Here Comes the Judge --- A Sermon from Matthew 25

Matthew 25:31-46

No one wants to go before a judge, at least not without a good attorney present! Perhaps, like me, you have had your day in court. My day came back in my 20s when I appeared in traffic court to make my confession of guilt for speeding. I didn’t need an attorney that day but some people do. 

Here in Matthew 25, Jesus speaks of the day when the Son of Man comes in his glory to gather the peoples of the earth to face the day of final judgment. On that day Jesus, the Son of Man, takes on the role of judge and separates the sheep from the goats. The question Jesus raises for us is whether we’re ready to face the judge.

This reading from Matthew is sometimes thought of as a parable, but it’s not really a parable. Instead, Jesus issues a warning to us about the choices we make in life. He uses the images of sheep and goats. In this picture, on the day of judgment, the king will reward the sheep and punish the goats. The sheep are the righteous and the goats are the unrighteous. Both are judged according to the merits of their lives. This is a powerful and terrifying scene, and while we might think of ourselves as sheep, what if we’re goats instead? I don’t know about you, but that’s not a happy thought!

Since we’re talking about judgment, we should probably cite the criteria on which we will be judged. Using the version in The Message, here’s what the king told the sheep: 

I was hungry and you fed me,

I was thirsty and you gave me a drink,

I was homeless and you gave me a room,

I was shivering and you gave me clothes,

I was sick and you stopped to visit,

I was in prison and you came to me.’              (Matt 25:34-36, The Message).

With that, the sheep rejoiced that they had been judged worthy of reward. But they were a bit confused because they don’t remember doing any of this for the king, who is really Jesus. He told them that when they did it “to one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did it to me” (Mt. 25:40). 

Then the king turned to the goats and issued a word of judgment on them because they failed the test. When they asked why they failed, because they don’t remember seeing the king in any of these situations, the king, that is Jesus, told them that when they failed to care for the least among them, they failed to care for the king. So, it seems that God holds us accountable for how we treat the most vulnerable in our midst.

So how are you feeling right now? Are you, like me, feeling a bit uncomfortable? While I want to believe that I have fulfilled the criteria mentioned here, I’m not so sure. I know that I’ve failed and the nations of the world have failed to fulfill these criteria.

While preachers often use this word to call on the church, the larger community, and the government to participate in humanitarian action on behalf of the marginalized, we usually stop with Jesus commending the sheep. Yes, follow the example of the sheep and all will be well. But, we tend to ignore the word given to the goats. However, the message is incomplete without this more judgmental word. 

The way Matthew frames the story reminds me of those old Clint Eastwood westerns that I’ve enjoyed over the years. In many of these stories, Eastwood’s character serves as the angel of death, who metes out justice on people he deems to be evil. There is usually a day of reckoning at the end of the story, when the “man with no name” silently faces down the bad guy. Of course, the bad guy knows that death is at hand, but to make sure we get the point, the camera shifts back and forth between the angel of death and his prey. The music heightens the tension, but everyone knows that the evil one will get his just reward.

The problem with this vision, whether in the old western or in Matthew 25, is that the judgment meted out seems so final. We see vengeance but is there room for redemption? Is there no hope, is there no mercy, for those of us who fail to fulfill Jesus’ expectations of us?

As we ponder both the call to serve, and the message of judgment, perhaps there’s another way of looking at this vision. Earlier in Matthew 25, Jesus shares two parables that warn the reader to be on the alert for the coming of the Son of Man. One of the parables tells the story of the wise and foolish bridesmaids and the lamps they carried. The other parable tells the story of a land owner who entrusts resources to his servants, one of whom buries his resources so he won’t lose what he had been given. These two parables remind us that God provides us with resources to serve Jesus. The question is, do we use them appropriately? Perhaps this story, like the other two, serves as a wake-up call that reminds us that we have responsibilities to our neighbors. 

This word, along with the other two, also could serve as a spiritual wellness check. Just like when we go in for our annual physicals, our health is judged based on a series of tests and observations. If you read the test results, you’ll notice there is a distinction between what is normal and what is not. If you have bad results, well, your physician will tell you to make some changes. 

In this story, our spiritual wellness is based on how the nations treat those who live on the margins of society. But, even if this is a spiritual wellness check, it’s also a moment when the cover gets pulled off the evil that exists in our midst. 

Hear this word from Anna Case-Winters:  

Evil in human history must be finally and unmistakably exposed and judged. Evil doers must be transformed so that they can be freed from evil and reconciled to one another [Case-Winters, Matthew, p. 283].  

In other words, this act of judgment is designed to provide a path toward redemption, a place where we can be reconciled with God and one another. When this takes place, the least among us will be blessed.

As we stand before God’s judgment seat, we learn that compassion for others is the basis on which judgment is made. The Christian faith is rooted in two principles that are drawn from the Hebrew Scriptures. The first principle calls on us to love God with our entire being. The second principle calls on us to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. In this vision, the nations are judged based on how they love their neighbors. If this is a wellness check, perhaps we can hear a word of redemption as well as judgment. I’m not sure what to make of the judgment meted out to the goats. It doesn’t fit well with my theology, and yet there it is, serving as a reminder of what God expects of God’s people. 

Perhaps we can read this parable in the light of Scrooge’s question for the “Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come” as he looked upon his own grave: “Are these the shadows of things that Will be, or are they shadows of things that May be, only?” If you know the story, as my family knows the story, at that very moment, just as he asks the question, Scrooge experiences a moment of conversion. At the end of his encounter with the three spirits, he declares that “I’m not the man I was.” So, he tells the phantom: “I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year.” May this be true of us as we ponder this word about the day of judgment.

What Scrooge learned from his visitations, and we learn from this vision, is that compassion is the heart of the gospel. So when you hear that the judge is coming, know that when we show compassion for others, especially for those with the greatest need, whether we know it or not, we serve Jesus. We may fail at this, but the good news is that the judge is gracious and full of mercy. So when we fall short, and we will, know that this judge, unlike the “man with no name,” wants us to succeed.  That’s good news! But, there’s still the expectation that we’ll serve Jesus by caring for those in need.

Preached by:

Dr. Robert D. Cornwall

Pulpit Supply

First Presbyterian Church

Troy, Michigan

August 14, 2022


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