The easy part is to list the worlds woes. Easy to find people who are hungry, thirsty, lacking clothes, homes, strangers, refugees. Catalogues of human catastrophe are quickly compilable. And our natural, good human response is to look for how to do good, inspired by Jesus parable.
But this is not a fall back story where Jesus reverts to a gospel based on good deeds. Jesus is much more surprising than that.
The first surprising point to the good news in this story is the reality of judgment in how we perceive Jesus in the people around us.
Before this story are some incisive words from Matthews gospel. There are three stories in chapter 25 all about judgment. There's the parable of the 10 bridesmaids, 5 wise and five foolish and the point is, there will be an end, so to be prepared!
Then follows the story of the talents where the master goes away and leaves his servants with all his money to use.
Two trade successfully with theirs and the third hides it in the ground in fear. The point is that we have to use well what God has given us because we will be called to account in the end.
And then comes this story of the separation of the sheep from the goats.
Judgment; - two categories, all people, all nations, some to the right and some to the left.
Judgment final and decisive, but the criteria is very interesting!
In fact in a way its all good news, because it means that things matter in an ultimate sense, and that they matter beyond my fickle feeling for whats right and beyond our cultures slippery sense of situational ethics.
It is indeed good news that a criteria beyond our common conscience will make the final call. Heres a poem I found on the subject of our conscience.
The vulture never says its to blame.
The panther wouldnt know what scruples mean.
If snakes had hands they call them clean
A jackal doesnt know remorse
Lions and lice dont waver in their course
Why should they when they know their right?
Though hearts of killer whales may weigh a ton,
in every other way they are light.
On this third planet from the sun
among the signs of bestiality a
clear conscience is number one.
Judgment is not to be ours and thats good news too!
The next part of the good news here is from our text.
1. The king who judges on the throne is the one who at the time he told this story was well aware that he was soon to die for us, so in fact we have a biased judge who dies to save those he is going to judge. Jesus is judge!
And this is the best news of all because even though we all know there are rules, principles, laws and precepts that we can be judged on, we also know that the character of the judge is critical in how we will be treated. What reassurance that the one who sets our Key Performance Indicators and will do our final evaluation is the one who has shown us that he loves us all to the extent of giving his life for us and for our forgiveness. Judge Jesus.
And how will this judgment work?
Well Jesus explains it this way.
Everyone is separated into two groups, like a shepherd who routinely separates his sheep from his goats. And the point on which they are divided is those simple, haunting words of Jesus, "for 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, I was naked and you clothed me, sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me."
Those whose lives were shaped to the natural caring expressed in these words were welcomed into God's kingdom, and those who had not are sent away to destruction.
Judgment is about meeting Christ unknown and acting as though we were with Christ anyway, especially with those in need.
What is it then to be a follower of Jesus?
In the end what is it that is really important?
According to Jesus Christ - not my opinion, not that of any theologian or biblical commentator, ....
according to Jesus, the saved are those who live and serve for the good of others. The righteous are those who do the loving actions, and help those in need, without thought of reward as so do the same for Jesus.
One of the most disturbing parts of Jesus story is that he says both groups will be surprised.
"Lord when did we see you hungry and feed you" say the chosen - in other words they haven't kept an account of all the good they have done - it hasn't been done with a reward in mind - just done out of a genuine and humble love. And,
"Lord when did we see you hungry and not feed you"? ask the goats, because as sure as anything if they had known what was at stake they would have been sure to have bought their ticket to heaven - not because of their love and compassion, but to get what they wanted - self, rather than other centred. In a way this story is a last judgment scene that concludes the story of the Good Samaritan. It's the foreigner without the right creed but who shows compassion, who is really doing God's will, not the religious leaders who have the right beliefs but walk on by.
Compassionate action is not the nice trimming we add to religion but the very heart and soul of being part of God's family because as we do it for even the least person we do it to Jesus, the king of all creation. Perhaps this judgment scenario is Jesus way of saying thanks, or perhaps more profoundly it is a witness to the ultimate value and sanctity of all life. All life comes from and is "in Christ" and this story reaffirms that Christ is its end as well. In Gods grace may these words be applied to all - "I was hungry, I was in need and you gave, you helped, you cared" Amen