(Please forgive the occasional cough on the audio; I was recovering from a chest cold!)
Saint James Fordham • Proper 29a • Tobias Haller BSG
When the Son of Man comes in his glory… he will separate people from one another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.
Someone once said that the world is divided into two sorts of people: the sorts of people who divide the world into two sorts of people, and those who don’t. Well, it would seem from today’s readings that the Son of Man, when he comes in power and great glory, will turn out to be exactly the sort of person who divides the world into two sorts of people: those who are blessed by his Father, and those who are accursed. There is no middle ground, no room for compromise, and no appeal. This is nothing other than the Last Judgment.
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When I was five years old I had my appendix out. This was in the days before HMOs, so I had a good long week in the hospital to recuperate, and I can tell you it was very boring after the first few days. The most boring thing was that although I had a coloring book, I had only two crayons: and they were green and yellow-green. And however much I tried to get those two crayons to express other colors, all I was left with was green and yellow-green, darker or lighter, but still green without relief.
In today’s Gospel, everything is similarly monochromatic, tinged with the sharp and angry tone of the wrath of the Son of Man, without any hint of relief, any hint of anything other than his bright green judgment, clear and cutting, as sharp as the edge of a crisp blade of grass, or the fine green edge of a palm branch. There is no variation of shade, no warm autumnal reds or golds to take the edge off the kryptonite-like, piercing green judgment of the just judge.
The Son of Man is the final judge, seated in the last court from whom there is no appeal. Everyone, from the day laborer on up to the President will stand before him. And each one who stands there, and that includes each and every one of us too, will receive either a complete acquittal and reward, or a death sentence.
This is not the world of “both / and” but most definitely and finally “either / or.” Either each of us will find ourselves among the blessed, or we won’t.
This judgment is so terrible and terrifying that when we hear about it we must wonder what can be the cause for such a great reward, or merit such a final punishment. Surely the punishment must fit the crime and the reward fit the good behavior. It seems so unfair, so merciless, for God to consign people to the burning rubbish-heap for having failed to do such trivial tasks, such simple actions. Surely such punishment is for the wicked tyrants, the stereotypical Hitlers and the Stalins, for the mass-murderers and terrorists.
But Jesus is unflinching in his judgment. Consigned to the flames along with mass murderers and torturers, is the store owner who didn’t give a piece of bread to a homeless man; the man who was too busy to visit his sister when she was in the hospital; the woman who wouldn’t visit her son as he lay dying of aids; the lady who kept her closets full of clothes she never had the time to wear instead of giving some of them to the thrift shop; and countless, countless others; and maybe you, and maybe me. It just doesn’t seem fair to consign people to the destructive fire for such trivial reasons, for failing to do such simple things, things we would have done if only we’d known.
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If only we’d known. Hmmm, but we do know, don’t we? And that is why God’s judgment is fair, after all. It is not as if we have not been told that whatever we do to the least of God’s children we do to our Lord. It is not as if we have not been told exactly what God wants us to do for each other: to do as we would be done by. And that is why God’s judgement is fair, and that is also why in the long run it is also merciful.
It is merciful because the way to avoid the death sentence is so easy. That is the good news in our Gospel today. What it takes to get into the kingdom of heaven is to do as we would be done by. God has told us and assured us that he will reward with the kingdom of heaven those who simply feed the hungry, welcome the stranger, give drink to the thirsty, visit the sick and the prisoners, and clothe the naked. We don’t have to walk around the world at the equator on burning coals. We don’t have to climb a holy mountain and fast for forty days on bread and water. We don’t have to whip ourselves with knotted cords and wallow in repentance. All we have to do is treat with dignity and charity those whom God places in our path, not turning aside from those in need, but meeting their need with outstretched hands and open hearts.
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God’s judgment is terrible, but it is fair, it is just, and it is merciful. That is the good news. God has told us what he expects of us. This passage in Matthew was meant to warn the nations — that is, us — to give us fair warning that Jesus’ brothers and sisters were coming to visit, to bring the good news, and it was in how they and us treated those ambassadors of Christ that they would establish their future — joining the blessed in eternal joy, or departing into the flames of destruction. The warning was simple: treat others as you would yourself be treated.
The problem is that most people would rather think that God has impossible expectations for us, that God expects us to be perfect and never do anything wrong, but that God will be merciful when we fail and forgive us and let us into heaven.
But that simply is not the Gospel — or at least not the whole Gospel — as our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ has delivered it to us, through his ambassadors, through our many fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters in the faith. Although it is quite true that God would rather that we not sin, and that God will forgive us when we do sin, when it comes right down to it the Gospel isn’t primarily about our sin and God’s forgiveness. That has been dealt with — Jesus took care of that for us — remember? when he forgave even those who crucified him? — he did it on the cross, a full, perfect, and sufficient oblation and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world: and as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.
But what kind of life? That’s the question. The Gospel isn’t about our sin and God’s forgiveness so much as it is about what we do with our lives once we sinners have been forgiven. Having been made alive, what do we do with our lives? How do we set our hearts, as the hymn says, “to finish God’s salvation?”
Rather than set us impossible tasks and then have mercy on us when we fail, God has been merciful to us beforehand, and set us a simple task from the start. How much simpler can you get than, “Do unto others as you would be done by”?
It is our response to this command from God that will determine our final place with the sheep or with the goats. We have all been forgiven, saved through the great work of Christ accomplished on the cross; but the second part of the work of salvation, our finishing of salvation, lies in our hands, and most especially in what we do with our lives in relation to each other.
We have been forgiven our sins, but do we forgive others who sin against us? We have been provided with daily bread, but do we give food to the hungry and drink to the thirsty, however inconvenient their asking, and however frequently they ask? We have been given the blessings of hearth and home and nation, but do we welcome the stranger and make those most unlike us feel comfortable and at home in our presence? We have been protected and clothed and warmed, but do we provide clothing for those who lack it? We have been comforted by the visits of friends and strangers, but do we visit the sick and those in prison, or sit at home browsing the Internet or answering our e-mail, or drowsing in front of the TV or caught up in a video game? These are such simple things, my sisters and brothers, such simple things to gain or lose heaven by.
The judgment of God is terrible, but it is fair, and just, and it is merciful. It is terrible in its finality, as the world is divided into the blessed and the damned. But it is fair and just in that we have been asked to do no more than we would be done by. And it is merciful in that we have been given ample warning. Oh that today we would hearken to his voice!