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If Jesus Really Is the Judge… 
By Dr. Todd B. Jones
11/20/11

Ezekiel 34:11-16
Matthew 25:31-46

"When you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, members of my family, so you did it to me." Jesus offers these words in a parable on the final judgment, the only overt description of it we find in the New Testament. They are words that have always put a knot in my stomach. The parable Jesus tells is so simple, so radical, so vivid, with the sheep on one side and the goats on the other; with the Son of Man coming "in all His glory;" with "all the nations" gathered before His throne; and with judgment being rendered based upon how we fed the hungry, clothed the naked, cared for the sick, visited the prisoner, welcomed the stranger. It always has tended to overwhelm me. I mean, I try to help people when I can. I have given rides and help to strangers, visited many prisoners over the years, fed and clothed the poor, and treasured children and the very elderly. I always try to look people in the eye, the way Ben Jones taught me to, and treat everyone with respect. But surely not all the people, and surely not all the time. I am like you; I have walked by those in need, knowing I had neither the time nor the inclination to help at that moment.

And when I start to think about how many people in need there really are, when I consider how vulnerable "the least of these" really are, especially children, and how dark and dangerous the world can be for them, I can get overwhelmed, and this parable of Jesus can haunt me. Truth to tell, it always has.

So one night about seven or eight years ago, a group of Vanderbilt graduate students in this church asked me to come on a Friday night to lead a Bible study in a home a couple of them shared. They told me they were studying Matthew's Gospel, and this was the passage, Jesus' parable of the final judgment. I thought, "Oh, great!" But I also thought about how much I thought of this group of graduate students who were in church every week here, so I said, "Yes." I got to this small rental home near Blakemore Avenue and the living room was packed, spilling into the kitchen. I knew about six of the people in the house and the rest were strangers. So I read the passage and started talking about it, and the discussion took off, leading in all kinds of directions. But just as I was feeling like the Bible study was nearing an end, and I needed to summarize our thoughts, this young man I had never seen before, a Ph.D. students in physics I later learned, blurted out, "I can do this!" I said, "What?" He said, "I can do this! I thought that to please Jesus you had to start a church or preach to convert people or be a missionary to Africa or go work for Mother Teresa. I can't do any of those things and I never wanted to. But I can do this! I can look at people like they might be Jesus. I can treat people like they matter. I can do this!"

It was a wonderful moment of insight for me because I got to see this passage through completely different eyes, through the eyes of a very bright young man who listened for what he could do instead of being overwhelmed and paralyzed by what he could not. "I can do this," he said. "I can treat people like they might be Jesus." And I have thought ever since, "So can I." I can look into the face of "the least of these," into the face of every beggar I meet, into the face of homeless men who stay overnight in our church each week, I can look into the face of each child and look for the face of Jesus. I cannot help everyone, and I cannot save the world or solve its largest problems. But I can do this. I can treat people like Jesus.

Let's keep these words of Jesus in our minds and consider three very important ideas they hold up for us. The first is what they say about God. The God Jesus reveals, the God of the Bible, is not Zeus. That is, God is not a remote supreme being who sits high on a throne above the clouds and apart from human pain and struggle. Jesus says here that God is to be found in our very midst. God is found in this world, in the messiness of human life. God is especially encountered in your neighbor, particularly among the least of these, the smallest and the most vulnerable. H. Richard Niebuhr used to say that faith is always triadic, or a triangle. That is, you always encounter the Christian God through the medium of other people, because the God of the Bible is personal and you never encounter Jesus apart from His people. Who can tell their faith story and make mention of someone or some group of people who made God real to you? Do you want to see the face of God? Then look into the face of one of the least of these, the vulnerable, the poor, the prisoner, and especially children.

I mentioned last Sunday that my mentor and one of my dearest friends died last week. His funeral was held at Nassau Presbyterian Church in Princeton, New Jersey, at 1:00. But before Tom Gillespie's funeral at 1:00, I slipped into Miller Chapel at Princeton Seminary for Chapel at 11:30, because it is always a powerful place that holds so many memories. A student was leading worship, and she did a good enough job. But after worship, I was approached by a member of the faculty whose name I knew, but not much more. He said to me, "Are you here for Tom Gillespie's funeral?" I said, "Yes." He said, "I liked Tom alright when he was the President here, but I really learned to love him as my child's third grade Sunday school teacher at Nassau Church."

Tom Gillespie knew Jesus. And he loved the Gospel. So when he retired from the presidency of Princeton Theological Seminary, of course he and Barbara taught third grade Sunday school! Because that is what Jesus' people do to practice their faith. They look for the face of Jesus in the faces of children.

Secondly, make note of what these words of Jesus say about the practice of religion. Religion is a huge issue in the world, especially how the religions of the world will learn to live together with their differences. I care about this question deeply and passionately. There are those who think that in order to live in peace together we need to become less Christian, we need to let go of our faith convictions and grow more tolerant of other views.

I would argue the opposite. We who are Christian need to become more Christian for the sake of the world. The Christian ethic is built upon the conviction that God created everything, and more importantly, everyone. It is based upon the notion that all human beings are created in the image of God, and are bearers of God-given dignity. No conviction or belief is more crucial to the future of this world.

Notice that in Jesus' parable there is nothing said about religious ceremonies or ecclesiastical organizations or even a word about prayer. Instead, there is this radical ethic of Jesus' that what matters is to look for Jesus Christ in the face of everyone, and especially in the face of the stranger, the hungry, the homeless, the prisoner and the child. I want to add my friend's word here: "I can do that!" Christianity is based on the conviction that God thought so much of people that He became one, so that we would never think the same again about what it means to be human. We don't need to become less Christian. The world needs for us to become more Christian, more distinctively like Jesus' people by treating people like they matter.

Finally, note that there is an element of surprise to the way this God who judges the world works. And not just the goats are surprised in Jesus' parable. So are the sheep! Both the righteous and the unrighteous are equally surprised in Jesus' parable.

Jesus tells this parable of the end of all time just before His own end. And what could be more surprising than the judge of all the nations of the earth dying the way Jesus died, crying out from a cross, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do." Jesus is the judge, the final judge, and in the cross we learn that the judge was judged in our place. In the cross we learn of God's great love for the world, and it calls us to judge our own actions by His. 

I have a dear friend who practices law with one of the best law firms in this state. Starting out as a young attorney, he was sent to court on a case in General Sessions Court, then the court that handled claims under $10,000. My friend went to court with a law book in his hand knowing the law was on his side. State laws said then that after someone owned a vehicle for three days, that person could not get his or her money back for it. It was popularly called "the lemon law." And ten days had passed for this man when he filed claim and wanted to return the car. The judge heard the case, and my friend did his level best to argue the law to the judge.

The judge listened to the argument, and ruled in favor of the man, and not my friend. The judge said that the dealer could fix the car, and needed to take it back. My friend was stunned, and returned to tell his superior in the firm what had happened. His mentor smiled and said, "General Sessions Court is not a court of laws, but a court of mercy."

Well, Jesus, dear friends, is in fact the judge. And thanks be to God, His court is not finally a court of laws, but of mercy, of a costly, loving, severe mercy. And this judge tells us that to live, really to live, is to love, to see in the face of everyone you meet the face of Jesus; to love the least, the lost, the lonely and especially the littlest as if they were themselves Jesus.

"You know, I can do that!" And so can you.

Amen.
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