Fellow Passengers: As I read this week’s Primary Passage (Matthew 25:31-46), about how the Son of Man will take his place on his throne, arrange all nations in front of him, and sort the sheep from the goats, I find myself hoping for averages, that God will notice that I’ve acted like a sheep more times than I’ve behaved goat-like. Not lost on me is that the sheep go right, goats left. Nor the fact that every Sunday, Christians around the world recite the Apostle’s Creed, “He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.” Sheep on the right. The right hand of the Father. Right.
This reminds me of advice I heard in a journalism ethics class in college: Do the right thing, even when—especially when—no one is looking. For some reason, that was a revelation to my 19-year-old self. Growing up with a mom who suffered from mental illness and addiction, my two brothers, my sister, and I were pretty much left to our own devices. As long as one of us didn’t rat out another (usually my younger brother on me), we could do pretty much as we pleased. Before I did anything I thought I could get in trouble over—like drinking my Dad’s Coca-Cola, or reading past my bedtime, or getting into my Mom’s stash of candy, or sneaking out after bedtime to roll yards with friends—I’d always look around to see if anyone was watching. If not, the coast was clear, and I would proceed to do whatever it was I wanted to do.
Contrast those times when “I got away with something” with the times I thought no one was looking only to discover, with an adrenaline dump complete with racing heart, sweaty palms, and the urge to bolt, that someone had witnessed my transgression. Like the time I shoplifted a shirt on a dare, only to be mortified when our neighbor, Mrs. Sykes (who worked in the junior department of the store I was in with my friends), called and said in an uncharacteristically rough voice, “Robbin Marie, I know you took a shirt from my store today. If you bring it over and apologize, I’ll take it back in and you won’t get in trouble. And, don’t tell me you didn’t take it. I am so disappointed in you. I know you know better than that.” I was sick to my stomach. I loved Mrs. Sykes, who showed me more attention and love growing up than my mother did on many days. That she knew I had done something wrong was almost more than I could bear. I returned the shirt, crying and red-faced, and to this day, have never taken anything I haven’t paid for. Until that awful moment, somehow, I had confused a witness to my actions with right and wrong.
Mrs. Sykes was one of God’s sheep, buttoning up my jacket when I was shivering; giving me a hearty snack when Mom forgot; listening to me sing; holding me when I cried. She extended her love to me so effortlessly, she made her steadfast response to my neediness look easy. Likewise in scripture, it sounds deceptively simple: we need simply to do the right thing, respond to the needs of our neighbor. If they are hungry, feed them; if they are cold or homeless, give them warm clothes and shelter.
“You know better than that.” I am struck by the equal surprise of both sheep and goats that they weren’t aware of what they had done, or not done, rightly or wrongly. And, neither equated their neighbor with God. Even though we ought to know better by now, we continue to be surprised by how the small gestures of care that we either act on or ignore, day in and day out, add up to either the kingdom of heaven, or eternal doom.
Dear God, shepherd of my soul, please strengthen the sheep in me, and the awareness that in responding to my neighbor’s need, I will know you.
Robbin Whittington is Director of the Center for Spiritual Resources, a joint initiative of the Cathedral of All Souls in Asheville, NC, and the Dicocese of WNC.