‘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. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left.
Earlier this month the Supreme Court of Canada heard a case that impacts the membership decisions of religious communities. Randy Wall was a member of the Highwood Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Calgary, Alberta. He was dis-fellowshipped by the elders of his local congregation. Wall asked the court to undertake a judicial review of the elders’ decision to dis-fellowship him. In the lower court decision, Justice Wilson ruled that he had jurisdiction to review the decision of congregation’s elders. Historically Canadian courts have determined that they do not have jurisdiction in the internal decisions of churches and other private associations. The outcome could have far reaching implications for religious freedoms.
There was a time when such a case would never have been before our courts. Historically, Canadian courts considered that had no jurisdiction on such matters, consequently judges would refuse to hear such a case. However the ideology of our judiciary has changed. The ideology of judges makes a difference in how law is read and applied; lawyers work to have certain cases heard by certain judges because they know a particular judge’s ideology is likely to be more favourable to desired outcomes for their client. The ideology of the judges that comprise the Supreme Court has everything to do with how law will be read in this case that impacts internal church decisions. (The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada and Catholic Civil Rights League intervened in this case presenting on the matter of Religious Freedom).
Whenever we confess our faith with the Apostles’ Creed we say we believe in Jesus Christ who “descended to the dead,” and “On the third day he rose again; he ascended into heaven, he is seated at the right hand of the Father, and he will come to judge the living and the dead.” Today we read from Matthew’s gospel Jesus’ description of the Last Judgement when the nations will be gathered before him and people separated one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. A disquieting parable, to put it mildly. Here is the point I invite you to reflect with me on. The person who is this judge makes all the difference; the ideology of this judge shines in the life of Jesus. In fact, I would say, if we are going to be judged you want to be judged by him.
1. I first remind you of some ground we have covered on other occasions. If there is no judgement day there is no justice. If there is no point at which judgement is rendered; no time appointed for when things are finally set right then the idea of justice is smoke and mirrors. For this reason we ought to welcome judgement—God’s judgement. The scriptural declaration of final judgement is the assurance that the injustices of this world will be called to account and the suffering it has caused set right. Forever. For the believer, our Lord’s assurance that all will be set right is hopeful news. It witnesses that the pains of injustice we may suffer matter to God. Judgement, final judgement when all is set right, witnesses that human life matters to God.
As we consider the ideology of the just judge who will render this final judgement I want to explore our older testament reading from the prophet Ezekiel. The reason I take you there is because Ezekiel lives the negative impact of injustice personally. He is an exile forcibly removed from his home in Israel by the Babylonians living, in many respects, indentured life to these captors. They are living in a new place stripped of citizenship rights. There is no court that would ever hear their case even if they had the desire to sue for upholding rights.
The second reason I take you there is because the themes of Shepherd/King/Judge present in our Lord’s parable of final judgement are also present in this pronouncement by Ezekiel of God’s care of his people in exile. It is likely that Jesus is drawing on familiar imagery that his disciples know well.
A little historic context will help us hear the word of hope in Ezekiel’s message. Jerusalem was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 (BCE). News of that destruction had just reached Ezekiel while in exile. (Ezekiel 33:21) There had been two previous deportations of citizens of Judah (southern kingdom of Israel) by the Babylonians; their strategy was to weaken Judah’s resistance to their rule by deporting leading citizens and installing a king of their choice in order to secure allegiance. But Judah’s kings rebelled thinking alliance with other regional powers was the path to independence from Babylon.
Judah’s kings were ruthless with their own people. The kings, these shepherds of the people, were to render justice. Instead they were in it for themselves and filled Jerusalem with injustice. God’s judgement on them was to put an end to their place of power. Listen to God’s indictment of these shepherds of Judah. “Thus says the Lord God: Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them.”
Imagine, if you can, the misery of these exiles. They have endured the injustice of their own leaders who were supposed to work for them and who abused them only to be exiled to a place of servitude and marginalization. They are on the bottom of societal classification; such groups become easy targets for exploitation. You could not blame them for thinking that God had abandoned them.
Listen again to what God says through Ezekiel’s proclamation and as you do reflect on the character of this Judge/Shepherd/King. “I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. As shepherds seek out their flocks when they are among their scattered sheep, so I will seek out my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. … I will feed them with good pasture, and the mountain heights of Israel shall be their pasture; … I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord God. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice.”
At the heart of this judge is the welfare of his people and God’s determination to bless them with the future only he can provide.
2. I invite you to turn your attention to Jesus’ parable of the last judgement—“All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left.” And all of us want to be his right hand.
The scene Matthew paints for this teaching of Jesus occurs during the last week of his life. Jesus was leaving the temple and his disciples remarked on the magnificence of the temple structure. Perhaps like visiting a cathedral there is a sense of awe invited by the soaring pillars. Jesus pointed to the temple and prophesied; “Truly I tell you, not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” (Matthew 24:2) A little later they are sitting with Jesus on the Mount of Olives with the temple in full view. They ask Jesus privately, “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?”
In Matthew’s gospel this last judgement parable is the final piece of Jesus’ response to that question. In the course of his answer Jesus assures his disciples that, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away;” (Matthew 24:35) that they should live ready “for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.” Jesus is preparing them and assuring them of the glorious future he has in mind for them—“the righteous into eternal life.” This is a word of hope for these disciples who can’t imagine it could ever be a good thing that the temple be destroyed; a hopeful word that at that last judgement his sheep will be called to his right hand.
I also note with you another point of context for this parable in Matthew’s gospel. It is placed just before the events of Jesus’ passion. Matthew tells us that “When Jesus had finished saying all these things, he said to his disciples, ‘You know that after two days the Passover is coming, and the Son of Man will be handed over to be crucified.” Right after this we read of the plot by the religious leadership to kill Jesus. It is the beginning of his end. Events will swirl and escalate and end at the cross.
The Apostles tell us that it is at the cross where the judgment for our sin will be borne by another. The judge; the just judge; the judge who is coming in glory and all the angels with him; this judge will pour himself out without remainder for our sakes that we might be acquitted. At the cross the judge is securing our future. This is the character of the one who comes to judge. We can own that acquittal now by faith clinging to him who is our peace. “For God so loved the world,” proclaims the Apostle John, “that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” (John 3:16) Listen to the Apostle Paul’s confidence in this judge: “for I know the one in whom I have put my trust, and I am sure that he is able to guard until that day what I have entrusted to him.” (2 Timothy 1:12)
3. I invite you to reflect on what it was that surprised both the sheep and the goats. They were not surprised to find themselves in their respective places at the right or left hand of the judge. What surprise both was how closely the king identified himself with those who were in need. To feed the hungry was to feed the king. In the same way giving the thirsty a drink, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, taking care of the sick, visiting those in prison—the king was the recipient of these actions. Notice the judge doesn’t say it was “as if” you fed me; no “I was hungry and you gave me food.” It tells you that God does not abandon you in your need, but takes your place with you.
The day of judgement revealed what was in their hearts. The parable does not say that we get into heaven by the number of needs served. We need to understand this parable in the context of the gospel that it is God who sets us right with himself at the cross. The believer lives in response to God’s grace not in order to acquire or earn grace. The sheep of this parable lived lives of compassion to others not knowing that in doing so they were doing these things to God. Clearly they weren’t trying to get something.
The late Haddon Robison was an outstanding professor of homiletics (preaching). His book on preaching is a text used across North American seminaries for training preachers. In a sermon on this parable Robinson wrote: “I tried to picture that judgment, and I tried to picture myself as I stood before that king. The king says to me, “Robinson, did you bring your date book?”
I say, “Well, yes, Lord. I know they said I couldn’t take anything with me, but I managed to
get it through. I’ve got it right here.” The king says, “Look up March 6, 1996.”
“Oh yes, I remember that, Lord. That’s when Newsweek said I was one of the better communicators in the English-speaking world. I remember that.” The king says, “Well, I never read the news magazines. You know how inaccurate they are … The king might say, “Do you remember after class on that day? You were headed for another reappointment, and there was a young woman sitting at the back of the class. She just sat there when everyone left, and you stopped and talked to her. She said her father had died, and the month before her brother had died. And you sat and talked to her. Do you remember that?”
“I guess so, Lord.” The king will say, “I remember it. When you stopped to talk to that young woman, you were talking to me.”
“Look up November 17, 1984.”
“Oh yes. I remember that, Lord. That’s when I was the president of the Evangelical
Theological Society. I remember reading a paper on the relationship of hermeneutics to homiletics.”
The king will say, “Well, I never attended many of those meetings. I found them a little stuffy myself. …. No, do you remember that morning your wife, Bonnie, told you about a couple at the seminary that was having a hard time financially. They didn’t know how they would make it through the month, and you took some money and put in an envelope and dropped it in their box?”
“I don’t know if I remember that.”
And the king will say, “I remember it. What you gave to that young couple you gave to me, and I’ve never forgotten it.”
I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried;
he descended to the dead.
On the third day he rose again;
he ascended into heaven,
he is seated at the right hand of the Father,
and he will come to judge the living and the dead.