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!