Sheep and Goats
A Lenten Moment
Mondays can be bad. For many of us, Monday represents a return to our workaday world. It seems to be harder to get up on Mondays than any other day of the week.
In the fourth century, this particular Monday could be, for some people, a very hard day. It was during the fourth century that the Church’s practice of keeping a forty day fast before Easter began. Rather than the passage from Matthew’s Gospel urging us to fast, pray, and give alms, the Gospel passage that we read this morning was the one that began Lent. Imagine, if you will, hearing this Gospel passage proclaimed, and then being told that you were being shuffled off to be with the goats. For the next forty days, you would be required to sit on the steps of the church as a public penitent. People guilty of a serious sin in the community were expelled from the worshiping body for the forty days of Lent. Adulterers, murderers, and apostates all suffered this fate. After their public penance, they would be readmitted to the community on holy Thursday and once again be allowed to receive Communion.
Perhaps the most onerous part of this public penance was that, back in the fourth century, this was a one and done kind of opportunity. People who fell into sin again were permanently excluded.
Much has changed since the fourth century. Thanks to the Irish monks of the tenth and eleventh centuries, going to confession and having your sins forgiven became a frequently offered sacrament. (I’m sure you’ve heard of Irish guilt.) Those Irish monks also came up with a much longer list of sins that which needed to be confessed.
As we listen to this Gospel passage today, it is interesting to note that there is only one criterion upon which to make the choice between the sheep and the goats; namely, our care for the less fortunate among us. This is where almsgiving comes in!
“Whatsoever you do for the least among you, that you do unto me!”