What Happens At The Last Judgment

November 23, 2008
日本キリスト教団 頌栄教会牧師 清弘剛生 Pastor Takao Kiyohiro, Shoei Church, Church of Christ, Japan
Translator M.A.F., Indiana, USA
Matthew 25:31-46

Good Deeds In Order To Escape From The Fires Of Hell?

1. The sermon title for today says "What Happens At The Last Judgment." Is there anyone here who says I get excited with joy upon hearing the words "the last judgment?" Is there anyone who says, with a stirred heart, "Ohhh, I am looking forward to the last judgment!?" Most likely there is just about no one. I have taken the sermon title from the gospel reading for today. Upon hearing today's gospel reading, is there anyone whose heart is filled with peace? I hardly think there will be many, if any at all. I say that because the story that Jesus gave is quite terrible. It's about how the sheep and the goats will be divided from each other at the end. And the sheep are told, "Well, oh [you] blessed by my father, inherit the kingdom that has been prepared for you since the time of creation." The goats are told, "Oh [you] cursed ones, depart from me, go into the eternal fire, which has been prepared for the devil and [the devil's] subordinates." Isn't there something here that we cannot but help think no matter how much we try not to? We wonder, "Am I a sheep? Or, am I a goat?" Not to mention, we end up losing our self-confidence all at once when we find out that specific acts of love seem to be the basis of judgment, such as "When you were hungry, I gave you [something] to eat, when you were thirsty, I gave you [something] to drink, when you were traveling, I lent you shelter, when you were naked, I gave you [something] to wear, and when you were sick, I tended to you, and when you were in jail, I visited you." If [I did lose my confidence] because I might be on the side of the goats, this could be a truly scary thing to hear.

2. Of course, "fear" does work at times as a motivation towards fervent good works. In the same way that a picture of hell does not just have a purpose of giving fear, but has an educational significance that prompts good deeds, we can read even today's passage as a narrative that motivates one to deeds of love towards the insignificant, [the little guy, the last, and the least in society], and it has often, as a matter of fact, been read that way. A person can live like "I want to" until the very end. But, at the end, one will be made to stand before Christ the King. It is the true judge, it is the Christ who will decide upon a person's life and not the person [himself or herself]. So, [we are commanded] that if you don't want to be on the goat's side, while you are alive, while you can do things, you must express love with actual deeds to "the least, the smallest." Thus, "the scary thing to hear" is not necessarily something bad. At times we need scary things to hear as well. We understand them.

3. But, upon reading this "scary story," don't you think it is something strange then, that I am supposed to accumulate to the best of my ability good deeds and deeds of love for my neighbor, as if I am insuring against not being on the wrong side of the sheep at the last judgment, and to enter the kingdom of God escaping the fires of hell? No doubt it is nicer to do good than to do bad, but something's weird when the motive and the purpose is just "for your salvation." Wouldn't you agree? Doesn't it seem kind of like making other people a stepping stone so that I can be saved? Perhaps we can call that an extreme egoism which has borrowed for itself the name of love. It seems to be obvious that Jesus did not give this story for that kind of purpose.

4. To begin with, it unfortunately turns into imagery that is totally different from the sheep as found here in this text. Please give it some thought. Supposing that "What you did to the least becomes what you did to Jesus. Now, what I am also doing to this person becomes what I am doing to Jesus. I would very much suppose that I have done good 'to Jesus' so far. I would expect that I have already accumulated a lot of points. If I keep this up, I will surely be on the side of the sheep," so then, after going through your life like this, eventually, how do you suppose you will stand before Christ the King? Wouldn't you say that it will [actually] be quite different from the sheep that are found here in this text!?

5. They say the following. "Oh Lord, when did I see a hungry person and offer him food, and when did I see a thirsty person and offer him drink? When did I see a traveler and lend him lodging, when did I see a naked person and have him dressed? When did I see a person sick or in jail and I visited them?," ( verses thirty-seven through thirty-nine). They say, "No, I didn't do one thing on your behalf." They are astonished as they say that. Those who were thinking they should have accumulated points wouldn't have said that, but [rather would have said], "What I did to one of the least of persons I did for you! I worked so much for you, and I'm sure of myself that I have been zealous in works of love for you!" Wouldn't they have said that? Thus, supposing they have been zealous in deeds of love in order to be on the side of the sheep and not be on the side of the goats, it turns out they are not the same as the sheep that appear in this text. They end up persons who do not bear even the slightest resemblance to [the sheep]. Just as I thought, something funny is going on here.

Just As I Am One Of The Least Of Persons

6. So, with that, I think we need to take another look at the place we're standing. Unfortunately, when we think of this here Bible as a book for moral instruction and commandments, even when we are reading its parables, right away, we will surely have the idea of "What should I be doing?" And so in this case, unfortunately, just like in saying what should I do for "one of the least of persons," we easily read this account and place ourselves on "the side where we do something for someone else."

7. But, that is not the only place to stand. We will have times when we are standing on the side of "offering assistance to persons as we see them hungry, thirsty, traveling, naked, sick, in jail and so forth." But, on the other hand, won't we also have times when we are standing on the side of "the one being offered assistance?" We shall receive food, we shall receive healthcare, we shall receive tending to, we shall receive help. We [may] suffer and be in distress, in situations where we cannot do a single thing for ourselves, and then all we can do is let someone else help us, and then we're placed in the situation where we can't help but fully realize our own powerlessness and small condition of being the least. And so as believers, of course, what we do for others is an important topic, but an equally important topic as that is what do we really think when we have become "the least person" or when we are treated that way? Isn't what we think at that time just as important? Thus, there will be times when we will need to listen to this account, standing in the place of "one of the least."

8. In fact, in another passage Jesus calls the disciples "the little ones, the least." In chapter ten of the same gospel, Jesus spoke as follows. "I truly say to you. The person, who gives even one cup of cold water to one of the little ones, for the reason that he is my disciple, will surely receive a reward," (10:42). As a matter of fact, many of those who made up the early church were in the status of slaves, they were persons in the lowest social position as far as society goes, and they were persons who had been despised by others. Furthermore, even the evangelists, under beggar like circumstances, pursued their mission while other folks gave them assistance each and every place they went. Therefore, what is being stated, whether to the disciples of Jesus or to later Christians, is that "the least of persons" is not some other person somewhere else. They could not avoid hearing this and placing themselves in the stead of "the least of persons."

9. Thus, we too should first of all hear the message of this gospel and place ourselves in the place of "the least of persons." In various contexts, we will be hungry, we will be thirsty, and we must receive help. Though we might pretend to be so strong, truth be told, it is we who are often caught in a jail like immoveable situation. So we are brought along stuck like that, and then we hear the words of Jesus. Whereupon, Jesus, then, speaks the following words to us. "I truly say to you. What you have done to the least of persons, who is my brother, you have done to me."

10. No matter how small or powerless the person may be, Jesus says, "This [person] is my brother [or sister]." Thus, he stands at our side. And if we receive the help, Jesus will feel it as if he himself had received it. If we feel heart-warming joy by connecting with someone's tender emotions, Jesus will also rejoice as if he had received that act of love. Then on the other hand, if we receive unfair treatment, whenever we are slighted or ridiculed, then Jesus himself will be angry as if he were the one slighted or ridiculed. "Enter into the eternal fire!" Isn't that a truly harsh statement? Yet, Jesus is as angry as that. Thus, we are Jesus' brothers [and sisters], Jesus regards himself and us, you might say, in the exact same class. That's what's being stated here.

11. Thus, first of all, by standing at our side, we know Jesus as the one who says, "This is my brother. What you have done to the least of persons, who is my brother, you have done to me." We sense how so important he thinks of us. Even at the last judgment, he feels that way just as he had said he did.

12. When we have seen Jesus standing at our side like that, it is highly likely that we will come to see something else as well. It will be Jesus standing at the side of other persons. Just as Jesus feels highly about us, the Lord also says the following about other persons, the persons around us, in particular those persons in need of help, those persons in need of being loved, "This is my brother, you know. What you have done to the least of persons, who is my brother, you have done to me, too!"

13. What Jesus, who had given this parable, desires will begin from there. It is not an insurance against escaping the fires of hell, it is not points that we accumulate as best we can to enter into the kingdom of heaven, we do not bring back glory to ourselves in any form, but perhaps an act of love, which may not even remain behind in our own memories, will begin from there, though small it may be. And even if it be small, it will never be despised in the eyes of the Lord; because the Lord says, "I truly say to you. What you have done to the least of persons, who is my brother, you have done to me." It is precisely by living with this point in mind that we shall first be changed the same as the sheep that appear in this text. Before too long, before the king, we will lift up our voices in surprise at that hour. "Huh? When did we do such a thing?" What a joyous surprise that will be!