The final judgment will reveal the truth about God and the world for all to see. In Matthew’s parable of the judgment, the ruler of creation is shown to be the one who identifies himself with those in need. That is a pattern shown to us in Christ. And the value of our lives will be judged by how faithful we have been to that pattern.
We’ve been hearing selections from Matthew’s gospel throughout this past year and have come to the end of Jesus’ public ministry. Now, before our Lord’s passion, which begins in the next chapter, we hear a parable about the final judgment of the world. It’s a familiar text, but we might ask why it’s necessary. If God knows our hearts and minds and our histories better than we know ourselves, why is there any need for this cosmic court drama? Why can’t the righteous and the wicked just be sent off to their final destinations without further ado?
Perhaps that’s because more is involved here than just the fates of individuals. We miss the point of this parable if we hear it simply as information about why some people will go to heaven and some to hell. The larger purpose of the judgment is to make clear to all creation the truth about God and the world. The good will be vindicated beyond any possible challenge, the evil will be shown to be evil beyond any excuse, and it will be beyond question that “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”1 That final judgment is proclaimed by the king.
Who is this king? A silly question, you may say. Of course, it’s Jesus. But let’s not jump to that answer too quickly. The gospel writer doesn’t name the king here but instead tells us what kind of king he is. We’re told where we encounter this king — in distinctly unreal settings, among the least of the members of his family.
In Matthew’s picture of the judgment, he is indeed the majestic “King of kings and Lord of lords” that the book of Revelation and the “Hallelujah Chorus” proclaim. “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory.” But that is not the way we meet him today. The king turns to those on his right hand, speaks of their help for the hungry, those in prison and others in need and then says, “As you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” He identifies himself with his most humble subjects — though “subjects” isn’t quite the right word precisely because the king is identified with them.
Of course, those who are in power can always play humble for a while. Marie Antoinette and the ladies of her court dressed up as peasant girls at Versailles and pretended to be simple French farm people. But while the real peasants often went hungry, the queen could stop the game when she chose and sit down to a good meal. It’s very different with King Jesus. He isn’t just dressed up like us. He is one of us and has come to be one of us in the most difficult times of our lives. The king doesn’t just stop at saying that he was with the common people or some such generality, true as that is. Jesus isn’t about generalities. He identifies with the hungry and thirsty, the friendless, the poor and sick and imprisoned.
That is the way God has been working throughout history, beginning with his liberation of Hebrew slaves from Egypt. Centuries later, God was among the exiled Jews in Babylon to whom the prophet Ezekiel spoke in our First Lesson.2 They had just heard the news they had been dreading, that Jerusalem had fallen. Their home, their nation and its rulers, their temple and its priests, the whole political and religious structure that their lives were based on, had been destroyed. They were scattered exiles living at the pleasure of a pagan king.
And God says through Ezekiel, I’m going to do something about this in person. Using the image of the king as shepherd that was very common in the ancient Near East, God says, “I will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. ... I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. ... I will be the shepherd of my sheep.”
But God didn’t intend to be just a distant overlord. “I will set up over them one shepherd,” God says, “my servant David, and he shall feed them ... and be their shepherd.” Ezekiel and his contemporaries may have been puzzled by that, wondering who was really going to be the shepherd: God or God’s servant David? As Christians we can read that passage in the light of the resurrection that came some 600 years after Ezekiel’s time. Jesus is God’s servant David, the descendant of David in whom God is our King. He is the ruler who is one of us and is willing to identify with the least of us. Far more than any earthly ruler identifying with humble subjects, this is God himself who has entered fully into our life and death so that we can share in the divine life.
The judgment will reveal the sovereignty of Christ for all the world to see, and there will be no doubt about who the true King of creation is. And because that King has entered fully into our world to save it, our commitment to him is to be acted out in the world. A living faith will show itself in love. As we help those in need, as we work for the welfare of the whole creation, we serve him. The final judgment will make clear what actions have been for the good of God’s world and what ones have been evil.
The truth about the King and the truth about the way we should live our lives are basically one and the same. In the earthly ministry of Jesus, we can see exactly the kinds of things for which he commends the righteous in the parable of the judgment. When the crowd that has gathered around him is getting hungry and some of the disciples suggest sending them away to find food, Jesus instead provides food for them. Whenever a sick person, or a friend or relative of a sick person comes to Jesus for help, Jesus never sends them away disappointed. “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve.”3
We are called to pattern our thinking and our behavior after that of Christ. Don’t get thrown off by the fact that his provision of food for the multitudes and his healings in the gospels are described as miracles. We aren’t called to be wonder workers but simply to use whatever abilities and resources God has given us in our following of Christ. Contributing to an organization that helps people in need, working at a food bank or volunteering at a hospital are very down-to-earth non-miraculous actions that fit the pattern Christ has given us.
On the other hand (literally!) there are those who apparently never think of doing such things. Those whom the king addresses as “accursed” in this story are not mass murderers or other spectacular evildoers whose sins hardly need to be emphasized. The cursed ones are just people who don’t notice or don’t care about the hungry, the sick or the homeless. They’re looking out for Number One and pass by on the other side. In the form for confession in The Book of Common Prayer, “We have left undone those things which we ought to have done” is just as serious as “We have done those things which we ought not to have done.”4
We’re reminded to keep our eyes open, to be alert for opportunities to serve. We all get appeals from various charities in the mail and on the Internet. Some are scams and we can’t even support all the honest ones. But if you’re throwing all of them in the trash without looking at them, it may be a danger sign. Christ has taught us, by words and actions, that concern for our neighbor’s welfare is essential to genuine humanity. C.S. Lewis noted in one of his books that in this parable those who ignored people in need are consigned to a place not meant for human beings at all, “the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” Cain’s response to God, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” is one of the slogans of hell.
That can serve as a warning, just as the hope of “the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” can encourage us. But the reason for us to care for others is not just so that we can get to heaven. Christ came from heaven to serve. We are invited to live faithfully in accord with the truth that God’s judgment reveals to us about God and the world.
1 Psalm 19:9 KJV.
2 Selected verses from Ezekiel 34.
3 Matthew 20:28.
4 The Book of Common Prayer (The Church Hymnal Corporation, New York, 1979), 41-42.