‘… the least of these my brothers…’

As the Sunday, Nov. 20 network news’ yakkers were working hard to fix the blame for the Super Committee’s failed attempts to fix last summer’s failed attempts to fix Congress’s failed attempts to fix the federal budget, 25 or so Americans gathered in a central Illinois church to hear their pastor explain that day’s Gospel, Matthew 25: 31-46.

Sheep and goats

For the faithfully unchurched or the faithfully forgetful, that’s the lesson where the Lord warns the world that, sooner or later, it will be separated into two flocks — sheep on the right and goats on the left. The sheep will “inherit the kingdom prepared for them” and the goats, well, they’ll be very hot for a very long time.

Message

The message and the metaphor were not lost on one of those folks gathered that gray Sunday in Illinois. In a half-century of church-going, two decades of evening devotions and eight years of Lutheran school, I had heard that passage at least 50 times. My understanding of it, however, was slow to evolve.

For example, in grade school the reading brought fear. Goats? Eternal fire? What?

Later, it brought confusion: Sheep on the right, goats on the left. OK, so where’s the middle?

Now, finally, it brings clarity. Right, left. Eternal life, eternal punishment. Got it.

More importantly, the evolution made clear the path toward one and away from the other: “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.”

Simple, really.

That I missed that point for many years was not because of my stern schooling or simple upbringing. I saw examples of great giving for years at school and on the big dairy farm of my youth, but was either too childish or too arrogant to accept ‘em.

Milk

For example, two or three times a week a neighbor would send his children to our dairy for milk that we sold to anyone with a gallon jug and 50 cents. This neighbor, however, never paid. Instead, each trip and each gallon was duly noted, usually by those children, on a tab kept in a nearby cupboard.

As the tab lengthened, two things slowly dawned on me. First, the neighbor always sent his children because he didn’t want the embarrassment of having to add to that tab in person and, two, the tab would never be paid.

Not going to miss it

Shortly thereafter, I realized that my father not only knew the tab would never be paid, he never acknowledged it even existed. His view, I reckoned, was that since we produced 3,000 gallons of milk a week, we’d never miss the four or five gallons the neighbor needed. After all, we had plenty and the neighbor didn’t even have a cow.

As such, two gallons here or two gallons there simply didn’t matter. What mattered was doing the right thing. There was no debate, no cost-benefit analysis, no consultation with a committee and no telephone call to some government official.

It was the right thing to do, so he did it. Period.

Time paid for it

Besides, time paid the tab. The following 40 years leveled the cows, the dairy, the neighbor and the tab. All are gone; all accounts are settled. The proverbial sheep have been separated from the proverbial goats.

Divisions

Maybe that’s something our mostly-rich-to-super-rich politicians might want to keep in mind as they continue to deepen the divisions between the nation’s rich and poor, left and right, Dems and Repubs, fed and unfed: Time settles all accounts.

Also, since most of these slicksters are city slicksters, they might want to learn the difference between sheep and goats. Word has it that they are not the same either now or later.

2011 ag comm

About the Author

Alan Guebert was raised on an 800-acre, 100-cow southern Illinois dairy farm. After graduation from the University of Illinois in 1980, he served as a writer and editor at Professional Farmers of America, Successful Farming magazine and Farm Journal magazine. His syndicated agricultural column, The Farm and Food File, began in June, 1993, and now appears weekly in more than 70 publications throughout the U.S. and Canada. He and spouse Catherine, a social worker, have two adult children. farmandfoodfile.com More Stories by Alan Guebert

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