Summary: The path to meet Jesus may come as a surprise to some. Instead of being cloaked in robes of religion, Jesus is clothed in rags of need.
Matthew 25:31-46 “Turning the Tables”
Whether in high school or college most of us have had the joy of taking a “final.” We studied hard for the final, because a large percentage of our grade was determined by this one test. More than a few all-nighters have been pulled in preparation for a final. When we began to actually take the test we usually had one of two reactions. We either new immediately that we were going to ace the test, or we thought we had studied for the wrong test and were doomed to failure.
In this story of the judgment of the nations, Jesus pictures people taking the ultimate final. They are brought before the Lord and are separated into two groups. One group is pleasantly surprised that they have received and “A” for the course of life. The other group discovers that they have prepared for the wrong test. The experience of these two groups has much to teach us.
A STORY NOT A PROPHECY
Jesus tells this story to his disciples during the week before his execution. He is speaking only to them, and he uses the popular idea of the time of a Judgment Day to teach his disciples the lesson, or moral, that he wants them to learn. Matthew takes Jesus’ words and addresses them to the early Christians. It is important for us to understand that this is a story crafted to convey a lesson rather than a prophecy of things to come.
There is debate among Biblical scholars as to who the story is talking about. The word that the NRSV translates “nations,” in verse 32 is not the word that is usually used for nations. It literally can be translated, “gentiles.” At first glance it seems that the story is about all the nations of the world coming before the Lord at the Judgment day. A good case can be made that Jesus is talking about the early church and that Matthew intends it to be addressed to the early Christians.
All of the people who stand before the Son of Man refer to him as Lord. This is a Christian designation used in reference to Jesus and not a term that is used by the world at large.
The judgment is different, also, from other writings in the Bible. In the story, the Son of Man judges people according to have they have done. We understand that our judgment will not be based on what we have done but rather on what Jesus has done through his life, death and resurrection.
Both the righteous (in verse 39) and the unrighteous (in verse 44) ask Jesus when they saw him. Seeing is an important part of discipleship.
Sometimes we don’t see because we are so wrapped up in our lives—the worries of the day and our plans for the future. In 2007, Gene Weingarten wrote a story entitled, “Stop and Hear the Music.” He asked Joshua Bell, a celebrated concert violinist to play at a busy Washington DC Metro stop during rush hour. You can imagine what happened.
There are times when we don’t want to see. In early May, 2010, Hugo Alfredo Tale-Yax saw a woman being attacked by a man carrying a knife. He ran over to save her and ended up being stabbed. AS he was lying on the group dying, several people walked by him. No one stopped to help. One person actually stopped, took a picture of him with his cell phone, and walked on. Finally about one and a half hours after he had been stabbed, a man bent down to see if Hugo was okay. The man saw the bleeding and immediately called 911. But by that time, Hugo had died.
In order to carry out the ministry of Christ, we need to be able to see the need of others. We can’t meet the needs of others if we don’t know what those needs are. In order to see others we need to get our eyes off ourselves and look beyond our personal space. The righteous in this story were people who saw the need—and they saw Jesus—and they acted to meet that need.
When we look we see Jesus in the needy. All of the great faiths teach that it is good to give to the needy. Only in the teachings of Christ is it taught that giving to the needs of others is actually giving to God.
Both the righteous and the unrighteous were surprised by the Lord’s comments. They didn’t recall that they acted that way.
There are times that we attempt to be on our best behavior in order to impress other people. It is not at these times when we really shine the brightest as Christian witnesses. Rather, we shine the brightest when our regular, everyday behavior reflects God’s image. Staying calm in bumper to bumper traffic, bending down to pick up a dropped toy, paying a person a compliment are parts of our everyday behavior that express our faith and our experience of God’s love and grace.