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The Language of Goodness

The first known figure of the Last Judgment in Christian iconography is a beautiful mosaic in the Cathedral of St. Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna. It shows a seated Christ flanked by two large Byzantine-style angels. To Christ’s right are three perky-looking sheep and balanced on his left are three more-sober goats. Christ gestures with his right hand toward the sheep, and the angels too show their right hands but not their left.

Believers recognize the story as the parable of the sheep and goats from The Gospel of Matthew. It’s preceded by other parables likening God’s final judgment to separating grain and weeds, good fish and bad, wise and foolish virgins, profitable and unprofitable servants. In Matthew 25 Christ says the Lord will come with his angels in glory, enthroned, with all nations gathered before him. He will separate people into two groups, as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. Placing the sheep to his right he will say ‘come blessed of my father, receive the reward prepared for you-for when I was hungry you gave me food; when thirsty, drink; when I was a stranger you gave me your home; when naked, clothing; when I was sick or imprisoned, you gave help and solace.’ The blessed will say, the parable continues, ‘when, Lord, did we see you hungry, thirsty, homeless, naked, sick, or imprisoned?’ The Lord will answer ‘when you did it to the least of my brothers you did it to me.’ To those on his left the Lord will say ‘depart from me, you accursed, into punishment of fire, for I was hungry, thirsty, homeless, naked, sick, and imprisoned and you did not help me. They too will say ‘Lord, when did we see you so?’ And the Lord will say ‘anything you failed to do for one of these, however insignificant, you failed to do for me.’

According to the parable those on the left go into eternal punishment and the righteous enter eternal life. Divine final judgment is completely based on human compassion and kindness. It echoes the Hebrew prophet Isaiah who says God doesn’t want sacrifice, prayer, and ritual, but human social care.

Goodness is assessed not according to believing a doctrine or refraining from sin or overcoming evil, but only according to care for needy people.

Sheep and goats are a figure. Both animals are kosher and fit for sacrifice. Sheep aren’t good and goats bad. Sheep aren’t chosen because they’re meek and gentle whereas goats are randy and rambunctious. Sheep and goats are different kinds of animals. They only signify difference.

Our President, who says he admires Christ more than any political philosopher, seems to emulate the warrior figure sometimes identified as Christ in the Apocalypse. This figure rides a white horse, has eyes of fire, a sword in his mouth, many diadems, a mantle dyed in blood and on his thigh the name written ‘King of Kings and Lord of Lords.’ He judges in righteousness and afflicts the earth with war-striking the nations and trampling with the fury of the anger of God almighty. The figure actually isn’t named as Christ, though, and many scholars argue it’s from a Jewish apocalypse as the Apocalypse seldom uses Christ’s name or invokes his Gospel message. If you look at the Gospels you get little Christ/sword connection-as in ‘I’ve come not to bring peace but the sword.’ But Christ seems to be speaking figuratively because when Peter draws his actual sword to defend Christ and cuts off the ear of the high priest’s soldier attempting to arrest him, Christ tells Peter to put up his sword, reattaches the ear, and warns that ‘those who live by the sword shall perish by the sword.’

Christ himself renounces violence and counsels his followers to love their enemies and be like God who lets the rain fall on the just and the unjust.

Sheep and goats look a lot alike. What they represent does not. Feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, sheltering the stranger, clothing the naked, helping the sick and visiting the imprisoned are corporal and spiritual works of mercy-simple actions. They do not match indifference or bombing, disrupting, displacing, torturing, wounding, terrifying, and killing. Sheep and goats register difference and resist the contorted verbal transformations which call violence nurture, or cruelty kindness, or death liberation.

Sheep and goats are a very useful measure: goodness depends solely on what you’re doing.

DIANE CHRISTIAN is SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor at University at Buffalo and author of the new book Blood Sacrifice. She can be reached at: engdc@acsu.buffalo.edu

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DIANE CHRISTIAN is SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor at University at Buffalo and author of the new book Blood Sacrifice. She can be reached at: engdc@acsu.buffalo.edu

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