Most of us don’t like to speak of judgement. So the words of Jesus here make uncomfortable reading for many of us. Separating ‘sheep’ from ‘goats’, and pronouncing the destiny of each, seems very… non-inclusive. Yet we can’t easily side-step what Jesus says here, for he is teaching plainly, and does not seem to be speaking in metaphor.
First three observations:
- We need to note that it is Jesus himself who, at the close of this age, does the judging. We do well to leave all such judgements to him, for he alone truly knows the heart of each person. (vs 31, Jn 5:22, Mt 7:1)
- Then note that this judgment, and the basis on which a distinction is made, relates to ‘the people of the nations’ (vs 32); people who have never knowingly encountered Jesus. It is not directed at those of us who are his disciples – though of course we are also (indeed especially) called to acts of kindness towards others (Gal 6:10).
- The criteria that Jesus uses is how people have responded to his disciples – his brothers & sisters (vs 40 & 45), especially when they are in need. How people respond to us (who are called to carry both the message of Jesus and the presence of Jesus) reveals & exposes their true heart, their core disposition, even though they don’t realise it.
We therefore need to avoid some common misconceptions about what Jesus is saying in this teaching:
- We misunderstand Jesus if we think he is suggesting that we should somehow view every person that we encounter as his ‘brother or sister’ (vs 40). Jesus never uses this term to refer people in general, but quite explicitly to those who are his disciples (eg Mt 12:48-49).
- While each individual carries the image of God (however distorted) and is therefore of immeasurable worth, Jesus is not implying here that we should somehow ‘see him present in every person’, despite what is sometimes suggested. The Spirit of Jesus makes his home specifically within his disciples – those who love & obey him. The world in general “cannot receive him” (Jn 14:16-17, 23-24).
- Nor is the basis of judgement, the criteria that determines a person’s ultimate destiny, simply whether they’ve been generally nice to people in need, though many today would like to assume this. The touchstone is a person’s response to Jesus (Jn 3:18, Jn 12:48), the Jesus who in most cases they have never directly encountered. But their heart response is exposed (often unknowingly) in how they act to those who bear the name of Jesus. He makes much the same point earlier in this gospel: “Anyone who receives you receives me, and anyone who receives me receives the Father who sent me… And if you give even a cup of cold water to one of the least of my followers, you will surely be rewarded.” (Mt 10: 40-42) This is perhaps a partial answer to the age-old question concerning ‘those who have never heard’.
Rather than daring to presume that I am either called or competent to know the hearts of others, the Spirit (as always) searches my heart (Ps 139). As a Jesus-follower, within whom he lives by his Spirit, my vocation is to carry his presence; to reveal him – in attitude, in word, in behaviour and in lifestyle. I may sometimes try to hide behind the modest-sounding claim: “Don’t look at me; look at Jesus…” but I am not given that opt-out.
The Father intends that those around will encounter us, observe us, listen to us, and – though they likely don’t realise it – they will find themselves being exposed to the reality of his unique Son. An imperfect reflection for sure, but the response that this provokes within them will reveal hearts that are open; those who ‘have ears to hear’.
And those for whom this is not (yet) so.