Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Matthew 25: The End

This third section of Matthew 25 is less a parable than a prophecy or a description of the Day of Judgment. Gone are the images of oil flasks and talents, and the Lord gets right to the point. It is no longer a story about a hypothetical master and his hypothetical servants used as an analogy for the Kingdom. Here it is the Kingdom. He’s telling it like it is and will be: “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate them one from another…”

All of the sayings in this chapter (and in others as well, especially ch. 13) have to do with a final separation: wise maidens from foolish, good and faithful servants from lazy and wicked ones, and now—those who loved and served others from those who didn’t.

This Gospel passage is quite striking, and not only because of the awesome grandeur of the description of the Judgment. It’s striking because of the criteria of judgment, and hence of salvation. Those who say that salvation is by faith alone are flatly contradicted here by the Son of God, the Judge of the living and the dead. One could easily get the impression from this passage that salvation is by works alone! But taking divine revelation as a whole—as we must if we are to live in the truth—we come to the inescapable conclusion that salvation is a matter of both faith and works. Some would say that we are saved by faith and that our works will serve only to increase our reward. But again this is contradicted by Jesus. Those without works are not merely granted a lesser reward, they are eternally damned!

It behooves us, then, to look closely at these saving works. At first glance, one might be tempted to say that there’s nothing uniquely Christian about feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, welcoming strangers, visiting the sick and the imprisoned, etc. People of other faiths or of no faith can and do perform these works of mercy and charity. But Jesus makes them Christian by saying, I was the hungry one you fed, I was the stranger you welcomed, I was the sick one you visited. To those who ministered to Christ in the needy (He loves us so much He identifies with us—to Saul He said, “Why do you persecute Me?”), He says: “Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world… as you did it for the least of these my brethren, you did it for me.”

But here is the separation: those who refused to serve the hungry, sick, and needy refused Christ, and He has no choice now but to refuse them. Like the maidens devoid of virtue and good works, and like the wicked servant who thought only of himself and not of his master, those who looked the other way or even despised the needy are suddenly faced with the gut-wrenching realization that they had been scorning the Son of God all their lives. He says to them: “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels… as you did it not for one of the least of these, you did it not for me.”

Note something important here: Hell was never meant to be the abode of human beings created in the image of God. The righteous were told to inherit “the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” This Kingdom was prepared for all of humanity. The other kingdom wasn’t prepared for us; it was “prepared for the devil and his angels.” We are not fallen angels, and this is just one more reason that Hell is so horrible—it is not meant for humans at all, but for demons, yet if we do not behave according to our humanity created in the image of God, we cannot inherit the kingdom prepared for such. All that’s left is what was prepared for the devil and the demons—and there we shall be consigned, if we do not recognize and serve Christ in other human beings, especially when they are manifestly in need of our help. If we act like devils, or in accord with their urgings, then we also have to live with them forever.

This is one of the most sobering and challenging passages in all of Scripture, and we do well to reflect on it seriously and pray to the Holy Spirit to open our eyes—that we may see Christ in others and realize that what we do to others we do to Him. Our examination of conscience may be quite lengthy on this point. But the price of looking away is far too high.

Jesus is saying that his heavenly Kingdom is already prepared for us. The righteous will inherit eternal life. Let us be aware, He has told us beforehand; we have plenty of advance notice. So that He doesn’t have to remind us of that on the Last Day, let us love and serve now the least of his brethren.