The Sheep and the Goats
- Claim our identity as God's children—the sheep of God's hand.
- Be comforted knowing that the Judge is also our Savior.
- Reflect on how we might serve “the least of these.”
We come now to two sessions in which we will talk about the part of the creed that declares that Jesus "will return to judge the living and the dead." Specifically, Q&A 31 asks how Christ's return in judgment comforts us. At first glance, this does not seem to be a comfortable topic.
The idea of a judge and of judgment tends to suggest images of a cold courtroom with a frightening, black-robed figure sitting at the bench. But that judge looks very different if we have been oppressed or exploited or in some way treated unjustly by powerful people. Then our only hope is that the judge will set things straight.
We live in a world filled with injustice, hatred, and oppression. With that in mind, we can look forward to the coming of the judge of all the earth, our longing to have things set right again.
Jesus explains a great deal about that last judgment in his parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25. He pictures the judge as powerful and glorious: "he will sit on his glorious throne" (v. 31). However, this judge is not at all impersonal or withdrawn. He speaks to each group about what they have or have not done for him personally. Whoever has done an act of kindness to "the least of these brothers and sisters of mine" will be considered as having done it to the judge himself.
Don't misunderstand the key phrase in Jesus' statement of judgment. "These brothers and sisters of mine" does not refer to fellow Christians. Rather Jesus is referring to those often referred to in Matthew's gospel as the "little ones," people who are despised, poor, needy, rejected by society, oppressed by injustice---all who long for a true and righteous Judge. These are the ones he came to seek and to save. We will be judged in terms of how we treat these people.
But how does this mesh with the Reformation teaching that we are saved by grace through faith alone? There seems to be a contradiction.
Remember first of all that this is a parable. It's a story Jesus told to illustrate a point, not a detailed description of what will happen on the judgment day. Still, the Scriptures do teach that in the end we will be judged by the words we speak (Matt. 12:36), the works we do (1 Cor. 3:13), and the motives of our hearts (1 Cor. 4:5).
Second, notice that both those on the right and those on the left are surprised at the judgment that is rendered. Clearly neither side had thought of the judgment in such terms. That lack of awareness by the sheep tells us that none of them did these works of love in order to earn their way into eternal life; these works had been done from the heart, out of faith and love.
The key point of the parable is that acts of love toward those who are suffering and struggling are, in fact, acts of love toward to the judge himself. If we love God we will inevitably love our neighbor. If we do not love our neighbor we show the world that there is no love of God in our hearts. The last judgment simply makes that plain for everyone to see.
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