“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. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 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 gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” Matthew 25: 31-46
Why does Jesus tell this story if his resurrection is going to mean saving grace for all people? If believing in God’s work in Christ is enough to avoid hell, then why do the “goats” get sent to an eternal punishment? And why does Jesus say something so political- prisons, feeding people, strangers, naked people?
Clearly, a life in the Way of Christ consists of more than intellectual assent to who and what Jesus is in history, in the Trinity, and in one’s own life. The faithful life is one of constant and ever-renewing response to God’s outpouring of grace and mercy since the beginning of time, made evident and open to all in Jesus the Christ. It is not enough to say “I believe.” It is not even enough to show how you believe. There is never enough because we cannot match God’s love. We cannot earn it. We cannot show that we would have been deserving if God had just waited. We received it, before we were born, before our parents, before the greatest in our family lines… when our ancestors in the faith were still sinners- God’s love was still at its fullest, compelling response in the shape of loving our neighbors.
There are many who argue in both directions as to the reality of hell and who is there (if anyone) and who is going (if anyone). Without stepping into that mud here, let us acknowledge that it is a biblical reality that we will be called upon to answer for our time and talents in the life to come. Even when receiving forgiveness and eternal peace from the throne, it will arguably be a kind of hell to have to say, “No, I pretended not to see the person who asked me for help. Yes, I expected people who were in prison would have gotten aid from someone else. True, I thought that someone else would feed “those” people. No, I did not welcome him because I was afraid of him- even though I did not know him…” We have to hold these gaps in our faith practice lightly, letting go of them as we have received forgiveness for them and as we ask the Holy Spirit to correct our course and behavior.
Lastly, the gospel is a political document. It deals with how individuals and groups are to govern themselves and one another. Guidelines for how to carry one’s self in close community (the church) and in the world are, by their very nature, political. However, as Jesus gives us these guidelines, he also imparts healing and hope to go with them. He expects that those who follow these rules will not privilege one group over another in either direction, but will clothe the naked and bring them to table to dine with the over-dressed. Jesus expects that those who imitate him will bring together the guard and the prisoner into conversation, so that each sees the other as human. Jesus pioneers the pathway for the one who wishes to welcome a stranger and introduce her to the long-time establishment, so that they may learn from one another and perceive security in each other.
This, beloveds, is the work to which we are called. And it cannot wait.