One of the problems with reading the story of the Last Judgement as recorded in Matthew 25 is that it’s almost impossible to do so without missing the deeper meaning of the story. The story of the Last Judgement is more commonly known as the “parable” of the sheep and the goats. Interestingly, this story is not actually a parable. Throughout the Gospels, most of what Jesus says about the Kingdom of Heaven, he says in the form of parables. For example, he says the Kingdom of Heaven is like a mustard seed, or is compared to a merchant who is buying pearls, or is as a man who went on a journey. These are parables because they are made up stories that reflect the real story. In fact, the first two stories recorded in Matthew 25 are parables about the final judgement. However, the third story in Matthew 25, the separation of the sheep and the goats, is not a parable. It’s a prophecy. It’s the real story.
Our Misguided Response
This prophetic tone in the story of the sheep and the goats creates an intense note of urgency among those of us who care about the final judgement. Consequently, we want to pay close attention to what is said so that we don’t blow it, so that we don’t end up on the left instead of the right. But it is this very sense of urgency that seems to blinds us, that makes it so very difficult for us to get beyond the most superficial reading of this passage.
When I hear this story of the judgement of God and I am focused on my own salvation, then I look for what I must do, what I must do to get on the righthand side. Jesus speaks of the least of these His brethren. These are the ones who are hungry or thirsty or naked or are strangers or sick or in prison. He tells us that those who cared for these people end up on the righthand side. Those who end up on the lefts side, however, did not care for them. When I hear this, my immediate thought is, “where can I find some hungry or thirsty or naked or foreign or sick or imprisoned person whom I can relieve so that I am qualified to get on the righthand side on the day of judgement?”
Now, while caring for the physical needs of those around us for just about any reason, even a selfish reason (so that I can get saved, for example), is certainly better than ignoring completely the suffering of the world around us. It is by far better to do good—even with a poor motive—than always to be concerned merely with one’s self. An other-worldly selfishness, if it produces the fruits of genuine attention to and care for the poor and needy, is indeed many steps closer to the Kingdom of Heaven than the all-consuming, this-worldly selfishness that I can sometimes find lurking in my soul.
But I think Jesus wants us to look closer at this fore-telling of the judgement and perhaps learn more than just how we can get our ticket punched for the train ride to the Judge’s righthand side. In fact the holy Fathers and Mothers of the Church also encourage us to see much more in this story than just a moral imperative with a heavenly payoff. You see, the Church teaches us that the final judgement is a mystery. And like every aspect of Christ’s saving work, there are depths of meaning, depths that can only be revealed to us as we grow in Christ. And these deeper meanings help us to see ourselves more clearly and to repent more deeply. There are, I think, at least two aspects of this story of the last judgement that can help us see ourselves more deeply and thus repent more deeply. The first is that neither those on the left nor those on the right knew that they had done or not done the right things. We will look at this more closely later.
The second aspect of the story that helps us go deeper is that Jesus specifically says that the nations, not individual people, are being judged. This interesting fact invites us to consider what he is referring to by “the nations.” Some Fathers have suggested that the nations refer to qualities within each human being. In the Psalms we read sentences like, “all nations encompass me about, but in the name of the Lord will I destroy them.” Or “Why do the nations say, where is your God?” The Fathers often interpret these nations as thoughts that attack us, as the various evil thoughts that assail our mind. If Jesus is using this imagery, then He may be saying that each human being has “nations” within himself that must be separated. The sheep and the goats may be referring to the good and evil intentions that war in every one of us.
Now, this interpretation does not mean that there isn’t also a final personal judgement. The intentions and thoughts each person clings to ultimately determine how he or she will experience the age to come. Those who cling to their goat-like intentions, follow them to where the goats go. Those who cling to the sheep-like thoughts follow after the sheep. However, I think it is essential that we realize that these sheep-like and goat-like qualities are in every human being. No one except Christ is pure. We will all be judged and what is impure will be separated from all of us. I have written about this in another article called, “Your Kingdom Come: The Sorting Parables.” If you’d like to explore this point further, I suggest you look at that article. But for the rest of this article, I’d like to reflect on the first point, on how we might cultivate a holy not knowing. That is, we will think about how to rid ourselves of some of the other-worldly selfishness that sometimes motivates our attempts to love and care for others.
Many of the Fathers and Mothers of the Church use the imagery of hunger and thirst, sickness and nakedness, and being foreign or imprisoned to express spiritual realities within the human soul. They often speak of being naked of virtue and of being sick with passions. Jesus himself said, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.” And the Psalmist says, “Bring my soul out of prison that I may praise your name.” And, “I am a stranger in the earth; do not hide your commandments from me.” You see, in the story of the Judgement, Jesus most certainly is not talking just about physical needs. In fact, I would say that Jesus is not primarily talking about physical needs. Caring for the physical needs of others is very important. It is important for many reasons. But the important reason I want to focus on here is that it is most often through ministering to the physical poverty of others that we become aware of the depths of our own spiritual poverty. By caring for others outside ourselves, we come to know what is inside ourselves. You might liken this movement from outer to inner to a clam with a pearl inside. It is only by embracing and working with the clam, that you can ever hope to find the pearl.
From Outer to Inner: An Example
Let’s look at a specific example. When I was a teenager, I wanted to do something to recommend me to the Judge’s righthand side. I decided I would commit myself to a weekly visit with Thelma, a sick old woman who came to church occasionally when she was feeling up to it. At the appointed time, I showed up at her small, one-room bungalow in the back of an old apartment building. My heart was full and my five-pound Scofield Bible was in my hand. I was confident I was going to spread the Light of the Gospel. I knocked on the screen door and heard a groan, then a weak, “come in.” It was the middle of the afternoon, but there Thelma lay on her bed in an old night gown, soaked to the skin in sweat. The room was dark and stank. She sat up and groaned, “who are you?” I reminded Thelma of our appointment for a visit. She said, “Sit down. What do you want to visit about?” I didn’t know what to say. I wanted to run. I felt so awkward. I was disgusted by the smell, by the dishevelled room, by the dishevelled old woman sitting on the edge her bed dripping in sweat. She was obviously confused. “I thought we could just talk. You know, visit,” I said. “Oh, sure,” she said. “You’re from the Church, aren’t you?” And somehow I made it through my first chat with a sick old woman named Thelma. I promised to visit again the next week.
Once I got out the door into the fresh air, that’s when the spiritual warfare began. Judgemental thoughts. Self-righteous thoughts. Excusses for why I didn’t have to visit her again. And this warfare continued all week, until it was time to visit Thelma again. This time walking up to the door there was no confidence, only conflicted thoughts and the hope that she might not be home. She was home. She was surprised to see me again. She was feeling better, so she was dressed, the bed was made, and the place picked up and aired out a little. She offered me some tea and we talked for a while. Well, actually, we mostly listened to each other’s monologues. I talked about theology (some things never change), and she politely listened. She talked about her life. I’m sure it would have been very interesting and educational if I had not been a seventeen year-old boy who thought he already knew everything. It was, frankly, whenever I was not talking, boring. And so the spiritual warfare continued. For a year or so I visited Thelma regularly in her bungalow, until she was so sick that she was hospitalized and I lost track of her. No one knew where she was being cared for. I felt a strange mix of guilt and relief every time I thought about Thelma, nothing like the confidence I thought I’d feel in doing a good deed. And as I reflected on my visits with Thelma in the years that followed, I more and more came to see my own arrogance and foolishness in the whole affair. I began to see a bit of my own self-willed pride—Truly, how or why she put up with me is a wonder. The tables were turned. The missionary slowly realized he is the mission field. Visiting the sick taught me that I was really the sick one.
And I think many of us could tell similar stories. In our awkward attempts to love the needy, we discover my own poverty. They may hunger for bread, but we hunger for righteousness. In clothing the naked, we see our own nakedness, our complete lack of virtue. In visiting the prisoner or the sick we discover that we are imprisoned by habits of prideful and judgemental thought; we are sick with selfish passions and desires. When we do the outer work that Jesus speaks of, we discover the inner meaning that Jesus is referring to.
I Am the Least of These
We discover that it is not that poor fellow on the street corner nor the awkward girl in the corner, nor the prisoner at the penitentiary nor the acquaintance with cancer who are the least of these. No, it is I. I am the least of Christ’s brethren. They may be poor or naked or imprisoned in body, but I am poor and naked and imprisoned in soul. I have nothing truly valuable to give my neighbor because I am starved of loving kindness, parched by lack of forgiveness, sick with the disease of passions, naked of virtue and imprisoned by habits of selfishness and self-indulgence. Truly, I am the foreigner; I am the stranger.
And if I am the least, if I really know that I have nothing of value to give, then perhaps as a consolation, as the least that I can do, I can help out my brother who is merely poor on the outside. I can spend an hour with a lonely sister, not because my company is of much value, but because I too am lonely, far from my Father’s house. I know what loneliness is like, and I am a bit comforted by being with another lonely person. And it is the least I can do. It is the least I can do to share my bread, my clothes, my stuff. It is the least I can do because I am so poor of anything truly valuable, I have nothing but mere physical things to give, physical presence to share. It’s not much, a widows mite, maybe. But It’s what I have.
And since I am the least, since I am the one whose soul needs to be fed and clothed and cared for, since I am the least of Christ’s brethren, then what happens to me on the day of judgement is, as far as I am concerned, a matter of God’s mercy. I have no hope to stand on the righthand side, for I have nothing with which to feed those hungry for righteousness or thirsting for Life. I have no virtue to cover my own sinful nakedness, much less the sinful nakedness of those around me. And I do not have the self control, patience and wisdom to heal my own sick and imprisoned soul. How much more am I ill equipped to heal the sick and imprisoned souls of those around me? I must rely on God’s mercy. Like the publican, I can only cry out, “Lord, have mercy on me the sinner!”
And if we can see ourselves this way, as the least of these, then on the last day, on the day of judgement, if by a miracle of God’s mercy we find ourselves on the right hand of the Judge, then we will be completely surprised. Then we will certainly say, as Jesus foretells, “When did we care for you, Lord?”