Today, we have come to the end of the liturgical calendar which concludes with the great eschatological celebration of Christ the King and the humbling story of judgment at the end of time when the sheep and the goats are separated into two groups. It’s a day that is mixed with a diversity of emotions from the delight of acceptance to the anguish of rejection. As with many situations in real life we find ourselves in this story being relegated to one group or to the other.
One day, two retired RCMP officers were picked up by the police for smoking dope. The two old men appeared in court together on Friday before the judge. The judge said, “You seem like nice men, and you both have a distinguished career. I want to give you a second chance rather than jail time. I want you to go out this weekend and try to show young people the evils of drug use and get them to give up using drugs forever. I’ll see you back in court Monday.” Monday morning, the two old guys were back in court, and the judge said to the first one, “How did you do over the weekend?” “Well, your honour”, he began, I persuaded seventeen people to give up drugs forever.” “Seventeen people” exclaimed the judge! “That’s wonderful. What did you say to them?” I told them that in the world there are two groups, and they can choose which one of those groups to belong to; those who are in jail and those who are free. “That’s admirable,” said the judge. Looking at the second old man he asked “And you, how did you do? “Well, your honour, I persuaded one-hundred and fifty-six people to give up drugs forever.” That’s amazing! How did you manage to do that” asked the judge? “Well” the second man began; “I generally said the same thing as my older colleague, except that I explained that when they get to prison, they will be told which one of the two group to stand with and after they discover what prison life is really like – they will wish they still had the freedom to pick how to live their life.
“Say to Daughter Zion, ‘See, your king comes to you, gentle and riding on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey’” (Matthew 21:5). For almost three months, we have found ourselves with Jesus, his followers and the religious leaders in Jerusalem as the One who is acclaimed king on Palm Sunday spends his last week on earth teaching two groups of people, beginning with the parable of two sons; the one who did what his father wanted and the one who does not. The parable rings a certain familiarity with Jesus’s teaching of the final judgment.
We began our journey towards the eschatological final judgment of the end times with the sobering description of the five foolish maidens who are denied entry into the wedding banquet. “Truly I tell you, I don’t know you” (Matthew 25:12) were the harsh words heard through a closed door. This is reminiscent of the great flood during the first judgment of humanity. The floodgates of the heavens are opened as Noah enters the ark at which point “the Lord shut him in” (Genesis 7:16). Notice that it is God who closes and seals the door.
Last week we heard about how the Lord has entrusted his wealth to his servants, each according to his/her abilities. When the master returns, he asks for an accounting of what has been done with those divine gifts on loan to his servants. The one who did nothing with the gift entrusted to him is derided as a “wicked, lazy servant … (and he is punished) “throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 25:26, 30).
Today, we have arrived at the last account of Jesus’s disturbing forth telling of the future judgment of humanity as the conclusion of His great sermon on His return and the end of time might make us re-examine our life. I must warn you that the message Jesus announces doesn’t get any better than what we have already heard. Today’s message might even be a bit puzzling to some while it might leave other confused about the end. Again, we find ourselves with two groups as the Lord begins “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats” (Matthew 25:31-32).
So far, it’s not that bad! In my Bible they have relaxed the impact of the story by calling it ‘the sheep and the goats’. In some Bibles, you might find the more hostile sub-title “the judgment of the Nations” always remembering that sub-titles are not part of the original Greek Manuscripts. This harsher rendering of this section makes some believe that what Jesus says here doesn’t apply to them because Jesus is speaking of judgment, not on individuals, but rather the judgment over nations or nationalities – like Norwegians, or Canadians, or German, or Iranians. These readers believe that each society will each appear before the judgment seat of our King as a people and be judged and held accountable for the ways their government behaved as a nation.
“All the nations will be gathered before him” (Matthew 25:32) is a poor rendering of the Greek word translated as ‘nations’ while the word ‘peoples’ may fit better into the context of the whole of Jesus’s teachings. So far Jesus’s message has been fairly generalized as he is always calling his listeners to be ready and prepared for his return which will be unexpected like the thief who comes in the night. But in today’s reading we have actually come to the actual judgment of the peoples of this world and what we will discover in this portion of Jesus’s message that it is directed at us as the correct rendering of the Greek word is pointing at the non-Jewish peoples. The ‘judgment of the nations’ is directed at the Gentiles who will alive when Christ returns in glory.
The outcome of the final judgment as explained by Jesus is obvious as it will determine who will be chosen to enter the kingdom of God and who will be chosen to not enter the kingdom of God at the end of time. It’s also imperative for us to note that according to this teaching the judgment is between the sheep and the goats and not the sheep and the wolves. The sheep and the goats originate in the same family. The final judgement is not a discrimination process between those who are obviously good and those who are obviously bad. The two groups being depicted here are not polar opposites. The final judgment is not a case of separating or formulating a division between believers and non-believers. It’s about being picked for one team or the other.
Divisions amongst the gentile Christians started showing up shortly after the gospel started to circulate across Asia. “One of you says, ‘I follow Paul’; another, ‘I follow Apollos’; another, ‘I follow Cephas’; still another, ‘I follow Christ’” (1 Corinthians 1:12). Paul would further his explanation on unity using the analogy of the body saying “a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ” (1 Corinthians 12:12). Dis-unity between behaviour and belief in Christians became a concern which James highlights saying, “faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead” (James 2:17). Titus is warned to look out for members of the church who “claim to know God, but by their actions they deny him. They are detestable, disobedient and unfit for doing anything good” (Titus 1:16).
The threat of eternal judgment is clear to the apostle Paul as he tells the church of Thessalonica that “when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven in blazing fire with his powerful angels. He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might” (2 Thess. 1:8-9). It’s not a pretty picture! But this is the judgment of the sheep and goats although in Jesus’s teaching he is discriminating between those who profess to be Christian and claim to be members of his family from those who act like they are Christian.
“The King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me’” (Matthew 25:34-36).
The one thing that we appear to miss when we talk about salvation by grace alone and the gospel as being the good news of Jesus Christ is that in this particular section of Jesus’ sermon on the end times is that Jesus is clearly saying, not implying, but clearly saying that the ultimate and true mark of authentic Christianity is not our creed, nor our individual faith, nor our ability to quote scripture, BUT RATHER the concern the Christian shows for those in need. Redemption is what happens at the cross while sanctification is the practical demonstration of Christ’s love.
Notice, that in this teaching of Jesus ‘grace alone’ is clearly expressed as the Lord simply and plainly extends the invitation to the sheep. “Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance” (Matthew 25:34). No questions are asked. No proof is demanded. The Lord of life simply invites those, who when they had the opportunity in this world to help someone in need, they did. The sheep who inherit the kingdom are those who have responded in love and concern for the needy. They simply did what they could. BUT it’s a very different story for goats.
“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me’” (Matthew 25:41-43). Many church people today would rather erase these words from their Bibles!
The seriousness of this matter, highlighted by the Lord, of helping those in need is made painfully clear in the severity of His words which are being spoken to His people who honestly think of themselves as being the sheep! ‘But Lord’ they cry out, “when did we see you hungry, or thirsty, or a stranger …” (Matthew 25:44). Based on their surprise, these are the people who honestly believed that they were members in good standing, who may have faithfully attended their church, who religiously recited their creed and prayers but who ignored or who failed to love and forgive others and who failed to respond to the cries and pleas of the needy. Take the story of the Rich man and Lazarus. The rich man lived in luxury every day and never paid any attention to the poor beggar Lazarus who sat by his gate. Both men died. The rich man awakes in Hades as Abraham says “Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony” (Luke 16:25).
In this final teaching on the judgment Jesus is turning the tables on those who believe but don’t act like they believe. It’s a sad reality that many people will call themselves Christian in name only. Whenever we meet a beggar on the street, do we freely give whatever we can to help them or do we find ourselves rhyming off a off a list of reasons why we would not trust giving them money or even helping them. It’s easy to walk past people begging for money because our moral and ethical thinking will make us believe that everybody like that will only use the money, they get to buy more drugs or alcohol. Would we be so harsh or so opinionated or so judgmental if we could see the eyes of Jesus looking back at us through the eyes of those people?
That is in effect what is at the heart of today’s teaching. This is exactly what Jesus is saying to both the sheep and goats. Notice that nobody, neither the sheep nor the goats are ever given a chance to respond to Jesus. The issue of sheep or goat is settled right at the beginning of this teaching and each one is simply told where to go and where to stand - in the group on the left or in the group on the right. The righteous on the right answer when did we ever do that for you? Later those on the left will also answer when did we not do that for you. The response from Jesus is basically the same for both groups. “Whatever you did” … “whatever you did not do” (Matthew 25:40, 45) to the least of these of mine you did for me (or you did not do for me). It’s here that Jesus identifies with the needy and the outcasts of society, with the beggar, the alcoholic, the drug addict, and so on. “Anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones who is my disciple, truly I tell you, that person will certainly not lose their reward” (Matthew 10:42).
Let’s be perfectly clear and frank – this is clearly a difficult teaching to swallow. First it must be accepted with the gospel which proclaims that “it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God” (Ephesians 2:8). The judgment of the gentile peoples must be understood as good news. Finally, the reaction of both the sheep and goats is one of utter surprise at the Lord’s words and judgment. It is clear that those who were picked to be in one group or the other expected a different judgment than what is actually given. When they were being separated, they must have wondered why they were different because they all believed in God’s word that there is only one grouping which declared that a person is justified by grace alone through faith alone. What the sheep and goats didn’t realize was that in the judgement there are two groups as faith when allowed to grow produces the fruit of good works
Those described as sheep in the great judgment unthinkingly and unconsciously allowed the divine grace of God in the cross of Christ to mature their faith toward loving God and loving their neighbours even as they had been responding to the pleas and the needs of those around them.
No doubt the goats are more surprised at the King’s judgement than the sheep. I don’t doubt that the goats were good people, good church people for that matter. But something was missing. Dietrich Bonhoeffer might have referred to their response to the cross of Christ as ‘cheap grace.’ Their lack of concern or action in the end reveals them to be the goats who may believe themselves to be good peoples although they are missing something that makes other peoples His sheep.
The sheep operated quietly in the shadows, keeping no record of good deeds and not seeking the praise of man. Their grace-filled life is not motivated by the fear of punishment nor the expectation of reward. It is simply understood as a wonderful privilege to be able to help and as far as they are concerned, they aren’t doing anything out of the ordinary. They simply feel great joy in the hearts at being able to serve in Christ’s name. This is what happens when you allow the incarnate Christ living in you to love and touch the lives of the needy and to experience the eyes of the King of kings looking back at you. “Store up for yourselves treasures in heaven … for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:20,21).
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We are a family of followers of Christ, who learn and share the Good News of Salvation, making disciples of Jesus Christ.
We hold weekly Sunday morning services at 10:30 am. We also host a Bible Study each Sunday morning at 09:30 am and on Tuesday afternoon at 1:00 pm. Please join us.
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