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|"Judgment of the Nations"
Jesus tells us, in the thirty-first verse of the twenty-fifth chapter of the gospel according to Matthew, that "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." This should not be news to us, because earlier, in the twenty-seventh verse of the sixteenth chapter, he told us, "For the Son of man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done."
In the twenty-eighth verse of the nineteenth chapter, "Jesus said to them, "Truly, I tell you, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of man is seated on the throne of his glory, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel."
And returning to the twenty-fifth chapter, we find that Jesus goes on to say, "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, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left."
` And this was foretold by Ezekiel in the seventeenth verse of the thirty-fourth chapter: "As for you, my flock, thus says the Lord God: Behold, I judge between sheep and sheep, between rams and goats."
And the stage is set for the Great Judgment, that moment at the end of time when the final decisions are made regarding who is worthy.
For the disciples, and for the early church, that Great Judgment at the Second Coming was right around the corner. Maybe next week, or maybe next month, but very soon.
Paul was originally so convinced of the immediacy of the Second Coming that he even recommended that the early apostles who were not married remain unmarried, because they really didn't have time for wives and children before Jesus was to return again.
The wait has turned out to be a little bit longer than anticipated; but I don't think it's such a bad idea to continue to believe that the return is just around the corner. Better yet, perhaps we should behave as if Jesus is in fact looking over our shoulders.
And, in fact, I believe THAT is what he is telling us to do in this passage from Matthew. But not only is he looking over our shoulders, he is also WITHIN every person.
After the sorting out has taken place in the Great Judgment we are told, "Then the King will say to those at his right hand, "Come, you that are blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world."
And we know that in the beatitudes in the fifth chapter of Matthew, Jesus made the promise, "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven."
But also important here is the knowledge that the kingdom is not only future, but more: it was prepared from the FOUNDATION of the world. It is a kingdom which transcends any concept of time that we may have, and exists in God's time.
It is a kingdom that was in place long before us, and I suspect that as we seek the kingdom we do receive glimpses of it even now.
But what does it take to inherit the kingdom? The answer is not a direct one.
And if we were to put ourselves in the position of those at the right hand, we would hear the King recalling relationships with us: "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."
And the requirements for getting into the kingdom begin to look a bit strange. They're looking strange because we're hearing the king of heaven talk about situations he's been in that don't really sound like the experiences of a king.
And we're hearing the king of heaven tell us that in some strange way we've been in those situations with him personally.
"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." THIS is the king of heaven? The king of heaven has been naked? The king of heaven has been sick? The king of heaven has been in prison? This is really a bit hard to believe. We must be in the wrong place!
But then again, we HAVE done some of those things for others. We HAVE cared for the hungry, the lonely, the sick, those in need of clothing, but not for a KING!
Or maybe the king of heaven has made a mistake. Maybe the king of heaven doesn't really know us, but is instead talking about someone else. Could it be that we don't belong here?
"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?" Such simple needs. It probably doesn't even occur to us that someone in power ever needs to eat or drink. And should that need arise, who are we poor peons to meet that need? Surely any person in power can take care of him or herself without US!
In fact, we probably think that WE should be taken care of. No, a king certainly doesn't need us for these kinds of needs. Why is this even brought up?
Surely, if we did anything at all important enough to deserve the inheritance, it was more than feeding somebody, even if our kitchens were well-stocked.
And we continue to ask, "And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing?" The king a stranger? How silly. Surely, we would have recognized him. Wouldn't we? How could he have been a stranger? Celebrities aren't strange. Their pictures are all over the magazines and the newspapers and on television. We would have to be blind to have missed him. NO, certainly not a stranger. And naked? A king without clothes?
Well, sure, we've given away some of our used clothing to charities, to the festival of sharing, to clothes closets, to the salvation army, maybe even to the neighbor's kids, but never anything befitting a king.
"And when was it we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?" Surely a king who becomes ill has plenty of folks taking care of him, plenty of folks visiting him. Why on earth would there even be need of OUR visitation?
What possible good would there be in our visiting a king? Oh, we've been in hospitals to see patients, friends and relatives and members of the community, but never a KING.
But what is really, really strange in all this is the king speaking of being in prison. How could that be? Don't those with power always manage to stay OUT of prison? Or is he speaking of "prison" in some strange sort of way?
So we ask all our questions. And the king has this really strange answer:
"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."
So. The king isn't really talking about himself, but rather he is seeing his subjects as representing him, and he wants us to treat them as we would treat him if he were among us.
So maybe we HAVE done some good things for other people who weren't the king, but were, in a sense, his delegation. And maybe we should be asking ourselves, if we were to see every other person as a representative of the king, would we be treating them differently? Would we be kinder? Would we be more giving? Would we be more attentive?
Would there be a transforming effect in our lives if our every act were performed as if we were entertaining royalty?
And what of the goats? Those at the left hand of the king?
"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."
The king is not pleased. And the punishment is clear. Now, knowing how the king has selected the sheep, we probably have a pretty good idea also of how he selected the goats. And it might not be a bad idea to take a good close look at how close we are to being the goats. It might be a good idea to look at our lives to see if we aren't the goats from time to time, even though we may be reluctant to confess it.
And the king tells the goats, "for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink."
And was it because the goats were waiting for royalty to entertain? Did they reserve their best meals for important people they could impress, while at the same time they ignored the fact that a vast number of people in the world were dying of starvation?
Were they waiting for royalty to show up, that they might lay out a feast before him, while in the meantime they ignored the king's delegation?
I suspect that there is here a fine line between the sheep and the goats.
Because I have to ask myself, to what extent am I, directly or indirectly, responsible for the famines in the world; to what extent am I, directly or indirectly, responsible for the alleviation of the suffering that accompanies those famines?
And am I responsible for those mean-spirited, selfish politicians who never miss a meal themselves, but have no conscience about cutting back on benefits for the poor, most of whom are children?
But the king has other concerns to express to the goats.
"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."
And the sheep know what the king is driving at; and even at this moment of condemnation of the goats, they should be looking at one another and asking, How close was I to rejecting the stranger?
How close was I to ignoring the material needs of those without? How close was I to separating myself from the sick and imprisoned? What truly makes the difference between the sheep and the goats?
But the goats respond. "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?"
And the goats also probably can't believe what they're hearing. After all, they've done their best to do all they can for all the REALLY IMPORTANT, REALLY SIGNIFICANT people in their lives. And they can't possibly imagine how they haven't administered to the needs of their Lord. On the other hand, they probably also cannot possibly imagine how their Lord could have any of those needs.
And if their Lord has none of these needs, as they define them, they have probably spent most of their time taking care of their own needs.
And at this point, the response of the king is predictable: "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."
Today is Christ the King Sunday, the last Sunday of the liturgical year; and as we look back on that year that we are now finishing, we should be mindful that we truly have much to be thankful for.
And at this time, I think it altogether appropriate that we consider the stewardship of the gifts that God has bestowed upon us. While it is well that we thank God for all that God has given us, it would also be well for us to ask God how we might in turn pass on our gifts to others.
We need to be asking ourselves how, in our everyday lives, we can SERVE others.
While we too often worry about how we can make major, significant, noticeable contributions to the reign of God, we need to remind ourselves that the greatest contribution to this word was the birth of a small child, in a barn, in a small town on the impoverished outskirts of the Roman Empire.
The child's earthly father was a carpenter. The first people to learn of the birth were some poor shepherds. And that small child, born in the most humble of circumstances, has made all the difference in the world. "As you did it to one of the least of these, you did it to me."
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