The Judgment of the Nations
31 “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. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33 and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 34 Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38 And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39 And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ 40 And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ 41 Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42 for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ 44 Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ 45 Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ 46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” – Matthew 25:31–46 (NRSV)
Each of us at some point in time has had an interaction where we faced a dichotomy. Our expectation was one thing and the reality of the situation was something different. Nearly every day we encounter these issues. I expected to get a good night sleep, but the reality of the situation is that I tossed and turned for a couple of hours, and then just when I got to sleep my alarm begins to go off. Of course, I slept for several hours but the expectation of waking up totally refreshed was not met. If you work for an employer you are given a description of your job. You expect that your job will in some way resemble what that description says, but the reality is that in every job description there is a clause that say something to the manner, “You will do whatever you are asked to do.” I have found that because I am able to do many things and learn quickly most of my jobs have been solidly based in the “do whatever I am asked” portion of the job description and often I wonder if I even do the job I was hired to do. I have to admit that my current employer has tried hard to keep me within the job description although I do tend to fill the role of my supervisor.
We all have expectations in life. We have expectations in our relationships. We have expectations in finances. Even children have expectations. We will soon be entering into the Advent season, the season we anticipate the coming or birth of Jesus, and during this season children will look at every catalog available to find the things they anticipate or expect to receive for Christmas. Of course, today’s catalog is now a Wishlist on Amazon instead of the sears wishbook I browsed in my youth, but the feeling is the same. After making careful considerations of all the options many children will make a list and check it twice…or you know thousands of times, and many will compose a letter to tell Santa Claus exactly what they expect. What happens when their expectations are not met?
Thinking of those expectations in your life, think about the many disagreements you may have had with someone. If you look at them deeper, you will find that you expected one thing and they did something else. Often those expectations that were unrealized were unrealized because we did not express the expectation and assumed that the other party knew the expectation, so we are upset and we fight.
Why focus on expectations when we should be focused on Thanksgiving and looking forward to Christmas? I mention it because God has expectations. And like every relationship sometimes there is contrasting aspects between all the parties involved.
Today’s passage takes place at the end of Jesus’ ministry and Jesus is giving his disciples the last pep talk before the arrest, trial, and passion takes place. In the city there is a rising clamor of anticipation sides are being drawn by the faithful and the religious leaders as to if Jesus is the long-awaited Messiah or not. With each side there are expectations and assumptions made. The problem with these expectations though many are based in scripture, they have interpretations that are largely skewed through assumptions and desires. Why do they want a Messiah? The answer to this question could be different depending on which person you asked. The version of Messiah for the Sadducee and the Pharisee are different because their religious focus is different. The zealots had ideas that even differed from the others because theirs were less religious and more political. All of these expectations on one side the human side of the conversation, but what is the expectation on God’s side? Has God even told us what his expectations are?
Jesus is sitting there with his disciples, they have these expectations going on in their mind. They have even mentioned some of them. Just before they marveled at the temple’s beauty. Many of them could only see their lives physically and spiritually through the temple. They could only consider their lives through the eyes of Rome or some idealistic fantasy of independence. Their lives religiously and physically were based on their expectations not that of God’s. Sure, God was important in their lives, so important that they had turned from their previous lifestyles to follow Jesus for the past three years, but they like many of us, had ideas about God that may represent ourselves more than the God we say we serve.
He speaks to them, he tells them the parable of the talents. I am sure they are sitting there at his feet considering the story and trying to decide for themselves which of the men they would be for their master. Jesus then give them this prophetic message, which includes within it the expectation that God has for humanity.
In the parable Jesus said the master leaves and returns, in this prophetic vision Jesus says when the Son of Man comes in his Glory. They do not fully understand what is meant by this statement at the time, because most of them are thinking that day is soon approaching and the king will soon be placed on his rightful throne. When that glorious day comes, Jesus continues, the son of man will sit on the throne and all the nations will be gathered before him. I want to stop there because this is one of the first expectations of God. All the nations will be gathered. From the very beginning of God’s interaction with humanity it has included all people. The singular revelation to Israel was not that they were chosen because they were better, they were set apart to be the light to the nations. He promised them the land situated at the crossroads of empires for a reason. That narrow strip of land connects east and west, north and south it connected Egypt and Persia, Babylon and Greece. Because of this unique placement the people of Israel would constantly be in contact with the other nations. God chose to reveal himself through them not only for them but for all nations, so that through them all could be saved.
When the son of man comes in his Glory he will sit on his throne and gather all that nations. He will then separate them like a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. I have wrestled with this part for a while this week. I wanted to know if there was some reason Jesus used this image in his message, if there was some reason that he specifically said sheep and goats. At first my mind went to the images of today. The most common antichrist symbol of religions today praises the image of a goat. I wondered if that might be the reason, but no. In fact, the reasoning the goat is used in those expressions is because Jesus used that image in this passage. I then began to look up the various uses of these animals. Both are considered clean animals and both are actually interchangeable when it comes to sacrifice, except in a few instances. By in large the only time a goat is mentioned it usually refers to a male goat, where female goats are included with sheep. But then there is one instance where a temple sacrifice requires two goats. In this instance, which is on the Day of Atonement, one goat is used as a sacrifice and the other is released into the wild to carry the sins of the people away from them. Maybe this is what Jesus refers, but even still scholars do not really know. The largest and most common ideas as to why Jesus uses this symbolism is because when a shepherd brings the animals into the fold, they separate the male goats from the others because male goats are too aggressive. They will harm the other animals so they keep them separate so they can fight elsewhere.
I think there is many facets to this image. I think the scape goat and the fold both work together. Jesus separates the people like sheep from the goats, he releases the goats to the wilds of their own devices and he brings the sheep in to the sacred place. The question that remains is what is the criteria for the judgment, what will be the characteristics of the sheep and the goats?
To the sheep on his he will say, “Come…inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” Of course, Jesus says that the righteous do not understand him. They ask when did we do all of this? And he says, “Just as you did it for one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” The Son of Man then turns to the left and says depart from me and enter into the eternal fires prepared for the devil and his angels, for I was hungry and you did not give me something to eat…” Again, they ask when did we not do this? And he gives the same response, about the least of these who are members of my family.
Feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, care for the sick, visit the prisoner. Do we have an understanding of what the criteria of judgment will be? This past week I spent time reading commentaries and sermons from the ancient church to today and found that we have always struggled with this. I read a sermon by St. John Chrysostom, he was often referred to as Golden Mouth because of his great sermons. He was the bishop of Constantinople and preached at Hagia Sophia, the largest church in the world for over one thousand years. In this sermon he focused on the eternal fires that were prepared for the devil and his angels. He said in this sermon that these eternal fires were not prepared for us but for the devil, our rightful place is to be with God. But often we choose the wrong side so we get grouped with the demons. I considered this as I contemplated this passage. I thought about the imagery of the sheep and goats, of the high priest sending the scape goat out into the wilderness carrying the sins of the nation with it. I thought about the choices that I make throughout my life. The kingdom was prepared for us from the foundation of the world, yet many are driven out to the eternal fire prepared not for us but for the devil. We go out to that fire because we do not feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, we do not welcome the stranger, or clothe the naked. We go to the eternal fires because instead of following God, we follow the devil, instead of reflecting Christ we reflect everything opposed to Christ and he releases us to wonder the wilderness.
I want this to sink in for a bit. God prepared a place from the foundation of the world for us. Yet when the nations are gathered where will we go? It is a common question that evangelicals ask others, if you were to die today where would you go? And while asking that question we make sure we let them know that there is a heaven and a hell and if we are willing to repent and be born again we will guarantee a place in heaven and escape the fires of hell. But this statement by Jesus brings this thinking into question. It questions it because both sheep and goats are accepted by God, they are both acceptable sacred offerings. God loves both the sheep and the goats. He prepared a place for all nations in his kingdom, yet some of these will run out in the wilderness and find themselves far from God. This prophetic message of Jesus tells us something deeper, it says that our lifestyles must reflect our words. Jesus is telling his disciples that this is the expectation. He is saying for the last three years you have lived with me, you have watched me interact with those around me. The expectation is that your lifestyle would reflect his.
Jesus came living a full human life. He grew from a baby to an adult within a family. He listened and interacted with teachers as a child, and as he grew he most likely took on a position in Joseph’s business, because he was known as the carpenter’s son. Then Jesus at the age of 30, which would be middle aged in that era of time, began his ministry. We do not know what happened from the age of twelve to thirty, but what we do know is that was the time a child became a man and either entered rabbinical training or began working with the family. Jesus most likely worked for seventeen years with his family. When Jesus entered his ministry, he made it his custom to worship in the synagogues. By doing this he shows us that loving God through worship together is important. He withdrew often to isolated places to pray, showing us that we should embrace the Spirit and deepen our relationship with God through prayer and meditation of scripture. He also went out from those isolated places into the towns and the cities to teach and minister to the needs of the people. He put his words of worship and prayer into action. For three years he did this, showing and living that lifestyle with his friends. Now on the eve of his betrayal, he tells his disciples a parable of talents highlighting that the servants that knew their master’s business invested all they had into that type of work and brought a return to the master upon his return, but those that did not know the master’s business buried what they had out of fear. Those that invested their lives entered glory and those that buried their lives went into the darkness. He then tells them this prophetic message about the day of glory. All the nation will be gather and separated accordingly. They will be separated based on their life. Do we reflect Jesus’ life or the life of the world? Do we love God, embrace the Holy Spirit and live the love of Christ with others or do we continue to embrace the lifestyles of the devil? Do we feed, give drink, clothe, welcome, care, and visit the least of these or do we look only to our own selves?
These words that Jesus spoke are some of the most beautiful and hopeful words. Yet they can also be some of the most condemning. But what it all boils down to is this one thing love the lord your God with everything you are and everything you have, and love your neighbor as yourself. As we enter into this time of open worship, let us again remember the blessings that God has provided for us and express our gratitude for them. Let us also look forward to that glorious day when our King will come, and as we anticipate that day let us live our lives reflecting the lifestyle of Christ so we can enter into the kingdom prepared for us from the foundations of the world.
Sermon by Jared Warner, November 26, 2017
Presented at Willow Creek Friends Church, Kansas City, Missouri