(1 Cor 8:8-13; 9:1-2; Matthew 25:31-46; Ezekiel 34)
Judgment is one of those matters about which contemporary Christians prefer not to talk—or think, for that matter. But as we approach Great Lent, here we are again, confronted with the problem of God’s judgment. The language for many of our hymns and prayers of this week breathes the atmosphere of, say, the prophet Ezekiel, who, says one biblical scholar, put forward a “harsh message of judgment” and even “exaggerated it” in some places.
One such passage of warning is found in Ezekiel 34, the prophet’s parable of the evil, strong “shepherds” who were using their power in Judah in order to rob the sheep and benefit themselves:
Ho! Shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves!…Behold, I am against the shepherds, and I will require my sheep at their hands, and put a stop to their feeding the sheep; no longer shall the shepherds feed themselves. I will rescue my sheep from their mouths!
God is against them. Moreover, God says “I will judge between sheep and sheep, between rams and he-goats…I will save my flock.” Here is a picture of God in righteous indignation at the self-serving behavior of the “shepherds” and the unjust behavior of the “fat sheep.” But notice that the indignation and judgment come about because of God’s compassion and love for the weak, and for those “scattered” and “in thick darkness.” And that is not all. With the word of judgment also comes God’s presence. He doesn’t simply speak a word against the selfish “shepherds.” He comes, and becomes Himself the Shepherd: “As a shepherd seeks out his flock…so I will seek out my sheep….I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep…You are my sheep, and the sheep of my pasture.” And he promises to give them another shepherd to feed them, the Messiah, the “prince [who will be] among them.”
So judgment is not simply bare-naked justice. It is accompanied by compassion, by positive action, by God’s presence among His people, and by His provision of an Anointed One, a Messiah, among the people. On top of that, God is aware that the sheep not only have internal enemies in the wicked shepherds and greedy fat sheep, but also enemies outside and harsh conditions, which threaten them: “I will make with them a covenant of peace, and banish wild beasts from the land, so that they may dwell securely in the wilderness and sleep in the woods…None shall make them afraid…they shall no longer suffer the reproach of the nations.”
God’s concern is wholistic, His interests global: He cares for his sheep, but also for their relations with those outside the immediate flock—with the “wild beasts,” the harsh landscape, and those of the nations. Judgment, then, is not a petty and mechanistic matter with God, but bound up with His love, His all-knowing gaze on the entire earth, and His awareness of matters beyond the household of faith.
The prophet Ezekiel, though formed by his own time (a time when Judeans lived in exile in a foreign land), sets us up to understand scenes and teaching about judgment in the New Testament. Indeed, Jesus used Ezekiel’s parable of the Shepherd and the Sheep, when He identified Himself as the Good shepherd, who cares for the sheep, and even has sheep beyond the flock of Israel. This is found in John 10, which was in some Orthodox lectionaries for this past week. The metaphor changes slightly for our gospel reading this Judgment Sunday, Matthew 25:31-46. Here are sheep, but also goats. And here the “sheep and goats” are used in reference not to God’s own people, Israel, but to those outside that family, to those of “the nations,” that is, the Gentiles.
This is the very last parable that Jesus told prior to the Last Supper, His arrest and crucifixion. It looks forward to the time when the Son of Man will be vindicated before the eyes of the whole world, and when even those who have not met him will be called to account. Here are, before the compassionate and truthful eyes of the Judge of all, a group of people who, it seems, had never met Him. How is it fair that they should be judged at all? Yet, we see the same principles at work as displayed in Ezekiel’s story. Rather than using the metaphor of “fat sheep,” Jesus speaks of the “goat” when symbolizing the self-centered person. They are those who have not fed, or watered, or clothed, or visited the needy—those whom Jesus calls “the least of these my brothers.” These have shown, by their lack of compassion, that they do not have hearts prepared for Him, that they do not cultivate values necessary for keeping company with the Shepherd of the sheep.
The Shepherd has sought his sheep, even to the point of coming among them, even to the point of being hungry, thirsty, a stranger, naked, and imprisoned: He became what we are so that we might become what He is. But by their actions and attitude, the goats demonstrate that they have no interest in such actions—he came to “his own” and “his own” did not receive him (John 1:11). Though they do not know it, they are his flock.
Of course, technically speaking the goats did nothing wrong. They did not explicitly throw Jesus out, or turn away from Him. In their own eyes, they are absolutely in the right, arguing with Him, “But when did we see you hungry, or thirsty, or a stranger, or naked, or in prison?” We can hear the self-righteous tone in the question, their attempt to protect themselves, to show that they are NOT guilty of such a heinous crime. No doubt they expect to be vindicated, to be declared righteous, because they had not harmed this Judge on the throne in any way. Indeed, even so far as others are concerned, it is only a matter of what they have NOT done—sins of omission. But they are not excused. They may have been technically in the right, but they are shown to be dead wrong—for if they cannot be compassionate in little matters, surely they would not have welcomed the Messiah on whom the rulers of the world poured their spite and hatred.
Perhaps we would have preferred that Jesus finish His story in an upbeat mode, with the scene of those who were accepted by Him, despite their surprise to be found among the sheep. For they, too, ask a question. In their mouths, the question “when did we see you?” is not self-justifying, but rather the remark of someone who is pinching herself, who can’t believe her good fortune! He has me mistaken for somebody else, surely! I have been given too much change from the register! But Jesus responds—you did it to the frailest of my siblings, those with whom I have identified even to the point of giving my life. Enter into my joy!
Jesus doesn’t end with these happy ones. Rather, the parable ends with the scene of condemnation, with His sentence against those who thought they were not guilty. The parable has the same contours as that of the Publican and the Pharisee, for the Pharisee expected cudos and went away “not justified,” while the humble Publican was vindicated. And yet the parables are different, aren’t they? For neither the Publican nor Pharisee realized that in their actions they had brought about a divine judgment.
But here, at the end of the age, as pictured in Jesus’ parable of the sheep and the goats, the veil is lifted, and people find out who they are. It is possible to be “right” but dead wrong. Humility and humble care for others attract the attention of our human-loving God. Hard-heartedness and arrogance cannot live in His presence.
Matthew 25 appears to be a parable about those who have not heard, and how God will judge. But self-righteousness can infect the Church as well. We can be right, but still dead wrong.
Consider what St. Paul says in our epistle reading:
However, not all possess this knowledge. But some, through being hitherto accustomed to idols, eat food as really offered to an idol; and their conscience, being weak, is defiled. Food will not commend us to God. We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do.
Only take care lest this liberty of yours somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. For if any one sees you, a man of knowledge, at table in an idol’s temple, might he not be encouraged, if his conscience is weak, to eat food offered to idols? And so by your knowledge this weak man is destroyed, the brother for whom Christ died. Thus, sinning against your brethren and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if food is a cause of my brother’s falling, I will never eat meat, lest I cause my brother to fall. Am I not free? Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord? Are not you my workmanship in the Lord? If to others I am not an apostle, at least I am to you; for you are the seal of my apostleship in the Lord. (1Co 8:7-9:2 RSV)
Paul has been answering the Corinthians regarding a controversy—something like, perhaps, our spats concerning toll booth theology or old/new calendar. The question was whether you could eat the cheaper meat sold on the market—meat that had previously been offered to idols in a ceremony. Meat that had not gone through this ritual would be more expensive, and similar to shopping, say, organic and free range at Whole Foods. His answer is that the Corinthians, as Christians, can eat what they like, because God has made everything, and there are no real gods that correspond to these idols anyway. Christians know the Father through the Son, and know that there is only one God, so they can be free.
But then, he backs up. He reminds them that though there is one God, the character of this God is that of care for “the least of these.” Not everybody has consciences as robust as his: some have had idolatrous backgrounds, and for them such behavior would be the slippery slope. It’s like a Christian who knows that God made wine encouraging an alcoholic to have a drink because God made the grapes. But what about the weakness of that person? In that case, he says, for the sake of God’s character, for the sake of the One who became weak for such a person, BE CAREFUL. Stay a vegetarian if you have to, if someone will be turned away because of your actions. You may be free—I am free, says Paul, an apostle of Christ though I was a rigid follower of Torah. But it isn’t just what you KNOW. You can be right, but dead wrong in how you apply that knowledge. Think more deeply, and make right judgments. And, though he doesn’t say it, lurking in the back of our minds should be the words of Jesus regarding those who put a stumbling block before the young in faith: “It would be better” says the Lord, “that they should have a millstone put around their necks”. Our actions have consequences, and our actions show our hearts. Proving that I am right in this kind of matter may not be an indication of a right heart—better not to cling to rights, but to do what is right.
Our two readings, then, give two different scenarios: how God deals with those who don’t know, and how we should deal with those who don’t know, even if it inconveniences us. In both cases, truth does not take a back seat, but compassion and generosity play key roles. God makes righteous judgments, and calls us to do the same thing. Sometimes this will mean speaking up for truth when it is not popular. Sometimes it will mean remaining silent because something more important is at stake. What we do know is that God is the ultimate judge, who is always right, but who was prepared to die that we might be right, too. The same God who cared about the fragile sheep also asks this rhetorical question, “Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, and not rather that that one should turn from waywardness and live?” (Ezekiel 18:23; 33:10; 14:6). The scene of the final judgment rightly instills in us godly fear, and a desire to please Him—for he is, at the end, a God who desires that none should perish, but all should live! In Him, truth and mercy come together. May this also be true of His children.