Our gospel this weekend gives us Jesus’ parable about the final judgement, in which there is a separation between sheep and goats. This kind of separation at the end of the day would have been common for Palestinian flocks, as goats were more sensitive to the cold than sheep and would need more protection. Jesus uses this idea of separating out to talk about the separation at the end of time between those who will go into heaven and those who will go to hell.
In the assembly of nations before Jesus, the King, not just believers in Jesus but all people, the determination of one’s eternal destination is based on love of others. What about faith? There is no mention of it here as a prerequisite or condition for eternal life, although in John 3:18 we read: “Whoever believes in him will not be condemned, but whoever does not believe has already been condemned.” Doesn’t that seem to give a different guideline for final judgement? Yet, the same John wrote in his first letter (1 John 3:15): “Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer and no murderer has eternal life,” this in a letter emphasizing the importance of loving one another.
The Matthean text follows the passage in which the man who did not put his talent to use for God is cast out into the darkness. Previously, Matthew had presented a number of scenarios in which Jesus was confronted by Pharisees and other Jewish groups. Jesus’ main issue with his opponents was their focus on observing details of the law while neglecting the love and care of others. In this judgement scene, Jesus turns the focus away from orthodoxy (right teachings) to orthopraxis (right living). Does he do so to the exclusion of beliefs?
There was a lot of confusion in the early church about what was essential to receive the gift of eternal life. Paul often spoke of salvation coming through faith (Romans 3) yet also emphasized that , when it came down to the great triad of faith, hope and love , the “greatest of these is love” (1 Corinthians 13:13). The connection between faith and loving service of others was a major theme of the letter of James, written quite clearly as a response to people who thought faith in the head was sufficient.
As with many other questions for which we seek answers in the scriptures, we do best to look beyond isolated texts to see statements in context and in combination with other passages. The Catholic Church considered the topic of who can receive eternal life during the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s. Our Church’s official teaching is stated in paragraphs 14 through 16 of “Lumen Gentium, “the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church. People have a responsibility of seeking the truth about God and God’s will and then responding by living God’s will to the best of one’s ability.