There is always speculation, inside the faith and beyond it, about how it 's all going to end. Some see a great Armageddon, a cosmic battle between good and evil, with the evil forces winning. Others see it differently; the poet wrote: "This is the way the world ends, not with a bang, but with a whimper."
Matthew 25: 31-40 speaks of end times and judgment. We affirm in the Creed that he will come again to judge the living and the dead. Our question is, "What will this end be like, and what will be the nature of this judgment?"
Mark Twain is reputed to have said, "It is not what I don't understand about the Bible that bothers me. It is what I do understand!" He must have had this teaching of Jesus in mind, this parable of the great judgment. It contains accountability and affirmation. Jesus stands squarely in the tradition of the Old Testament prophets when he offers this word. The prophet Amos, six centuries before Christ, put it bluntly:
"Alas for you who desire the day of the Lord! Why do you want the day of the Lord? It is darkness, not light; As if someone fled from a lion and was met by a bear, or went into the house and rested a hand against the wall, and was bitten by a snake." (Amos 6.5)
This word of Jesus, of the great judgment, has all of the appeal of a snake bite. Maybe that is why Matthew 25 is so little read by those who seem to be so preoccupied with end times and judgment. The "Left Behind" books have been read by millions in our country, many of them believers, and many outside the faith. But these books do not seem to have inspired a great mass movement toward the people we find in Jesus' account of the great judgment, when Jesus comes in his glory. People often ask me, "Have you read 'Left Behind'?" And I respond. "No." Then I think to myself, "I have read Matthew 25, and on most days that's more than I really want to know about the last judgment!"
If we are honest, we do not naturally gravitate toward this passage of scripture. This is not the Jesus who walks with us and talks with us in the garden alone. This is the Jesus who meets us-the least and the lost-at the last. When I was in college, I took part in a building team that worked on a storefront church in the Bronx. On one of the days we were paired with members of this small church for lunch. The man I was matched with worked on Wall Street. We had a quick sandwich, and then we took a walking tour, ending in the Bowery. There we went into the Bowery Mission, known for a number of reasons, one of them being that Fanny Crosby, the composer of over 8,000 hymns, played the piano there during her lifetime. If you have ever heard or sung "Blessed Assurance" or "To God Be the Glory" or "Jesus Keep Me near the Cross" or "Rescue the Perishing," you are acquainted with the gifts of Fanny Crosby. She had been blind since childhood, and yet Fanny Crosby had eyes to see the vision of Jesus in Matthew 25; and I am convinced that when she wrote "Rescue the Perishing," she saw, in the eyes of her heart, those who worshipped in the Bowery, truly the last, the least, the lost.
The Bowery Mission is still there. On Thanksgiving Day, this week, they will serve 1500 people for lunch. Question: We do understand what Jesus is saying about the judgment, don't we? I want to ask a couple of simple questions, questions each of us will answer, I believe. The first one is, "What happens at the end?"
We are saved by grace, but we will be judged by our works. Chapters 24 and 25 are all about accountability: about leadership (servants who oversee the master's work), about staying alert (the ten bridesmaids, five wise, five foolish), about the parable of the talents (Do we bury our gifts? Do we multiply them?).
The parable of the great judgment separates the sheep and the goats. This was in the common experience of those who listened to Jesus: Sheep preferred fresh air at night; goats preferred warmth. At the judgment, Jesus says, the people will be separated as sheep are separated from goats. The division will be according to our actions. Have we been doers of the word? And the actions are based on a conviction that as we have done them to the people in our lives and in our world, we have done them to Jesus: "As you have done it to the least of these," Jesus says, "you have done it to me!"
But there is more here than our moral response to the teaching of Jesus. There is also a surprise. Every parable has an element of surprise. The unlikeliest person rescues the man who was beaten on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho. In the parable of the Great Judgment, we don't really know what we have done, or who we have done it to! When did we see you hungry? When did we see you a stranger? We can't actually be certain.
The good news or bad news of the parable is that Jesus comes to us in surprising ways and that his judgment will also take shape in just that way. I have seen this again and again among Christians. Folks will go on a mission team or become involved in tutoring a child in a tough situation, and it is as if something clicks-there's an "aha" moment and they get it. It's like a moment in a revival meeting where head and heart come together and it all makes sense. That is you, Jesus. In that child who needs adult support…in that young girl in Guatemala…in that person in my family who needs me. It was, it is Jesus…when you did it unto the least of these, he says, you did it unto me!
It is not always true that people meet Jesus in the church and then go out into the world to share the message of his love. Sometimes people meet Jesus and fall in love with him in the world, and they come to church to try to figure out what has happened. If the first question is what happens at the end?, the second question is asked within the scripture itself: When did we see you, Jesus?
A member of our congregation was involved in the local homeless ministry. He was recognized one year for his volunteer work there. He is a quiet man who would not draw attention to himself, but it is good for ministries to tell these kinds of stories. He said that his motivation for helping the homeless was the story of his brother, who suffers from a psychological illness, which sometimes leads him to paranoid delusions. His brother lives in the Pacific Northwest. My friend knows that his brother travels from one homeless shelter to another, and sometimes he writes home. He says that when he serves the homeless men in that ministry, he imagines that one of them is his brother.
And, of course, one of them is his brother. When did we see you hungry, and give you food? When did we see you a stranger, and welcome you?
This parable is meant to stir our imaginations, to help us to see the world in a new way; and of course, only those with eyes to see can get it. Even Fanny Crosby, who was blinded by the inattention of a doctor in her early childhood and had every reason in the world to become bitter and inwardly focused was somehow able to see those who came to the Bowery Mission as men and women loved by God, in need of the gospel of grace.
There is another clue to understanding this parable. Can we put ourselves in the place of Jesus in this parable? And if we can, which Jesus? It is, maybe, the question we ought to ask. Jesus is judge, and Jesus is hungry, homeless, imprisoned. If we put ourselves in the place of Jesus the judge, we are making a big mistake. Now, this goes against our grain a little, because wouldn't we all like to be the judge, to say "yes" or "no," "thumbs up" or "thumbs down," you get the prize or you get the eternal punishment!
The problem is that this parable clearly says there is one judge, and that is Jesus. The National Cathedral is set on the highest hill in Washington, D.C. Within it are monuments to great human achievement, to the saints of the past. At the high altar is a portrayal of Jesus on the throne. In the palm of his hand he holds the earth like a piece of fruit. He is the Christ the King. He is the judge. And the point is, we will be judged.
But we can also find Jesus in another place in this parable. He is among us in the last, the least and the lost. This is really a parable about a relationship with Jesus. Jim Wallis of the Sojourners Community has said that we connect with the poor in two primary ways: television and statistics. These sometimes give us a concern, which is a recognition that there is a problem. Compassion, in contrast, is a feeling of relationship.
Some of us have a concern about Jesus. We see him from a distance, we fear him, maybe, or we ignore him, or we find him fascinating. What would it mean to see Jesus through the eyes of compassion? This is the bottom line; this will be our ultimate accountability. Did we know Jesus in this life? Did we recognize Jesus in this life?
The first question is, What happens at the end?
The second question is, When and where do we see Jesus?
And the third question is, How do we connect with the last, the least and the lost?
These three questions are related to each other: to our final judgment, which is the bottom line; to a spiritual experience of the Jesus of the Gospels; to the tremendous human needs present in our world, especially among the hungry, the imprisoned, the spiritually empty, the lonely, and the homeless. Matthew 25 is not a passage of scripture that is intended to heap guilt upon us. It is an invitation to you and to me, "Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world."
Please join me in the prayer.
Lord Jesus, help me to see you more clearly, to love you more dearly, to follow you more nearly day by day. Open my eyes, Lord, help me to see you. Amen.