The great judgement scene with which we bring to an end our year long reading of Matthew's Gospel is so well known, and its meaning so obvious, that there seems no need to preach at all today. Just go and do what the Lord says if we want to be found among the sheep on the day of judgement. We hear it sometimes as if it is a sneak preview of the universal judgement. And for that great and final examination we already know all the right answers! Just go and do it.
But this parable of the judgment is not so much a sneak preview of some future event as it is a warning about our lives here and now. It brings home to us - it seeks to bring home to us - the seriousness of the decisions with which we are faced each day. How will I treat this person? How will I respond to this need? How will I help in this situation? What about the beggar asking me for money, the person I see quietly weeping, the criminal I know whom I've never visited? If what the Lord says in this parable is true - that our relationship with Christ is our relationship with others, and that our relationship with others is our relationship with Christ - are we not in a good position already to judge ourselves? How we treat others is how we are treating Christ and if I want to know what the truth of my relationship with Christ is then I simply reflect on how I have treated others and how I continue to treat them. It is the first and greatest commandment evaluated.
One move we might make at this point is to decide that 'judgement' is a bad word and that Christ couldn't possibly mean that we will be subjected to any such thing at the end. We have developed, surely, to the point where we offer each other non-judgemental listening and unconditional love. Counsellors offer a service that will be non-judgemental. (How many customers would a counsellor get if he or she were to offer 'counselling with judgement'!) In any case, who is entitled to sit in judgement on anybody else? Who is so just, of such integrity, so absolutely objective, that he or she could fairly sit in judgement on another person?
Well we know that there is one human being who can do this and it is part of the Good News that Christ will be our judge. When we hear that sentence - 'Christ will be our judge' - we should hear first the word 'Christ' and that should fill us with joy, relief and confidence, rather than hearing the word 'judge' in the first place filling us with fear and dread. Yet it is a judgement, more incisive and more penetrating than any other. And at the same it is a judgement that is more affirming, more sustaining, more creative, than any other. This Truth really does set us free. If we hear this gospel simply as a trailer for a future event it may not be as helpful to us as if we hear it as a call to action now.
In the background are judgement scenes already familiar from Jewish thought but significantly transformed in a number of ways. Notice that there is no special place for 'Israel', or for 'disciples'. It is a universal judgement, of all the peoples of the earth. This is not only because 'all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God', because all are in need of the salvation that comes from Christ: it is also because all are called to the same kingdom, all are destined for eternal life, God wants all people to be saved.
A second new thing is this: the Son of Man, the Messiah, is given a role that is new. Christ is the door-keeper and the reaper of the harvest. It is he who gathers the kingdom to present to His Father. He is between the Father and us, the mediator, belonging to both sides. He sits at the right hand of the Father and is sent from there to judge the living and the dead. He comes to us from the side of God. But he is also on our side. Christ is the first fruits of the kingdom offered by him to the Father. Just like us, he commends his spirit to the Father. And the Father, in raising him from the dead and exalting him to his right hand in heaven, establishes him as King of all and Judge of all.
Christ is everywhere in this judgement scene. He is the judge. He is the first-fruits of the kingdom being judged: the one who kept the great commandment perfectly. He is identified with all of humanity, since to care for them is to care for him, to neglect them is to neglect him.
The Church's liturgical year ends, effectively, with this feast of Christ the King. With it ends also, for this year, our reading of Matthew's Gospel. This judgement scene is the final part of the fifth discourse in that Gospel. Matthew gives us a new Pentateuch, a new Torah, made up of five great discourses, beginning with the Beatitudes and the Sermon on the Mount, and ending with the great parables of Judgement culminating in this one. All that is left now is the Passion narrative ...
And it is in that Passion narrative that we see the accomplishment of the great commandment. It is above all in his sacrifice that we see the love of Christ which motivates us. In that sacrifice the hungry are fed, the thirsty are watered, the naked are clothed, the sick and imprisoned are visited. When we look at the Cross of Christ we see the judgement already come into the world. The Cross is the throne from which our King reigns in this world. The Cross is the key that opens the door of the Kingdom. The Cross is where we see the consequences of sin and the mystery of God's love.
Why should we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, give drink to the thirsty, visit the sick and imprisoned? Is it only so that we might gain a reward? Is it a kind of Pascal's wager, placing our bets carefully on what the outcome of our lives might be?
It is interesting that no motivation is mentioned in the great judgement scene of Matthew 25. It seems that it does not matter why you feed the hungry or visit the sick, just that you did it, and do it. What moves people in this kingdom that Christ is preparing for the Father is Christ's own love for the Father, the Holy Spirit, poured into human hearts. This is not some kind of external motivation, moving us from outside, a promise of reward or a threat of punishment. It is a motivation from within, so that the care of others becomes a natural and spontaneous movement of the one in whom the Spirit dwells. We do what is good because we have come to love what is good. And just as any truth, no matter by whom it is uttered, is from the Holy Spirit, so any act of goodness, no matter by whom it is done, is from the same Holy Spirit of love.