see how the goats didn’t show any mercy:
“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you accursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, a stranger and you gave me no welcome, naked and you gave me no clothing, ill and in prison, and you did not care for me’” (Mt 25:41-43).
The sheep, on the other hand, did all these things (Mt. 25:34-36). We see their good work as the corporal works of mercy:
- Feeding the hungry;
- Giving drink to the thirsty;
- Clothing the naked;
- Welcoming the homeless;
- Caring for the sick;
- Visiting those in prison;
- Burying the dead. (This last work of mercy is not in Matthew, but comes to us from the Book of Tobit: 1:16-20).
“Corporal” comes from the Latin word “corpus,” meaning body. So the corporal works of mercy have to do with bodily functions — hunger, thirst, sickness — as well as physically caring for those needs by visiting the sick and the imprisoned, clothing the naked and welcoming the homeless.
The spiritual works of mercy build off the corporal works of mercy and address what our spiritual selves need. The spiritual works of mercy are:
- Admonishing sinners;
- Instructing the ignorant;
- Counseling the doubtful;
- Comforting the sorrowful;
- Bearing wrongs patiently;
- Forgiving injury;
- Praying for the living and the dead.
These are not as explicitly listed in the Gospels as the corporal works of mercy, but, as “The Catholic Encyclopedia” notes, “the spiritual works of mercy deal with a distress whose relief is even more imperative (than the corporal works) as well as more effective for the grand purpose of human creation.”
How to carry out spiritual works of mercy may, in many ways, prove more difficult to figure out than doing corporal works of mercy. And, at least the first three spiritual works — admonishing, instructing and counseling — must be approached carefully. As “The Catholic Encyclopedia” also notes, these first three spiritual works are “not always within the competency of every one.” And, we can’t forget that Jesus reminded us to remove the log from our own eye before pointing out the splinter in someone else’s. It takes a lot of theological background and spiritual wisdom to be able to “instruct the ignorant” and our examples more than our words probably help us counsel the doubtful.
Jesus did teach us to forgive sins. And he modeled, in his own body, how to comfort the sorrowful and bear suffering patiently. These are part of the last four spiritual works of mercy and are certainly within the abilities of all of us: offering comfort, praying for others, forgiving and being patient in adversity and suffering.
It helps to remember that, when we are merciful to others, mercy flows back to us. Think of the gratitude people show for your help, or how a smile breaks through tears at your hug or kind word. Who among us has not needed spiritual help in some way? Who has not needed forgiveness and understanding? Who has not looked for other sheep to huddle up with rather than a goat that might give us a butt with its horns? But remember that — when we are most in need — we are also blest. As the Lord said in his Sermon on the Mount, God is close to us in our weakness: “Blessed are those who mourn, blessed are the meek….”
Both when we need mercy and when we show mercy, we are blest. In his encyclical about the mercy of God (Dives in Misericorida), St. John Paul II said that “mercy becomes an indispensable element for shaping mutual relationships between people, in a spirit of deepest respect for what is human, and in a spirit of mutual brotherhood.”
The Year of Mercy will open on the anniversary of the Dec. 8, 1965 closing of the Second Vatican Council. When St. John XXIII called that council into being, he spoke of his vision that the gathering would offer a “medicine of mercy” Pope Francis has spoken of the church as a field hospital. In 2013, he said “I see clearly,” the pope continues, “that the thing the church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful; it needs nearness, proximity.”
When Jesus spoke about the sheep, he commended them for doing just that — being near to each other: “Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.”
Sources: “The New Jerome Biblical Commentary”; Dives in Misericordia; “The Harper Collins Encyclopedia of Catholicism”; “The Catholic Encyclopedia”; vatican.va; and usccb.org.