Jesus' Standard of Judgement
“Jesus’ Standard of Judgment”
(a sermon based on Matthew 25:31-26:2, page 861)
Rev. Dr. Paul A. Lance, Minister
First Congregational United Church of Christ
201 S. Second Ave., Alpena, Michigan 49707
September 20, 2020
“Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.” (Matt. 25:40) And, the converse: “Truly, I say to you, as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me.” (Matt. 25:45) Since Jesus is the one who tells this parable of judgment, we assume it’s about him.
But the story (as Jesus tells it) actually begins with the Son of Man coming in glory (!) … with all the heavenly host of angels in tow... to be seated on God’s glorious throne (much like Isaiah’s dramatic vision we spoke about three weeks ago). This parable begins by describing the typical Jewish expectation of how God’s Messiah will come at the end of time to judge people.
Nothing new there. Nothing surprising. The “shepherd” image is inconsequential; it’s merely an example of how things get “sorted out”.
Jesus says that “all the nations of the earth” will be gathered in an instant at the feet of the Messiah -- much like the various heads of states and tribal chiefs from all lands were occasionally “called to account” before great Caesar in the Roman Empire, or tribal leaders were called to present them- selves before King Solomon at the Temple in Jerusalem! But this heavenly “Son of Man” Messiah -- this “King of Kings & Lord of Lords” -- would outrank even Solomon, outrank Caesar. (!) This Messiah judge would trump them all!
I can imagine how the oppressed people in Israel’s homeland (occupied as they were in Jesus’ day by the Romans, and dispersed & destroyed as they were by the Romans in Matthew’s day around the year 70) would hope for a warrior/savior Messiah… who would arrive in glory, bolstered by an army of angels. Jesus draws a verbal picture of God on the Eternal Throne about to judge the nations for their behavior – some nations to be punished, while the righteous would receive eternal life. That’s the picture Jesus draws for his followers there in Jerusalem… just two days before he was crucified.
“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.” (Matt. 25: 31) This is exciting, “second-coming,” apocalyptic stuff! “All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another…” Please notice who God is separating: Nations! Peoples! Entire countries, states, & tribes are being judged for their policies and collective behavior.
I think for too long preachers and Bible teachers have made folks think that this parable of the “Last Judgment” is a matter of individual salvation -- going to heaven or hell when we die -- rather than seeing that God’s judgment is about nations… the life or death consequences of their leaders’ decisions.
The word used for the Son of Man hereafter is “king”
“The king will say to those at his right hand, Come…”
“The king will say to those at his left hand, Depart…”
And, in each case, the people who are judged answer: “Lord! When?”
“Lord” language is how royalty (one’s masters) are addressed. England still has a House of Lords separated from a House of Commons, after which our own U.S. Senate and House of Representatives is patterned. It’s a picture of royalty (a king of Empire-status) -- a conquering hero -- who has put all “nations” under his feet… and who is now bringing them to the bar of divine justice.
It is only to illustrate the act of “separating” that Jesus uses the “sheep & goats” metaphor, and then, only briefly. (Matt. 25:32-33) It’s about judgment.
Before we go get ourselves all excited about Jesus using “Son of Man” language to portray that Messiah-figure in the Parable of the Last Judgment -- a Son of Man who is called “the King” and whom the people address as “Lord” -- a royal metaphor, with God Almighty on a throne of Judgment! – let me read again for you the very next sentence in Matthew’s Gospel:
When Jesus had finished all these sayings, he said to his disciples, “You know that after two days the Passover is coming, and the Son of Man will be delivered up to be crucified.” (Matthew 26:1-2) “… the Son of Man will be delivered up to be crucified!”
How does that pending crucifixion of “the Son of Man” (within the next two days) line up with the royal depiction in the Parable?
“When the Son of Man comes in all his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne…” (?) Here the Son of Man (the Messiah) is imagined as “seated on a throne in all his glory”, while the reality of what the actual Son of Man (Jesus) would experience is tragic and unjust! Jesus (who tells this parable) realizes that he was about to be arrested by the authorities, put on trial … suffering torture, and eventual death by execution on a Roman cross!
That’s what the world of real kings, Caesars, & rulers do to the real Son of Man, Son of God, Savior: they nail him up on a cross, hoping he’ll just die! Just go away and leave them to rule as they see fit, without judgment. They don’t want anyone questioning how they are running things. (Jesus… You’re fired!)
I suspect Matthew’s audience did not feel the clashing juxtaposition of these two very different uses of the title “Son of Man” by Jesus any more than most preachers and Bible teachers do today. There was no anticipation in Jewish circles for the Messiah/Son of Man to suffer. (!) After all, as God’s “anointed” one -- as the “chosen” one who would bring salvation -- Messiah would have to be a ruler! (Right?) To defeat evil & sin, the Savior would have to succeed, not succumb! To succeed, he’d have to have power & authority … just like Jesus depicts the Messiah-judge doing in his parable.
Since the norm in Jesus’ day (and for many Christians in our day as well), the norm was to imagine the Messiah as a coming king… who would rule over the nations, and who would judge them as regards their level of “righteousness” (or lack thereof)… what did the people think the divine standard of justice would be? That’s Jesus’ primary issue in telling this parable this way: by what criteria were nations judged “righteous”?
Perhaps: If you’re Jewish, the final judgment means “Don’t worry; you’re in” -- because you are the “chosen” people. (!) But if you’re Greek or Roman or barbarian or a slave, well then, sorry, you’re lost; you were not chosen by God. Furthermore, you do not keep Jewish Law. (!) Abraham’s bosom is not for you!
Or how about assuming that you are “righteous” because you’ve paid your tithes assiduously; or you’ve kept yourself “kosher” (pure); or you have obeyed all of the rules of Torah without fail since your youth. Would that be it?
How about being declared “righteous” because of your zealous nationalism -- your patriotism -- fighting for your tribe against all foreign nations who attempt to occupy and enslave you. Would that be a star in your crown, a feather in your cap? How about giving alms to the poor, or praying five times a day religiously? Would that put you in God’s good graces?
There is no end to the number of things you might be expected to do in a rule-keeping, behavior-valued, works-righteousness social system or religion!
Will your acceptance by the Messiah as a right-hand righteous person be assured if you know your Bible better than the priests & scribes? How about if you stay away from loose women, avoid fornication, shun gluttons & drunkards, tax-collectors & sinners? Would that gain you admittance to God?
What if (in your business dealings) you refuse to handle Gentile money? Would that help? It probably couldn’t hurt if you were seen by the Son of Man wearing your best clothes, or caught praying on street corners & being greeted with respect in the marketplaces! How about a big donation to the Temple’s Building Fund? How about inviting the chief priest over for dinner?
We could go on and on with a list of “good behaviors” that might prove to the royal judge that, yes, you have been a “good” Sadducee, a “faithful” Pharisee, a “serious” Bible scribe, or “religious” person. You & I could have (like the rich young ruler is said to have done) “kept all the Torah laws since our youth”… Would it be enough? Would God welcome you into heaven?
Jesus has “set up” this parable as though it were a traditional Jewish apocalyptic judgment scene featuring a majestic Messiah on a throne of glory. The crowds there in Jerusalem would have eaten this up! That’s exactly the kind of “final judgment” they expect from God. (Go to it, Jesus!)
The nations, first, are separated… some to the right & some to the left. Once that’s done, then the standard that was used (the criteria by which the division had been made) was announced to the people. (!) And it is here that the sudden shock of the story hits home.
You see, the standard that Jesus says the Lord God will use to judge between the nations is: how they treated the lowest and the least (the left- outs and left-overs) in their society. There’s nothing about purity. Nothing about obeying laws, or praying out loud, or giving generous donations to the Temple. (!) There’s nothing about dressing right, or keeping the Sabbath, or avoiding sinners! There’s nothing about having to be Jewish to “get in”! (!) Social categories like “gentile” or “Jew”, slave or free, male or female (today, maybe, Democrat or Republican) don’t matter to the judge in Jesus’ parable… (!) In fact, none of the moral codes that the Jewish teachers insisted upon was being used! (!) (This was radical! Jesus has totally turned things around!)
According to Jesus, the standard that God will use to judge between the nations is how we treat the lowest and the least in our society:
The naked are given clothes to wear.
The hungry are given a meal.
I was thirsty; you gave me something to drink.
I was a stranger, and you welcomed me.
The righteous nations took care of the sick.
They visited prisoners.
Now, none of these things are all that big. None of them are showy, or saintly, or even socially recognized. I mean, what’s a sandwich for a hungry, homeless guy, or a couple bucks for a meal at McDonalds? Nothing much to those of us who have sufficient food. Down in Jamaica (where Patty & I like to vacation), the gardeners & housekeepers work long, hot hours in the thick humidity and tropical heat -- many a time Patty or I would give them a cup of water, or a soda-pop, or a Red Stripe… just because they were thirsty. How hard is that? It’s no big deal.
In my seven years here in Alpena, I’ve seen our church members make a real difference in some of these lives. Locally, our church outreach & court system, may pass the test set by Jesus… but as a nation, we’re still incar- cerating far too many people; lock ’em up and throw away the key! (!) “Three strikes, and you’re out!” (!) From what I’ve seen, our police forces & Sheriff’s deputies have a good rapport in Alpena, a good reputation for reasonable restraint; we can’t say that about all police in America (just watch the news).
How about: Welcoming a stranger or caring for someone who is sick -- that we do! Alpena has a great hospital & good doctors. We are (as the sign says) “a warm and friendly port” and this congregation always says: “Whoever you are, and wherever you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.”
We are an affirming group of welcoming people open to all kinds of folks, bar none. As a nation, however, the welcome mat to immigrants and refugees has been mostly rolled up and put away as federal immigration policy & border enforcement has tightened up…
… not to mention that American travel abroad has been banned due to the coronavirus outbreaks that still rage in some of our larger cities.
So, as individuals, we welcome strangers, we care for our sick, we donate clothes to charity, and help make meals at the Friendship Room soup kitchen. (!) Does that mean we have “earned” our place at God’s right hand because we have been doing what is right? … No, not necessarily. Because the ones who were blessed by God (in Jesus’ parable) actually had no idea that they had done anything out of the ordinary!
“When did we do that?” they asked the king who was doing the judging.
The good that they were doing was “beneath their radar” (so to speak). They didn’t keep count. It wasn’t a matter of them tallying up “righteous- ness points” for the final judgment. They just did little, every-day, simple, ordinary kindnesses that showed (to God) that they cared about others. It wasn’t about what they believed, but what they did. It was especially note- worthy that they did these simple kindnesses to “the least of these” (people who, Jesus reminds them, are our “brethren” -- “members of my family”!).
This kind of caring concern for the humble and hurting human beings in their society, says Jesus, is the true measure of a nation’s morality. Those nations who gave no food to the hungry, no clothes to the naked, nothing to drink to those who thirsted… Those who ignored the stranger in their midst, or who did not visit the sick or the prisoners, were called “accursed” by the judge in the parable.
“But, Lord, we never saw you in any of those sorry conditions.” Surely, we would have responded better, if we had known it was you, Lord. So far as we could tell, it was just poor people that we were ignoring -- alien strangers, convicts, sick people, homeless folks or foreigners -- that were in those lousy conditions. They shouldn’t much matter in the grand scheme of things, Jesus!
Ah, but they do, don’t they! For “truly, I tell you,” said Jesus, as the punchline of his parable sank in, “just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it unto me.” (Matt. 25:45) (Ouch!)
Keith Titus, in his book “This I Believe (I think) or Thus Saith the Lord (if I heard correctly)” © 2015, page 89-90, asks: If Jesus were here on earth today, where would he be?
[You remember that bracelet that was popular a few years back, WWJD, What Would Jesus Do? Well, how about WWJB?] Where would Jesus be; the Jesus who walked the earth with us and got stomach aches and blisters and had bad hair days. If he were here on earth today… I think I know where he’d be.
He’d be in a bar [or in a barrio] in downtown Chicago with his arm around a guy who just lost his job. He’d be teaching in the state prison in Jackson, Michigan, or building cardboard shelters in the slums of Mexico City. He’d be in Sierra Leone, holding a glass of water to the lips of a dying Ebola patient.
With the example of his whole life, Jesus says to us: “You want to find me -- today, tomorrow, always -- you just have to look in the right places. You can find me in the people you spend all your time avoiding.
Whatever you’ve done to them, good or bad, you did it to me. If you ignored them, you ignored me. If you withheld your love from them, you didn’t love me. If you were disgusted by them, you were disgusted by me. If you rejected them, you rejected me. When they weep, I cry. When they’re hungry, I starve. When they die, I die. Again. And again. And again.”
And that’s where he says we’re to be also. (unquote, Keith Stanley Titus)
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt once said that “the test of our progress in not whether we add more to the abundance of those who [already] have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have little.” I’m glad a man like him was at the helm during the Great Depression.
That great black preacher James Forbes -- recently retired Minister of the Riverside Church in New York City -- says: “If I don’t stop just talking about the poor, and actually do something to help the poor, I’m going to be embarrassed to meet God.”
Each of us individually can do our part; but it’s when we vote, that we begin to address the values of our whole nation! (And Jesus says, in this parable, that’s where God is watching! We’re judged as a nation.) (!)
It’s not just how we live our day-to-day values, but when we write a letter to our elected representatives (or to the editor), or march in a protest -- it’s when we pay attention to where we shop and what we support, and it’s when we open ourselves to meeting someone with a different point-of-view (from a different political party or sexual orientation or background than our own) -- that our national destiny is seen.
Let me close with a quote from William Sloane Coffin: “It is one thing to say with the prophet Amos, ‘Let justice roll down like mighty waters,’ and quite another to work out the irrigation system.” It’s in the doing of justice that a nation’s true character is seen.
Let us continue to do our part, with an eye to improving the common good, so that (in the end) we, too, may hear Jesus say of us: “Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”
Even in these difficult times, these disrupted days, you and I can help make our nation gracious again, make us generous again, make us godly again.
May the Holy Spirit of Jesus Christ guide us, and keep us, and empower us.