It is easy to read this passage and miss the Gospel. As we watch the sheep and goats being separated for eternity, we may see and preach little more than a humanitarian call to work on behalf of society’s undervalued members. Subsequently, salvation is understood as what we achieve. Instead, this Scripture testifies that salvation is something we discover, often when we least expect it. [Feasting on the Word, 337]
We’ve all faced a judgment day or two. It might be a call to the principal’s office or maybe the boss’ office. Whomever it was who called you in, you knew that it wouldn’t be good news. The day I got called into the President’s office at the college where I was teaching, I knew something was wrong. After all it was June, and school was out for the summer!
Here in Matthew 25 we encounter an apocalyptic vision of humanity’s judgment day. The Son of Man comes in glory and gathers the nations, separating the sheep from the goats. This scene has its roots in the visions of Daniel and Ezekiel. Jesus picks up on these visions to point us toward the day of judgment, when the reign of Christ will be fully established, and things will be set right.
Today is the last day of a church year that began with the promise of Advent and continued on through the life and death and resurrection of Jesus, and then into the days of Pentecost. This last, lengthy season ends by looking forward to the day on which Jesus will finally reign in glory. In this reading from the Gospel of Matthew, that event is marked by a day of judgment. I realize that the Christmas shopping season has already begun, but as a church we need to first finish the race, before we start the next cycle.
While we sometimes call this passage a parable, it’s not really a parable. It’s not a story, but an apocalyptic vision of the day of judgment. There is a shepherd, who separates sheep and goats, but the message is fairly direct. There are two kinds of nations and people. There are the righteous and the unrighteous. Each will be judged on the merits of their lives. The sheep will get a reward and the goats will face eternal fire. It’s a powerful scene, but it’s also a terrifying one. Even though we would like to think that we’re sheep, it is possible that we are goats instead.
As I considered this scene, I began to think about the reports and revelations these past few weeks about celebrities and politicians being accused of sexual harassment and assault. My sense is that many men, myself included, have engaged in a bit of self-reflection in recent weeks. We’ve looked back over our lives, to discover where we might have acted inappropriately. My sense is that most of us have acted at one time or another in ways we now regret. While this is a difficult moment in our culture, it is also a day of reckoning, that hopefully will be transformative. What might have been allowed in the past will no longer be acceptable going forward.
Getting back to Matthew, we learn here that the basis of judgment is the way in which the nations have treated the “least of these who are members of my family.” In feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, welcoming the stranger, visiting the sick and the imprisoned, the righteous served Jesus. On the other hand, those who were judged unrighteous failed to serve Jesus by feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, welcoming the stranger, and visiting the sick and imprisoned. To the righteous goes a reward, and the unrighteous are sent off to experience eternal fire that is prepared for the devil and his angels. The message appears to be that God holds us accountable for how we treat the most vulnerable in our midst.
While this passage has often been used as a call for humanitarian action on behalf of the marginalized, we often set aside the judgment part. But judgment stands at the heart of the vision. The way in which Matthew frames the story reminded me of those old Clint Eastwood Westerns I’ve enjoyed over the years. In many of these stories, Eastwood’s characters serve as an angel of death, who metes out justice on people deemed to be evil. There is usually a day of reckoning at the end of the story, with Eastwood facing down the bad guy. He rarely says a word, but the bad guy knows that death is at hand. To make sure we get the point, the camera shifts back and forth between the man with no name and his prey, the evil one who is deserving of his fate. Of course, the music heightens the tension. The problem with this vision, whether in the Western or in Matthew 25, is that the judgment meted out seems so final. There might be room for vengeance, but not redemption. But is that the gospel?
Maybe there’s another way of looking at this vision. Remember that the previous two parables call on the people of God to be alert and prepared. So, maybe this vision is meant to serve as a wake up call. Or, as Lindsay Armstrong suggests, it could be a wellness check. With this word that comes at the end of Jesus’ earthly ministry, we’re asked to examine our spiritual health. Just like a physician will make a judgment on our health based on a series of tests and observations, this wellness check looks to the way in which the nations treat those who live on the margins of society [Feasting on the Word, p. 337]. But, even as this might serve as a wellness check for us, it is also a moment when the cover is pulled off of the evil in our midst. Anna Case-Winters puts it this way: “Evil in human history must be finally and unmistakably exposed and judged. Evil doers must be transformed so that they can be freed from evil and reconciled to one another” [Case-Winters, Matthew, p. 283]. Evil must be exposed, but evil doers must be redeemed. There is a need for judgment, but not without the promise of redemption.
As we stand before Christ’s judgment seat, we learn that compassion is the basis of judgment. The Christian faith is rooted in two principles that are drawn from the Hebrew Scriptures. The first is the call to love God with our entire being. The second is the call to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. In this vision, the nations are judged on the basis of how they love their neighbors. If this is a wellness check, perhaps there is a word of redemption in this vision of judgment.
One of the reasons why I oppose capital punishment is that it is so final. It doesn’t allow for redemption, at least not in this life. There is no opportunity for restoration and transformation. Yes, there might be a sense of vindication for the family of a victim, and there is a tendency among people of faith to relish stories of their enemies experiencing eternal punishment, but is this the gospel of Jesus? Yes, these are the words of Jesus, but is this the final message of Jesus?
In the Christmas Carol, after Scrooge is confronted with his own grave, he asks the “Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come,” “are these the shadows of things that Will be, or are they shadows of things that May be, only?” If you know the story, as my family knows the story, Scrooge experienced a conversion. At the end of his encounter with the three spirits, he declared that he was “not the man I was.” So, he tells the phantom: “I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year.” If there is only judgment and not redemption, then what purpose is there in sharing this message beyond relishing in divine vengeance against one’s opponents?
What Scrooge learned from his visitations, and we learn from this vision, is that compassion is the heart of the gospel. What is interesting about this word of judgment is that the sheep, the ones who are declared righteous, didn’t even know that they had served Jesus in this way. Anna Case-Winters notes that the “Righteous” do “works of mercy unconsciously, with no consideration for being seen or being rewarded.” In fact, they “seem to be surprised to have been discovered” [Matthew, p. 280].
I appreciate this word from Lindsay Armstrong who writes:
So the word we hear today is not a call to do good things so we will receive our reward on the day of judgment, and it’s not merely a call to humanitarian action. Instead, it is a reminder that as we live in the time between advents, that our lives should be marked by compassion. Since we don’t know the day or the hour that judgment day will arrive, let us live justly, loving our neighbor, who might be hungry, thirsty, naked, in prison, in a refugee camp, in a homeless shelter, or simply a person whose presence is often unacknowledged, a person who sits quietly, hoping to be noticed, but who is largely ignored, even in church.
As we gather today to celebrate the reign of Christ on earth as in heaven, and as we stand before his throne, and await his judgment, may we not only hear a word of judgment, but also a word of redemption.
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Christ the King Sunday
November 26, 2017