31 “But when the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit upon his glorious throne.
32 All the nations will be gathered in his presence, and he will separate the people as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.
33 He will place the sheep at his right hand and the goats at his left.
34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the creation of the world.
35 For I was hungry, and you fed me. I was thirsty, and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger, and you invited me into your home.
36 I was naked, and you gave me clothing. I was sick, and you cared for me. I was in prison, and you visited me.’
37 “Then these righteous ones will reply, ‘Lord, when did we ever see you hungry and feed you? Or thirsty and give you something to drink?
38 Or a stranger and show you hospitality? Or naked and give you clothing? 39 When did we ever see you sick or in prison and visit you?’
40 “And the King will say, ‘I tell you the truth, when you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me!’
41 “Then the King will turn to those on the left and say, ‘Away with you, you cursed ones, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his demons.
42 For I was hungry, and you didn’t feed me. I was thirsty, and you didn’t give me a drink.
43 I was a stranger, and you didn’t invite me into your home. I was naked, and you didn’t give me clothing. I was sick and in prison, and you didn’t visit me.’
44 “Then they will reply, ‘Lord, when did we ever see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and not help you?’
45 “And he will answer, ‘I tell you the truth, when you refused to help the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were refusing to help me.’
46 “And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous will go into eternal life.”
For most of Christian history the idea of having to face the Judgement of God was a regular feature of all Christian teaching. But the last couple of generations of preachers have tended to be a bit embarrassed by the fire and brimstone of the past, preferring instead to concentrate on the issues of this life. But even though it may sound crude and unsophisticated to our modern ears, the theme of judgement runs throughout Jesus’ teaching.
I remember once having a van belonging to an evangelistic organisation suddenly cut in front of me and seeing the dramatic words emblazoned across its rear - ‘Prepare to meet thy God.’ I remember thinking that the preacher driving that van didn’t need to preach about preparing to meet God – his driving did it for him.
Well, that was a few years ago and I doubt you’d see texts like that displayed today, because the concept of Divine Judgement doesn’t go down well in our sophisticated world. Yet the strange thing is that in talking to people who reject traditional Christian teaching, the recurring theme is why doesn’t God do something about the injustice and oppression in the world?
Well, if God were to intervene, he’d probably have to do something about the human race! So, on the one hand we don’t want to accept the idea of judgement, but on the other we blame God for not doing it. The Bible says that ‘each of us will account of ourselves to God.’That’s not only a Christian concept – it’s central to most religious traditions.
Despite our reaction to the fire and brimstone preaching of the past, most of us actually do believe that one day justice will be done and that all the dreadful wrongs of this world will be put right. We hope that monsters like Mao Tse Tung and Josef Stalin, who lived long lives, while condemning millions of innocent people to misery and death, will eventually be brought to justice in a higher tribunal.
It reminds me of something that Supreme Court Justice Horace Gray once said to a vicious criminal who had escaped conviction on a legal technicality, thanks to a clever defence lawyer. ‘I know that you are guilty and you know it, but one day you will stand before a better and wiser Judge, and that there you will be dealt with according to justice and not according to law.’
However, it’s one thing to approve of the idea that monsters like Hitler will get their come-uppance, but we tend not to think about the fact Jesus said that we will all give account of ourselves to God. But it still stands, along with God’s love, as one of the central themes in Christ’ teaching.
However, I think the problem most of us have with this relates to the traditional teaching of the unrepentant burning in the fires of Hell. Most people today find the idea of a God whose essential nature is love and yet condemns the unrepentant to an eternity of unimaginable torture something of a problem.
Personally, I like the way C.S Lewis thought of Judgement. He saw it as ‘the natural and inevitable outcome of choices humans themselves make and attitudes they themselves develop.’ He believed that the essence of hell is separation –separation from God and from others; to be forever cut off from God’s presence, eternally unable to know God’s love and mercy; to be totally separated from other creatures, to be … increasingly self-absorbed, making that self smaller and smaller, and ultimately resulting in the person ceasing to be a self.
‘The torture of separation,’ he said … ‘are better seen not as punishments imposed by God, but as the natural and inevitable outcome of choices humans themselves make and attitudes they themselves develop.
‘Ultimately,’ he said, ‘there are only two types of people;’ ‘those who say to God “Your will be done”, and those to whom God says, “Have it your own way.”
And the key to understanding whether our way is also God’s way is right here in Jesus’ story of the sheep and the goats.
Nowhere is the idea of a judgement to come more clearly asserted than in the parables of Jesus – those simple earthly stories he told that have profound heavenly meanings. In three of his parables – The Good Samaritan, the rich man and Lazarus and the sheep and the goats– the message is that the basis of judgement will be our attitude and response to human need. And our attitude is reflected not only in the things we do to people that we shouldn't, but also in the things we don't do that we should.
This is particularly clear in the parable of the sheep and the goats, where Jesus said that our attitude to human need actually reveals our attitude to God and it’s in human need that we actually encounter him. He said that when we fed that hungry person, when we welcomed the stranger, when we cared for that sick person, when we visited that prisoner, we did it to him.
And conversely, when we failed to feed that hungry person, when we refused to welcome that stranger, when we couldn't be bothered about the sick person, or chose to forget about the prisoner, we refused him. In this parable Jesus says that the great sin is indifference - not that we necessarily did anything bad to people, but that we just didn't care. And for that we shall give account to God.
This is one of the most vivid parables Jesus ever spoke, and the lesson is crystal clear--that God will judge us in accordance with our reaction to human need. His judgment does not depend on the knowledge we have amassed, or the fame that we have acquired, or the fortune that we have gained, but on the help that we have given.
But it’s important to note the examples Jesus gives of the help we are to give relate to relatively simple things: giving a hungry person a meal, cheering the sick, welcoming a stranger, visiting a prisoner. These are things anyone can do. It’s not necessarily about donating huge sums or doing things that will go down in history. Rather, it’s about doing whatever we can to help people we meet every day.
The other thing to note is that it is help that is uncalculating - the sort of help that is given without any expectation of recognition or reward. The people Jesus commended did not think that they were helping Christ and thus piling up eternal merit; they helped because they knew it was the right thing to do. Whereas, on the other hand, the attitude of those who failed to help was: ‘If we’d known it was you we would have helped; but we thought it was only some nobody who was not worth helping.’ There are many people who are prepared to do good if they are given praise and publicity; but the help which wins the approval of God is that which is given for nothing but the sake of doing good.
There are two famous stories from Church history that beautifully illustrate what Jesus said in the parable of the sheep and the goats about us meeting him when we are confronted by human need. The first is the story of a young Italian nobleman, Francis of Assisi. He was wealthy and high-spirited. But he was not happy. He felt that life was incomplete.
Then one day he was out riding and met a leper. Despite having a horror of leprosy, something moved him to dismount and fling his arms around this wretched man. Then, as he mounted his horse to ride away, he looked back and there was no one there. Francis, to the day he died, was convinced that that leper had been Jesus.
The other story is about Martin of Tours. He was a Roman soldier and a Christian. One cold winter day, as he was entering a city, a beggar stopped him and asked for alms. Martin had no money to give him, but he did what he could. He took off his soldier’s cloak, tore it in two and wrapped half of it around the shivering beggar. Then he rode on.
That night, Martin had a dream. In it he saw Jesus wearing the bottom half of his cloak. An angel asked Jesus why he was wearing it and Jesus said: ‘Because my servant Martin gave it to me.’
I remember an experience I had in Townsville some years ago that always reminds me of those stories. We were returning south and got to Townsville about mid-afternoon and parked the car. Marilyn said she’d like to look at the shops and I decided to take a walk, which was just as well because I wouldn’t have been much fun. I was feeling depressed and had been for some time. The truth was I was close to burn-out. I’d been working too hard for too long – not giving myself proper time for rest and recreation. And depression is one of the prices we pay for that.
I came to a pedestrian crossing, and noticed an old Aboriginal man, standing away from the other pedestrians, waiting for the lights to change. Without thinking, I also kept my distance from him. But then I realised what I was doing, so I walked over to him and said hello to him. He didn’t say anything, but he gave me the most beautiful smile. Then the lights changed, and he went across the street while I turned the corner in the opposite direction.
A few seconds later I turned around to give him a wave. The handful of people had completed their crossing and were starting to walk past the shops. But the old man was nowhere to be seen. I scanned the street to see if he was hidden by other people, or had entered a shop, but I couldn’t see him anywhere.
Now, there may well have been a very simple reason for why I couldn’t see him, but I suddenly felt a surge of wonderful joy flood my heart, my depression lifted and never returned. I immediately thought of Jesus’ words about meeting Him in the poor, the lonely and the marginalized of this world, and wondered whether or not I also had met Jesus in that old man.