Who gets to judge?

Christ the King

Matthew 25:31-46

Marian Free


In the name of God who is known and served in various and many ways. Amen.

I’d like to begin with two stories that reflect a particular faith perspective and way of interpreting scripture. Some twenty years ago I attended a funeral of someone who had been the former treasurer in the parish and was respected and loved by all. His nephew who had spent many of the previous years as a missionary conducted the funeral. During the sermon the nephew said something that took me completely by surprise, but which was welcomed by many of those in attendance. What he said was: “At this point in the service, I often have the difficult task of telling the family that the deceased person hasn’t made it.” By this I think he meant that this is what he would say if the deceased had been an unbeliever. To this day I hope that he was using poetic licence and that he wouldn’t really have used those words. That if that statement represented his theology, that he might have had the discussion with the family before the funeral and as a result might have refused a Christian funeral or better still, that he might have reminded himself that it is God’s place to judge not his.

The second story relates to a conversation with a Parish Administrator whom I’ll call Sarah. Sarah arrived at work one morning in a very distressed state. The previous night she had watched a documentary about teenage homelessness. One of those interviewed was a young girl who was living on the streets to avoid a situation of abuse that included sexual abuse. In order to eat, she prostituted herself and in order to dull the pain of her past and her present she took drugs. In the process this girl was damaging her health and reducing her life expectancy. Sarah’s question was: “If the girl doesn’t come to faith before she dies, will she go to hell – hasn’t she suffered enough?” I suspect that Sarah hadn’t thought much about the issue of judgement until then. As a result of what she had been taught, she thought, presumably based on John 14:6, that only those who accepted Jesus were eligible for eternal salvation. Confronted with the reality of this young girl’s plight, Sarah was questioning her certainty about this position, but she had no tools to help her to find an answer. Her compassion for the girl was competing with her belief that only those who believe in Jesus go to heaven.

Today’s gospel suggests the solution to Sarah’s dilemma and a point of view that the nephew of the deceased may have overlooked. Most of us hear the parable of the sheep and the goats as an account of the judgement of believers, of God separating Christian from Christian on the basis of good works. Yet the text doesn’t say this at all.

In terms to the two scenarios above a number of things are worth noting. First of all, in this account, none of those who are gathered before the king are believers. They are all non-believers – some of whom receive eternal life and others of whom who are cast into everlasting punishment. The idea of a separate judgement for those who are non-Jews has an Old Testament precedent and the concept that those who are not Jews can still know God is consistent with Paul’s argument at the beginning of Romans. What is being described here is not a separation between those who believe and those who do not.

A second point is related. If those who have been assembled are not believers, then faith in Jesus or lack of faith is not the criterion according to which they are being judged. This leads to a third point. According to this narrative, the criterion on which one is judged relates to what one has done or not done to the “least of these” – whoever they are. Good works are not sufficient. It is the beneficiaries of those who deeds which is the pertinent issue.

When Matthew uses the expression “the least of these” elsewhere, he is referring to Christians – whether they are missionaries or disciples. For example, earlier in the gospel, Jesus is reported as saying: “whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.” The argument then is that those who do not believe in Jesus will be raised to eternal life if they provide relief to Christians who are thirsty, hungry or in prison even if they do not realise that that is what they are doing. For those who do not believe, genuine compassion for and consideration of others – without any thought of reward – is the key to a good outcome at the judgement. If a person acts generously they may well be generous to a disciple of Christ without recognising that that is what they are doing. (You will notice that those who are commended by the king, are as surprised as those who are condemned. They were not acting out of self-interest, but out of genuine concern for the suffering of another.)

Fast-forward two thousand years – if this is not a story about doing “good works” what does it mean for us today? In the light of the two stories with which I began, may I suggest that the parable is a warning for us not to be too hasty to judge others or to presume to know the mind of God. In the light of the parables that precede this one, it is better that we ensure that we are prepared to face the judge than to become absorbed in worrying about the fate of others.

We will all come before the judgement seat – Christian and non-Christian. Let us not make the mistake of presuming ahead of time, that we are in a position to predict the outcome.


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