It has been a while since I browsed a Christian bookstore since most of my book purchases are now online. But the last time I was browsing, I noticed a great fascination with the end of time. Christian bookstores always seemed to have a big section devoted to the apocalypse, the end of time, lake of fire, Judgment Day. Big displays. Red and black depictions of anger and fire. There were 16 books in the Left Behind series alone.
Would it surprise you to learn that for all of our fascination and attention, Jesus describes the Judgment Day only once? In fact, outside of the Book of Revelation, our gospel lesson for today is the only description of the Final Judgment in the whole of the New Testament.
And it happens here, Chapter 25 of Matthew's gospel, at the end of the public ministry of Jesus, located toward the end of the gospel. So, it has a "before I leave, if you don't remember anything else I said" quality to it. There is an ultimate question to be answered.
Jesus says that when the Son of Man comes in his glory, all the angels - not a few, not just Michael and Gabriel and whoever else is on the schedule that day - all of the angels of heaven will attend Jesus in his glory. And all the nations. All of heaven has shown up, all of earth is in attendance. Imagine, the balconies of heaven filled, this spectacle of glory, the final judgment of humankind, and Jesus is acting like a ranch hand. Strange, I know.
Jesus came into the world in a manger with the heavenly hosts singing. According to Matthew's image, he will come back with an even bigger choir and act like a ranch hand - separating sheep from goats.
Shepherds in the first century Palestine let the sheep and the goats intermingle during the daytime. They could graze side by side. But when nighttime fell, the ranch hand had to separate then. The goats went into shelter to protect them from the cold. But the sheep were allowed to stay outside since - well, they all had thick wool coats they never took off.
Judgment shines a light on all good and bad - we are fully known. There is a beginning and an end to human history on earth. There is an Alpha and an Omega. God starts and finishes the human story. The Final Judgment, revealing what is true. Whatever we might be doing in the darkness, in judgment, the lights come on and our motivations are all out for everyone to see. It is the horror and blessing of being fully known.
And the shepherd/king puts the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 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." The Final Judgment - the ultimate question. Who inherits the kingdom? What is the final question on the exam?
Part of what we need to caution is our being too sure who is a sheep or a goat. There is an audacity to declaring who is excluded from the kingdom. Still, I know plenty of people who have clear ideas about us and them. _"No need for a final judgment, I've read up; I've got this. I know a goat when I see one." We have lots of ways of dividing ourselves into us and them.
When I was a kid, I was told by a few sure people - not straight up, but I got the message - I was to be skeptical of all people who were not white, protestant Christians. Truth is, they were not all that sure about Episcopalians. And Catholics, well, "They believe stuff we don't believe. I mean, be nice to them at school and all, just be careful." And, for much of our Christian history, we have divided the Christian community over what we believe. Us and them.
We keep dividing ourselves with the smugness that suggests that we have a better handle on God's truth, so we sort folks - Protestant/Catholic, male/female, Democrat/Republican, black/white, American/foreigner. We keep playing ranch-hand judge and separating sheep and goats over whatever question we think is ultimate. For some people, the ultimate question is not even theological, it's political. "What is your stance on so and so?"
I've had pastor friends fired from their pulpits because the church established an ultimate belief question that the pastor failed, and it was not this question in our passage today - it never is.
Us/them - sheep/goats, "What side are you on?" "Can you believe that she believes...?"
During my time at the School of Theology at Mercer University, I served 10 interim pastorates. In one of those interims, I had a smart but angry man who took notes during my sermons. I am usually honored by people who take the sermon seriously enough to take notes, but he only took notes on things he disagreed with or wanted to challenge me about. He taught a Sunday School class and he would start his class each week by quoting something from last week's sermon and how I was wrong and how he needed to follow up and challenge me because there was a chance, if he pushed the question, he might with great satisfaction, declare that I had veered out of his narrow lane of orthodoxy.
Like so many people I have known over the years, he would rather be right than be loving. All people I have met who insist on telling me who is a sheep and who is a goat hold a high value on being right. Ironically, I have never heard one of these judges separate sheep and goats according to Jesus' criteria in this story.
So, what is it? By what criteria does Jesus separate the sheep from the goats in the Final Judgment, with all the angels in attendance?
I think commentator Fred Craddock nails it, "Let me put it this way," he says. "If we know we are going to face a final exam of one question and we are told by the examiner what the question is to be, is it not reasonable to suppose that one question would gather to itself the interest and the energies and the concerns of all of us? Now here is the question. How did you respond to human need? That's it. That is the question." [Fred B. Craddock, The Collected Sermons of Fred B. Craddock, p. 96]
That's it! In this story, Jesus separates the sheep and the goats according to their response to human need.
My college professor, Buddy Shurden, used to say, "Being a Christian means having your heart broken by the same things that break the heart of Christ."
I'm not suggesting that what we believe is unimportant. It matters that we have a right, orthodox, wholesome belief system. But there is so much destructive energy being given to dividing our culture. Us and them. Angry radio voices dividing those of us who agree with his politics from the stupid people. Pious Facebook posts asking us to share and like her hatred and moral outrage toward the couple living next door. There is a fractious group that would rather be right than loving.
I agree with my professor, "Being a Christian means having your heart broken by the same things that break the heart of Christ." And today's picture of the Christ is a broken-hearted ranch hand who asks one simple question, "How did you respond to human need?"