Judgment Day Surprises
Dr. Roger W. Thomas, Preaching Minister
First Christian Church, Vandalia, MO
Introduction: A drunken man flagged down a bus late one night. He staggered up the aisle, and flopped down right next to an older woman who was clutching a Bible. She looked the wayward drunk up and down disapprovingly. Finally, she announced to him in a stern voice, "I’ve got news for you, mister. You’re going straight to hell!" The man jumped up out of his seat and shouted, "Oh, man, I’m on the wrong bus again!"
Do you know which bus you’re on? I’ve got news for you today. You are on a bus to somewhere. It is not standing still. In fact, it’s picking up speed. If you are headed the wrong direction, now is the time switch buses.
Today we are looking at the last of three parables in Matthew 25. Jesus offered these parables as illustrations for a principle found Matthew 24. His disciples wanted to know the signs for the end of the world. We all understand why they wanted to know that. If we knew when the world is ending, we would know how much time we have before we need to get serious.
Jesus knew that knowing the date wouldn’t motivate us to greater faith. Quite to the contrary, it would just encourage our already-present tendency toward spiritual foolishness. Instead of naming a date or providing a secret signal, Jesus issues a warning. The bottom line comes in verse 42: “Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come.” Again in verse 44, “So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.” So much for the authors and tele-evangelists who make fortunes predicting the date!
The first parable (the ten virgins) emphasized the need for full preparation. Five girls foolishly did what most of our farmers would be tempted to if they thought Jesus was coming back on the 4th of July. Park the tractor and forget about planting corn. Why waste any money on fertilizer? The five foolish girls guessed wrong. Their master’s delay caught them unprepared. Jesus concluded that parable with the same warning, “Therefore keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour” (25:13). This second parable (we call it “the talents”) continues a similar theme. A wealthy businessman entrusts three servants with three different amounts of wealth to invest in his absence. The first two took the responsibility seriously. The third didn’t. He foolishly did what we would be tempted to do if we thought we had plenty of time on our hands. He did nothing. The masters in the parables rejected both kinds of fools.
This third illustration raises a lot of questions for Bible scholars. First, is it a parable or isn’t it? It doesn’t have all the characteristics of a story like the other two. It just opens with what English teachers call a simile—a short comparison. But Jesus doesn’t build a story around the word picture. He just uses the expression and moves on.
I consider this illustration an “un-parable.” Our Sunday School teachers define a parable as an earthly story with a heavenly meaning. In this third illustration, Jesus reverses the picture. Instead of an earthly story with a heavenly meaning, he offers a heavenly story with an earthly meaning. But a parable is more than just a story. A parable is a story with a twist. We might even call it a punch line. We all know how it works with jokes. A joke is different than a humorous story. A humorous story might include funny situations or comical descriptions. But a joke has a punch line. The humor comes from the surprise ending. Even when we see it coming, the punch line of a joke makes us laugh because of the way it suddenly twists the whole story in a new and often unexpected direction.
For example, I recently added a joke to my collection of the World’s Worst. A man goes to see his doctor. He is very upset. "Doctor, doctor" he says, "you have to help me. I’m dying. I know I am! I hurt everywhere. I touch my head and it hurts. I touch my leg and it hurts. I touch my stomach and it hurts. I touch my chest and it hurts. You have to help me, Doc, everything hurts."
The doctor gives him a complete physical. Finally, he says, "Mr. Smith, I have good news and bad news. The good news is you are not dying. The bad news is you have a broken finger."
Parables are stories that surprise. That’s why I think Jesus’ third illustration is a parable, even if it is an un-parable. The parable contains a number of surprises. The last one is the big twist or the punch line.
First, there’s the surprise of the judgment itself. A day of reckoning is coming. It is a matter of when not if. A lot of us will be surprised by the reality of judgment. Note the surprise scope of the judgment. All the nations are gathered. No exceptions. Rich and poor, black and white, Democrats and Republicans, religious and irreligious shall stand under the judgment of the Living God. Every nation, language, and tribe must answer to God. No one will plead separation of church and state on that day. 2 Corinthians 5 describes it. “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad” (5:10).
Note how that passage and our parable describe the judge. It is the judgment seat of Christ, not some impersonal, nameless god, not some undefined “higher power,” not some do-it-yourself god of our own making. Jesus says, “when the Son of Man comes in glory.” That was Jesus’ most common term for himself. The Old Testament expression came from Daniel 7. The Son of Man was the all-powerful deliver sent from heaven. Paul surprised a learned audience in his day by announcing, “For (God) has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead” (Acts 17:31). Someday everyone will come under the judgment of Jesus Christ!
Note the surprising separation. The nations are divided like sheep and goats, sheep to the right and goats to the left. Generally speaking, sheep were the more valuable animals in the ancient world, so the distinction here. Right and left were common expressions in that day for positions of honor and dishonor. This is either/or. No third way. No middle ground. No purgatory. No second chances. No plea bargains. Just a final separation. Theologians can debate the reality of hell. Skeptics can take issue with it. Whether you or I believe in hell or not, Jesus did!
Consider the surprising standard. It is not what we might expect. Nor is it exactly what we sometimes think this story is saying. The blessed are where they are because of what they had done for Jesus. He sites six behaviors. 1) I was hungry. You fed me. 2) I was thirsty. You gave me something to drink. 3) I was a stranger. You invited me in. 4) I was naked. You gave me clothes. 5) I was sick. You cared for me. 6) I was in prison. You visited me. The cursed, those on the left, are rejected because they had refused to give such help to Jesus.
Those on both sides respond in surprise. When did we do such things? Jesus then acknowledges that he wasn’t directly helped or rejected. It had really been “the least of these brothers of mine.” Some immediately jump to the false conclusion that Jesus is teaching that eternal destiny is determined by how one treats the poor. Helping the poor and disadvantaged is clearly a Christian value, but that’s not really the point here. It is not just “the least of these.” It is the “least of these brothers of mine.” Throughout the Gospels, especially in Matthew, the terms “brothers and sisters” always refers to Jesus’ disciples, those who believe and extend his message.
Listen to how Jesus makes an almost identical point earlier in Matthew. “He who receives you receives me, and he who receives me receives the one who sent me. Anyone who receives a prophet because he is a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward, and anyone who receives a righteous man because he is a righteous man will receive a righteous man’s reward. And if anyone give even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones because he is my disciple, I tell you the truth, he will certainly not lose his reward” (10:40-42). Jesus takes it personally when his followers are loved. He takes it personally when they are hated. Those who today persecute, harass, and belittle the messengers of Christ do not face a pleasant future.
There is one more surprise in the parable. I think this is the real punch line. Neither the sheep nor the goats, the blessed on the right nor the cursed on the left, had any idea that what they had being doing had eternal consequences. They each did what they did because of who they were. Helping brothers in need wasn’t a calculated effort to win their way to heaven. The loving and giving were spontaneous acts of kindness. Do you see the difference?
Calvin and Hobbes, the little boy with the wild imagination and his side-kick tiger of comic strip fame, were lying under a shade tree talking about life one afternoon. Calvin says, "What if there is no heaven? What if this is all we get?" Hobbes answers, "Well, if this is all we get I guess we’ll just have to accept it." Calvin replies, "Yeah, but if I’m not going to be rewarded for my good deeds, I want to know it now." That’s not the attitude of those on the right. They had no idea.
One commentator explains it this way. "In the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats, Christ issues a warning in love. It is not a prescription but a description. A prescription is something that we must do if we are to achieve a desired end. A description is a picture of the ways things are, or will be. Sheep and goats are not made sheep and goats by the judgment; they are only identified for what they are. Therefore, judgment reveals what has long been true. The deeds of mercy which the sheep performed were not works of merit, but examples and evidences of the fact they were sheep and not goats. Therefore, judgment is not a threat of something to be feared in the future, but a warning that one day all people will be revealed for what they are now.” (Dr. Richard Hoefler, The Divine Trap, C S S Publishing Company, 1980.)
Here’s why Jesus ends his discussion with this story. The judgment will not be determined by the moments when we put on our Sunday clothes and are on best behavior. It is not about those times we know we are “on camera.” We have all seen those television bloopers when an actor or reporter is caught unaware by the camera. The Lord is not impressed with our prepared performances. Instead he looks for the real deal, the genuine behavior that’s not calculated to impress. That’s the behavior that reflects who we really are! That’s the life that meets his test.
Do you see how this last surprise brings the discussion right back to where it started? “Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come.” “So you also must be ready (camera or no camera), because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.”
Conclusion: An umpire named Babe Pinelli once called Babe Ruth out on strikes. The crowd booed with sharp disapproval at the call. Ruth didn’t like it either. The great “sultan of swat” turned to the umpire with disdain and said, "There’re 40,000 people here who know that the last pitch was a ball. You, tomato head!" (Ruth probably didn’t actually say “tomato head.” But I am sure I don’t want to repeat what he did say.) The Yankee bench watched the scene unfold, sure that one angry umpire was about to throw Ruth out of the game. But he didn’t. Instead Pinelli calmly walked over to Ruth. He stood toe to toe with the homerun king and quietly said, so no one else could hear, “Maybe so, Babe, but mine is the only opinion that counts."
We will all stand before the judgment seat of Christ, sooner or later. On that day only one opinion will count.
You’re on a bus to somewhere. Is it taking you where you want to go? This is the day to make sure!
***Dr. Roger W. Thomas is the preaching minister at First Christian Church, 205 W. Park St., Vandalia, MO 63382 and an adjunct professor of Bible and Preaching at Central Christian College of the Bible, 911 E. Urbandale, Moberly, MO. He is a graduate of Lincoln Christian College (BA) and Lincoln Christian Seminary (MA, MDiv), and Northern Baptist Theological Seminary (DMin).