Surprise Endings, or The One About the Sheep, the Goats, and the Falling Cow
One of my favorite parts of Chevy Chase’s movie Fletch is when he’s trying to convince a doctor that he’s the nephew of a recently widowed elderly woman who’s a member of the same country club as the doctor:
Dr. Joseph Dolan: You know, it's a shame about Ed.
Fletch: Oh, it was. Yeah, it was really a shame. To go so suddenly like that.
Dr. Joseph Dolan: He was dying for years.
Fletch: Sure, but... the end was very... very sudden.
Dr. Joseph Dolan: He was in intensive care for eight weeks.
Fletch: Yeah, but I mean the very end, when he actually died. That was extremely sudden.
The end always comes as a surprise. It’s always extremely sudden.
I think of that exchange whenever I recall class discussions I had a decade or so ago as a Theology teacher at an all-boys high school.
Whenever I told my students about God's inexhaustible mercy, they (aspiring canon lawyers all) took it as a collective challenge to come up with scenarios that would be beyond even God's forgiveness:
What if we killed the Pope?
You could be forgiven for that.
What if we killed the Pope's mom?
You could be forgiven for that.
Are there any sins God won’t forgive?
The ones you don’t repent of.
Do you mean we could do whatever we want and then, if we repent at the last minute, God would forgive us?
Yes. If your repentance was sincere, absolutely.
Awesome! Then we’re going to eat and drink and party and do whatever we want with girls until the last minute and then we’ll repent and go to heaven!
That’s a great plan.
Really. There’s just one thing…
When’s your last minute?
The end always comes as a surprise.
I told my students that they could be walking along one day, minding their own business, and a cow could fall out of the sky and kill them. They scoffed, but then one day a student came in with a newspaper clipping. A couple on their honeymoon in Oregon was driving along the coast and—no kidding—a cow fell out of the sky onto their rental car. They lived, but it was merely a stay of execution. As C.S. Lewis points out in his essay “Learning in Wartime,” the death rate remains a constant 100 percent.
The end always comes as a surprise — even when you know it’s coming, you don’t see it coming.
Recently, my wife’s grandmother died after a prolonged wellness. She came from a line of long-living ladies. Her mom died when she was 94, her aunt when she was not much younger. Grandma herself was 96 when she passed, but according to my wife, after turning 60 the first time, she did it again every year for the next 36 years. It wasn’t until very recently—after she stopped dying her hair—that Grandma began to look her age.
Active and vivacious, she quite enjoyed herself at the assisted living residence where she lived. A month ago, she was laughing at her caretaker’s puppy and delighting in how much it made my two-year-old laugh to see a doggy in a dress. Three weeks ago her kidneys started to fail. Then, she was gone.
In the Bible, Jesus’ parable of the sheep and the goats is one of those stories you’ve heard so often that you might not have actually heard it. I love it because I think it has one of the best surprise endings to any story.
We all remember that Jesus tells the goats to depart from Him because they neglected Him and we all remember the goats pleading with the Lord, “When did we see you naked / hungry / thirsty, etc. and not take care of you?” But the thing that is often overlooked is that the goats weren’t the only ones to be taken aback by what the Lord says. The sheep, too, are surprised when Jesus says they saw Him and took care of Him.
When I think of this part of the story, I always imagine my wife, shortly after her 97th birthday standing before God as one of the sheep, worried that she might not have done enough. Unlike my former students, she wouldn’t have spent her time looking for loopholes, but I can imagine her asking Our Lord, “When did I have time to do all this? I never went to St. Vincent de Paul—I could never get away from my housework and the seven starving-nudist-tornadoes you gave me to referee and waste bandaids on.”
And then Jesus will look upon her with love and say, “Surprise! That was me all along! Bet you didn’t see that coming!”