There are good people and there are bad people in the world. I hope that revelation doesn’t come as a shock to anyone: there are good people and there are bad people.
Now, you could reasonably say, “But Deacon! Nobody is entirely good or entirely bad. We all have good and bad elements.” And in that you would be right. But I’m not talking about the life-long individual struggle to choose the good and avoid the bad. I’m not talking about our need to, as Paul writes, work out our own salvation in fear and trembling.
I’m talking about the simple fact that when Christ comes in His glory, He will separate the sheep from the goats. This does not mean our Lord and Savior is taking up micro-farming and animal husbandry. It means there are good people and there are bad people in the world, and each group is destined for a different end.
When the Son of Man comes in his glory,
and all the angels with him,
he will sit upon his glorious throne,
and all the nations will be assembled before him.
And he will separate them one from another,
as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.
At the end, we are judged. Everybody. And we are separated into two groups: the good and the bad. The sheep and the goats. To the sheep, Our Lord invites them to inherit the kingdom prepared for them from the foundation of the world. He says, “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.”
And those on His right are confused by His words. In their honesty, they ask Him when they did any of those very meritorious things. Jesus tells them, “Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of the least brothers of mine, you did for me.”
And to those on His left, the goats, the ones not making the cut, Our Lord orders them to Depart from me, you accursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. If you believe nothing else I ever say, believe this: That is a judgement you do not want to hear Our Lord pronounce upon you. There is nothing more terrifying than that.
When I was very young, an alarm would sound, and we would duck and cover. I lived most of my childhood believing the nukes would be coming any day. That we would all go out in an incandescent glow, and I was afraid of that. I hit my late teens and early twenties, and I started to think less about nuclear annihilation and more about zombies. Now, zombies aren’t really scary. At least, not to me. I think I could really come into my own in a good zombie apocalypse. In fact, I use to figure that might be exactly what I needed to really kick start my career.
Now, I’m older still. And zombies have lost most of their fascination. But I look at my wheelchair. And I look at the overall state of my health. And I think a lot more about the natural end of my life and my own particular judgement. I hope it’s still another forty years off… but it could come at any time. You don’t need a wheelchair and poor health for that to be true: for any of us, death can come long before we are prepared for it. And the thing that terrifies me the most – more than zombies and more than atomic obliteration – is that Christ would say to me at my judgement, Depart from me, you accursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. Zombies and nukes are a minor inconvenience. They happen; they’re over; you move on. Eternal damnation isn’t something that gets better or goes away. There is nothing in all of existence, seen or unseen, that is worse than being in Hell.
But for those on the Lord’s left, the bad ones, the goats, that is exactly what happens. Depart from me, you accursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.
And why is this terrible judgement handed down? Christ says, “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.”
And those receiving the sentence, in typical goat fashion, have an excuse. “Whoa, Lord! Hold up. We went to church every Sunday. We put our dollar in the basket. When did we not do those things?”
And Christ’s response is, “Amen, I say to you, what you did not do for one of these least ones, you did not do for me.”
I am not going to tell you to feed the hungry or give drink to the thirsty and you will go to heaven. I am not going to tell you to welcome the stranger and you will go to heaven. I am not going to tell you to clothe the naked or visit the sick and those in prison and you will go to heaven. Those are all good acts and you would be wise to do them, but that isn’t the point. Heaven isn’t a reward system where you rack up points and buy your way in.
So, what is the difference between heaven and damnation? Those judged good saw something missing or wrong in the world, and they — for the love of God and the love of neighbor — made it their responsibility to right that wrong. Those judged evil saw the same something missing or wrong in the world, and they — for the love of self and the god of convenience — made an excuse.
We are made to know God, to love God, and to serve God; and, to love our neighbor as ourself. God entrusted the stewardship of the world to us… to human beings. The difference between damnation and salvation lies in acting upon our love of God and living our Catholic faith because it is the right thing to do. Excuses will not get us into heaven; they will most certainly get us into the fires of hell. But our love of God and our love of neighbor will lead us to live our faith… to see the wrongs in the world and to work to make them right, not because it’s easy but because it is just. Our faith will lead us to stand up in opposition to evil even in the face of terror and say boldly, “This is wrong. I will not accept it. And I will do everything in my power to stop it.”
And that is the difference between the sheep and the goats, the good and the bad. And every one of us decides which one we are.