31“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. 32All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 34Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me,36I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ 37Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ 40And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ 41Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ 44Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ 45Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ 46And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
Matthew’s depiction of the last judgment today, is like a wellness check. It is not seeking to condemn or scare you, but to provide an overall picture of the health of your spiritual life. Just as your doctor wants you to be healthy, your Creator wants you to flourish in this life. And so we have the ONLY image in the New Testament of the final judgment. Jesus comes in all his glory and gathers ALL THE NATIONS – as referring to all people everywhere and throughout time. This image of judgment causes some question for many. There is no lifting up of faith in this judgment. Only actions. What you did…to the LEAST of these, you did to Christ. It seems that you and I are called to not ignore and overlook, but to look into a human face and to see there the face of Jesus Christ, because that is what he said.
The first idea in this passage is a statement about God. The God of Jesus, the God of the Bible, is not a remote supreme being on a throne up there above the clouds or out there somewhere in the mysterious reaches of the universe. Jesus said, God is here, in the messiness and ambiguity of human life. God is here, particularly in your neighbor, the one who is in need around you. You want to see the face of God? Look into the face of one of the least of these, the vulnerable, the weak, the children. If you were here a couple of months ago and heard the testimonies of our youth who went to Peru, you would know they saw Christ in the face of those young children. If you talk with members of our church who work at Manna House or work on Wolfe Street, you will hear that they often see the face of Christ in the face of those in need. Not always, but in the least of those they minister to. God is among us.
The second statement is about the practice of our religion. You cannot read the paper and not be concerned about the role religion plays in the world. Terrible atrocities are committed by people shouting, “God is great.” Religious officials hide clergy abuse, deny sacraments to those with whom they disagree. Religious leaders condemn each other, excommunicate each other, invest inordinate amounts of energy and resources fighting one another over who gets in and who is kept out, over whose doctrinal formulas are true and whose are false—over a whole laundry list of issues about which Jesus had absolutely nothing to say. He did, however, say this: “When you did it to one of the least of these, you did it to me.” There is nothing in this judgment about church connections or religious practices. There is not a word in this passage about theology, creeds, orthodoxies. There is only one criterion here, and that it is whether or not you saw Jesus Christ in the face of the needy and whether or not you gave yourself away in love in his name. As Edgar Guest’s famous poem begins, “I’d rather see a sermon than hear one any day. I’d rather one should walk with me than merely tell the way.”
The third most important idea in this passage is personal. God wants not only a new world modeled on the values of Jesus. God wants us—each of us. God is not a social engineer but a God of love who wants to save our souls, to use the language of the old revival meetings. God wants to save our souls and redeem us and give us the gift of life—true, deep, authentic human life. God wants to save us by touching our hearts with love. God wants to save us by persuading us to care and see other human beings who need us. God wants to save us from obsessing about ourselves, our own needs, by persuading us to forget about ourselves and worry about others. That is God’s favorite project: to teach you and me the fundamental lesson, the secret, the truth—that to love is to live generously.
How we choose to live and respond to the least of these makes a difference. Jesus is very clear here. Those who think there are no consequences to actions are mistaken. In a world that seems too big to be changed, our lives have more meaning and value than we imagine. Our choices are not the only shapers of the future. They are, however, critical.