Day 6: God’s Standard for Judgment
Illustration: Juliana Crownover
If there is any thought at which a Christian trembles it is the thought of God’s judgment…This note in Christianity certainly goes back to the teaching of Our LORD Himself; especially to the terrible parable of the Sheep and the Goats. This can leave no conscience untouched, for in it the ‘Goats’ are condemned entirely for their sins of omission; as if to make us fairly sure that the heaviest charge against each of us turns not upon the things he has done but on those he never did – perhaps never dreamed of doing. [i]
C.S. Lewis (d. 1963), Reflections on the Psalms
O God our Father, turn us toward you, that this Lenten season may be profitable to us. We ask you to instruct our minds in all heavenly learning through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.[ii]
Old Testament Lesson
This passage represents the big turning point in the book of Ezekiel. After more than thirty chapters of threatened judgments, God’s promise of unconditional salvation breaks through. The exile, which scattered the Israelites to the four corners of the known world, would eventually be reversed. Israel’s leaders, who did so much to provoke God’s judgment, would be replaced by a good shepherd, a figure of God himself at His return. This good shepherd would gather his people from their exile, settle them in a good land, bind up their wounds and reward them with abundance. However, those who cared little for their well-being (the fat and the strong) would be judged harshly. Thus, Ezekiel foresees the great reversal which will take place at Christ’s return when the poor and hungry will be exalted and the rich sent “empty away” (Luk 1.53).
11For thus says the LORD God, “Behold, I myself will search for my sheep and will examine them carefully. 12As a shepherd searches for his sheep on the day he is in the midst of his scattered flock, so I will inspect my sheep and will rescue them from all the places where they were scattered on the day of clouds and thick darkness. 13 And I will bring them out from the peoples and I will gather them from the foreign lands, and I will make them go into their own land and will feed them on the mountains of Israel by fountains among all the inhabitants of the land. 14I will feed them in a nice meadow and the high mountains of Israel will be their pasture. There, they will lie down in a good pasture and I will feed them from a fat land upon the mountains of Israel.
15I myself will tend my sheep and I will make them lie down, says the LORD God. 16I will seek out the lost and I will restore those who have strayed; I will bind up the broken; I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will pasture with justice!”
New Testament Lesson
The separation of the sheep and the goats occurs at the end of the so-called Olivet discourse (Jesus was on the Mt. of Olives outside Jerusalem as he gave it). In it, Jesus responds to the disciples’ questions about the “end of the age.” The disciples were asking what it was going to be like when God returned to fulfill the promises of the prophets and judge the world. Based on a whole series of Jewish writings in the centuries before Christ was born, the disciples had been taught that the Messiah would return to restore Israel as a political entity, destroying their enemies (namely, the Roman occupiers) in the process. In light of this, Jesus’ answer is exceedingly surprising. What really matters on the Day of Judgment is what we have done for the poor and needy, including prisoners, foreigners, the hungry and the poor. This is the standard for judgment. Yet, the righteous are not even aware of their good deeds, which suggests that true righteousness is more about an intimate relationship with God than the deeds. Our good needs are simply the fruit that comes from the relationship.
31Now when the Son of Man comes in his glory and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. 32And all the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate them, one from another, as the shepherd separates sheep from goats. 33And he will place the sheep on his right hand and the goats on his left.
34Then the King will say to those on his right: “Come, blessed ones of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. 35For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat; I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink; I was a foreigner and you took me in, 36naked and you clothed me, sick and you visited me; I was in prison and you came to me.”
37Then the righteous will answer, saying, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and we gave you something to eat or thirsty and we gave you something to drink? 38When did we see you a foreigner and we took you in or naked and we clothed you? 39When did we see you sick or in prison and we came to you?”
40Answering, the King will say to them, “Truly I say to you, as you did it for one of these, my brethren, you did it unto me.”
41Then he will say to those on his left: “Depart from me, O cursed ones, into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat; I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink; 43I was a foreigner and you did not invite me in, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.”
44Then, answering him, they will say, “Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a foreigner or naked or sick or in prison and we did not serve you?”
45Then answering them, he will say, “Truly I say to you, as you did not do it for one of the least of these, you did not do it unto me.”
46And these will depart from him into eternal punishment, but the righteous into everlasting life.
Questions for Reflection
- In what specific ways do you extend mercy to others? How about those who mow your yard, clean your house or do jobs you don’t want to do? Do you know about the problems in their lives and do something to solve them?
- Before the nineteenth century, most interpreters read our NT passage in light of the Church. To what extent are you involved with visiting the sick and needy within our own church community?
- Why do you think the righteous are unaware of their good deeds on the Day of Judgment? How good are you at assessing how you are progressing in the spiritual life?
- Protestant theology is often uncomfortable with the idea that good works have anything to do with salvation. How do your reconcile that teaching with our passages today? Do good works matter to Jesus? Does he think they have nothing to do with salvation?
Reflection by Kevin Dodge (email)
Martin of Tours lived in the fourth century and was considered one of the powerful saints of his age. An ancient biography, by Sulpicius Servus recounts the following incident from the period before Martin became a Christian:
One day, in the middle of a winter more bitterly cold than usual (so much so that many perished as a result of the severity of the icy weather), when Martin had nothing with him apart from his weapons and a simple military cloak, he came across a naked beggar at the gate of the city of Amiens. The man begged the people who were passing to have pity on him, but they all walked past him. Then Martin, filled with God’s grace, understood that this man had been reserved for him, since the others were not showing him any mercy. But what was he to do? He had nothing apart from the cloak he was wearing, for he had already used the rest of his things for a similar purpose. So he seized the sword which he wore at his side, divided the cloak in two, gave half to the beggar and then put the remaining piece on again. Some of the bystanders began to laugh because he looked odd with his chopped-up cloak, but many who were more sensible sighed deeply because they had not done the same despite the fact that, because they had more than Martin, they could have clothed the beggar without themselves being reduced to nakedness.
The following night, therefore, when Martin had fallen asleep, he saw Christ clothed in the part of his cloak which he had used to cover the beggar. He was told to look very carefully at the Lord and to recognize the clothing which he had given. Then he heard Jesus saying in a clear voice to the host of angels standing all around, ‘Martin who is still a catechumen covered me with this cloak.’ Undoubtedly, when the Lord declared that he Himself was clothed in the person of this beggar, He was recalling His own words, for He had once said, ‘as often as you do this to one of the least, you have done it to me.’[iii]
The common denominator in our passages today is in the imagery of the shepherd. In our OT passage, the shepherds (earthly Kings) had been unfaithful, which Ezekiel insists was an important reason for Israel’s exile. But, Ezekiel promised that a good shepherd would come (a Messiah figure) who would reverse the effects of the exile and bring them salvation. Our NT passage then picks up this imagery of the Shepherd and insists that this is Jesus at his second coming when He returns to judge “the quick and the dead.”
Lent is a time of examination and repentance, a time for us to take stock of our spiritual lives. It’s a time for us to remember that all of us will face judgment for what we have done in our lives. What Jesus wants his disciples to know is that when they help others and give of themselves to those who couldn’t possibly pay them back, they are actually serving Jesus Himself. Thus, to give one’s life to Christ is to live out one’s personal vocation in service to others.
The most important acts of charity we will ever do will likely be mundane things that few will remember. We get someone a glass of water out of the pure kindness of our hearts. We faithfully cook dinner for our children. We invite someone to spend the night who has no place to stay. We give those who mow our lawns and clean our houses a raise without their asking. We buy lunch for the homeless person who asks for our change. We love with no expectation of return.
Serving Christ is rarely about mountaintop experiences. It’s much more about daily activities in which we live out our faith in practical ways. The needy are all around us. Jesus commends their care to us and speaks of great rewards if we will do so with a pure heart.
This is probably why the righteous are bewildered that they’ve done something right. They were just doing their jobs, caring for those around them and serving as best they could. Those who were condemned to “eternal punishment” were not condemned for what they did, but what they didn’t do. They did not love God with all their hearts nor did they love their neighbors as themselves.
Thus terrible punishment comes to those who don’t care. To ignore the needy is to ignore Christ. And, to ignore Christ is to imperil our relationship with him. We can go to church every Sunday, sing our hymns, and do our acts of piety. We can fast at Lent with the best of them. We can pray Jesus into our heart at every revival meeting. Yet, if we have no heart for the needy, who are all around us, we have missed something important that Jesus is trying to teach us. A relationship must be lived out in action.
Lent is about turning your heart back to Christ because all of us wander off like sheep. Repentance is about turning back to the only the only real thing that can ever satisfy us – our Creator. We will live out that repentance most forcefully when we give with abandon out of gratitude for the love, mercy, and grace God first showed toward us.
- Work for Justice
Social justice is not necessarily about financial giving (although this is usually part of it). Social justice is about meeting the basic needs of people. There are no exceptions in Scripture: a just society will work to ensure its people are clothed, fed and have shelter, because there is no true freedom without these essentials. Find someone needy and meet their needs.
Consider getting involved in one of the outreach ministries of the parish. If you have no outreach office or ministry in your parish, consider starting one with some friends.
Spend fifteen minutes praying for our city and for the needy within it. Ask God to open your heart to have mercy on others. Ask him to bring people into your life to whom you can minister with your unique gifts and resources.
[i] C. S. Lewis, Weight of Glory (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 2009), 9.
[ii] The Anglican Breviary, 439.
[iii] Sulpicius Severus, “The Life of Martin of Tours,” in Early Christian Lives, ed. Carolinne White, Penguin Classics (New York: Penguin Classics, 1998), 137–138.