The judgement of the world includes us

Christ the King 2011

Matthew 25:31- 46

Marian Free

In the name of Jesus who will come in glory to judge all the nations of the world. Amen.

There is a story about a monastery in which all the brothers were unhappy. They were constantly criticising each other, competing with each other, complaining about life in the monastery, resenting the achievements of others and so on. It was a very unpleasant atmosphere filled with bitterness and strife. Needless to say, there were very few new vocations. Who would want to join such a community? and who would want to live in such a toxic atmosphere? Things were so bad, that it looked as though the community would have to disbanded.

One day, a visitor came to the monastery and, despite the argumentative nature of the monks, he stayed for a few days. When he left, the visitor told the monks that God had revealed to him that when Jesus returned to earth, he would come to that particular place.

Well, what a change came over that community. Now nothing was too much trouble, no one complained, each monk was the anxious to be the first to offer to help and everyone treated each other with great respect and love. All the jealousy and small-mindedness of the monks disappeared. Instead of closing, the monastery flourished as the community’s reputation for love and joy spread far and wide.

The community realised that if Jesus was going to come to this community when he returned, what was to say that he was not already there? If he was already there, then each of the monks had to treat the others as if they were Jesus himself – that is with love, kindness, compassion and generosity.

***

Matthew’s gospel is a gospel of judgement. The teaching of Jesus that was aimed at the Jewish community Matthew turns towards those who believe in Jesus. Today’s gospel is part of a sub-section devoted particularly to the subject of the final judgement.  In it Matthew warns the community to be constantly alert because the Son of Man will come without warning. He describes the events that will accompany the end. They will be violent and dramatic – nature itself will be in turmoil. The temple will be destroyed. There will be famine, wars and earthquakes. The sun and moon will be dimmed and stars will fall from the sky.

Matthew continues his theme with the parables of the ten bridesmaids and of the talenta – parables that are directed specifically at the church. Being a member of the church is not enough to be assured of a good outcome at the judgement. The bridesmaids who were not ready were locked out of the party. Being in receipt of the gifts of God is not sufficient if one does not put them to good use.

In today’s gospel, Matthew moves from the specific to the universal, from the believing community to the judgement of the nations, from parable to description. The story of the final judgement, of the separation of the sheep from the goats is full of surprises, as it was no doubt intended to be. One can imagine Matthew’s community breathing a sigh of relief when the story begins – the focus has moved off them and onto the world. Surely the unbelieving will have a harder time at the judgment than they will. However they are in for a shock. They are not off the hook, in fact far from it. This scene Matthew describes is designed to force the community to think again about what it means to believe and what the judgement will entail for themselves as well as for others.

There a two major causes for astonishment. in the story First of all, it appears that the criterion for judgement is not faith, but the behaviour that results from faith. Secondly, it is made clear that believers are not privileged over non-believers. Everyone is judged according to the same criteria. Feeding the hungry, providing the thirsty with something to drink, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, caring for the sick and visiting those in prison are the behaviours that will lead to a good outcome at the judgement – not membership of the Christian faith. This fact cannot be ignored – Matthew repeats these criteria no less than four times in the story – twice by the judge and once each by the righteous and the unrighteous.

In view of this story, it is impossible to have an exclusive view of Christianity. According to this account, all nations (and presumably all faiths) are judged by the same criteria. The qualities that this judge is looking for are the same for everyone – for those who believe in Jesus and those who do not. Love, generosity and compassion are the qualifications for a good outcome at the time of judgement, not belief and certainly not pious self-righteousness.

Matthew is writing to a community whose initial enthusiasm for the gospel has waned. Their faith has become lukewarm. They are beginning to take their salvation for granted. They are no longer living as if Jesus might return at any time and they appear not to be making use of the gifts that God has given them. Within the community – as the rest of the gospel makes clear – there are those who were grasping for power and those who hated other members of the church. Matthew is warning his community that that they are not in a position to judge the other members of the church – God is the judge, God alone can determine the goodness of a person. In taking them to task he is also making it clear that a person’s relationship with God cannot be separated from their relationship with people – love of God and love of neighbour go hand in hand.

Today, the last Sunday of the church year, climaxes with this account of Jesus’ return and the coming judgement. We do not know exactly what form that judgement will take, but we do believe that at some point we will all stand before the throne of God and answer for what we have done and not done. If that time were today, what would you regret? what would you wish you had done?

As we come to the end of another year and prepare to begin a new one, we have the opportunity to look forward and to look back, to review and lay to rest what has been and to set goals for the future.

When the end comes, what would you like your life to look like and what do you need to do in the present to make that happen?

 

 

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