These are two stories; the first is an old tale that is radically edited from Leo Tolstoy. Absolution requested. The second is some reflections of another nature on Matthew 25, the final judgment. If you read to the end you’ll find out what I intend by “goat cheese and starfish”.
Martin The Cobbler
There was a cobbler who lived alone in his shop with one window that looked out on the street. His wife and children had all died and he asked God, “Holy One why have you so long delayed your coming? I have almost given up hope in seeing you. Please come to my humble shop this day and show me your face.”
Outside on the street the cold winter brought snow. Through his window he saw a beggar who shivered in the cold. He invited the beggar into the shop to warm him and offer a meager meal from his shrinking larder. The beggar thanked him and left.
As the day passed, a few customers came with repairs they needed for their shoes and harnesses. A young boy sought shelter from the cold and snow. The child’s feet were wrapped in old dirty rags and stuffed with paper. Into the shop he invited the boy. After making him some warm milk and a sandwich from the little food he had he went to his closet and found a pair of shoes that belonged to his son. He fit the shoes to the boy. Grateful, the boy left with a promise to return to visit him.
It was approaching dusk and the cobbler despaired of a visit from the Lord. A woman with her young babe appeared in front of the window. She was dressed in a thin piece of cloth and she looked as if she might freeze to death. The cobbler invited her into his shop. Wary of the old man, she hesitated at the door, but feeling the warmth within she stepped across the threshold. The cobbler made her some tea and went to his closet to find a heavy woolen cloak that belonged to his wife. Giving her the cloak the woman thanked him and after he shared the rest of his larder with her, she left with the child.
The sun descended and left the cobbler bereft. “Why didn’t you come and visit me today,” the cobbler asked? There was a voice that spoke to him in his humble shop: “But I did come to you. When you invited in the beggar, the boy, and the mother and her child, I was there with you. In each of their faces you looked into my eyes.” Martin then remembered the scripture: “When did you see me hungry and feed me, alone and naked and clothe me and thirsty and you gave me a drink.” The visitors who had come to his shop that day had been his master. In their faces he had looked into the eyes of God.
That night the cobbler slept happy and at peace for the first time in many months.
Now for Goat Cheese and Starfish
Goats are independently minded and unruly and make the most luscious cheese. Sheep are great too, but they tend to be docile and easily herded. Their cheese is good too, but I like goat cheese better.
There has always been an attraction to Matthew’s vision of the final judgment: As William McNamara, the Discalced Carmelite told us: “We know what our final judgment will be.” All we have to do is read Matthew 25. And yet there is something paradoxical to the image. Aren’t they a little too absolute? From foolish virgins and the poor slave who buried his talent and now the goats, isn’t it too simple? We are both sheep and goats. We are sometimes wise and sometimes foolish. We sometimes visit the sick and feed the hungry and love the poor and visit the prisoner and the dying. Some of us even are paid to do this. Sometimes we throw up our hands and fret at the enormity of the problem and do nothing except send a check to help with the Ebola crisis in Liberia.
My friend the Rabbi says we are given freedom to live and do what we can to create life and shepherd the creation and it comes with conditions. You have to follow the covenant: which is summarized in the Hebrew Bible, by the way, to “love God and to love your neighbor as yourself.” We like our freedom and are troubled by her conditions. And yet it’s the very conditions that magnify the freedom. Our true freedom depends on welcoming the poor, the prisoner, the naked, and the sick into the circle of our compassion. And that includes our own goat and sheep selves.
Those who give themselves whole and free to these ministries are the saints. And yet not one of them, including Jesus and the Buddha lived without doubt or under any illusion that all the compassion in the world could solve the problems of injustice, greed, or apathy. Yet they threw themselves fully into life so that we could find a way. It is a paradox.
St Augustine it is told was walking along the beach one day and saw Starfish, thousands on thousands of them, washed ashore. A little girl was running to and fro on the sand and throwing the Starfish back into the water. “Why are you doing that,” Augustine asked the girl? “There are too many to save, it won’t make a difference.” “It will make a difference to this one,” the girl said as she threw another Starfish into the sea.
So we go on loving our goat and our sheep selves and do what we can out of the love of God to transform our freedom into hearts of compassion, and try to make a difference one Starfish or goat at a time.
The sheep already have it made.