Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | November 23, 2014

2014.11.23 “The Last Judgment: Where Do We See Ourselves in the Picture?” – Matthew 25: 31 – 46

Central United Methodist Church
The Last Judgment:
Where Do We See Ourselves in the Picture?
Pastor David L. Haley
Matthew 25: 31 – 46
Christ the King Sunday
November 23, 2014

“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, New Revised Standard Version

Today we’ve come to the final Sunday, if not of the calendar year, of the Christian year, which we celebrate as Christ the King Sunday. Don’t get too excited, next Sunday, the 1st Sunday of Advent, we begin all over again.

While most Christian festivals are ancient, Christ the King is relatively recent, having been instituted less than a hundred years ago by Pope Pius IX in 1925. Since then Christ the King Sunday has been celebrated throughout the Church, because what better way to end a year than to reflect upon the One to whom we give our ultimate allegiance?

The Gospel reading for each of the three years of the lectionary cycle is different, and this year’s reading from Matthew is one of the best. It is that story Jesus tells known as the Parable of the Last Judgment, surely one of the most powerful and influential parables Jesus ever told. In fact it is so powerful and influential, it is almost impossible to hear it without also hearing, say, the majestic music of Mozart’s Requiem, or without imagining ourselves in standing before the altar of the Sistine Chapel in Rome, contemplating Michelangelo’s famous painting of the Last Judgment, the subject of Jesus’ parable.

In ages past, when people were illiterate and couldn’t read Jesus’ story for themselves, it was through art that the Last Judgment was portrayed for them. Christ, Ruler and Judge of all, It was stunningly portrayed on the dome of ancient orthodox churches, and The Last Judgment was carved over the main entrance of every European Cathedral, such that you couldn’t enter or exit the church without being reminded of it. Today, with our functional, non-descript churches, we have definitely lost something. Perhaps it’s because, truth be told, we’d prefer not to be reminded of the Last Judgment at all, whether in art or in parable.

After all, this story of Jesus is only a parable, isn’t it? Parables are not supposed to be taken literally, in every detail, or historically, as a precise picture of what’s coming. But parables were meant to be taken seriously, using exaggerated images from life, to make us think about our life, and how we might live better now. So to say that the Parable of the Last Judgment is only a parable is like saying, that stick in your hand is only a stick of dynamite: watch out!

The Parable of the Last Judgment is the fourth in a series of parables Jesus tells in Matthew’s Gospel after being asked, “When will the end come?” The point each parable makes is not “when” the end will come, but “how we should live” until it does.

I want to remind you that by the time Matthew’s Gospel was written, for all practical purposes, the end had come: Jerusalem and the Temple had been destroyed by the Romans, and life as the Jews had known it was ended. So these “end-time” parables Jesus told in Matthew’s Gospel had even greater significance: whenever and however the end comes, as it did for Jerusalem, will we be ready?

Today, I’d like to frame this question regarding the Parable of the Last Judgment by asking ourselves, “Where do we see ourselves in the picture?”

It goes without saying, that of course, we want to be sheep, on Jesus’ right side, those blessed and welcomed into the kingdom. Nobody wants to be a goat, on Jesus’ left side, cursed and cast out of the kingdom. Are you aware that this left-side/right side terminology has affected our language? Medical people will know that the Latin for “right” is “dexter;” but the Latin for left is sinister. No wonder those born left-handed often had a hard time; who wants to be “sinister?”

Then, there’s that thing about sheep and goats, like we know anything about either. Definitely something is lost on those of us who are not Middle-Easterners but Midwesterners: what should we have against goats? I do know that when I was little, my parents got me a goat for a pet. But it didn’t work out, because like those goats we heard about in Ezekiel – it kept butting me, so we got had to get rid of it, and I now have no reason to be a defender of goats.

However, , it’s not so much whether we’re left or right or whether we are a sheep or a goat that gains us a blessing; it is how we live. In life, those “blessed” did everyday deeds of justice and mercy, which the “cursed” – in attending only to themselves and their needs – did not: “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.”

This revelation sets up the two most startling surprises of the story: (1) The surprise that those who did or didn’t do these everyday deeds of justice and mercy did them to no less than the King; but when (2) They did or didn’t do it to the King, when they did it to the least of these, the least and the last and the lost. In other words, like so much of our lives – including some of the most important things that happen in life – they didn’t even remember. There is a saying which says, “God forgets everything you remember, and God remembers everything you forget.” This may help us to answer the question: “Where do we see ourselves in this picture?” If the Last Judgment occurred right now – would I be a sheep or a goat?

Of course, there is another option: other than seeing ourselves as either a sheep or a goat, might we see ourselves as among those Jesus described as in need, ignored and overlooked?

As affluent Americans, regardless of our country of origin, not many of us see ourselves as victims, as people scorned and oppressed and neglected. Most of us have never been poor, we’ve never been homeless, we’ve never lacked for the necessities of life, we’ve never been in prison, and though we may have been ill, we’ve never been neglected. Who would want to be? Because in our time, as in Jesus’ time, we still attach shame and stigma to such status in life; we even blame people for being this way; those who are “takers” rather than “givers” I believe is how we put it.

On the other hand, there have likely been times in our lives when we’ve felt alone, when we felt ourselves victims, times when we have experienced injustice or need.  And even if we’ve never personally experienced it, we know people – both individuals and groups of people – who because of their race or class or gender or circumstances in life – have opened our eyes to how they or their people are mistreated. Right now many of us feel that the events which have taken place in Ferguson, MO, around the shooting of that unarmed teenager, Michael Brown, have been such a revelation, perhaps even a tipping point in our nation’s persistent racial injustice.

If in our lives up to now we have felt ourselves not to be so much blessed or cursed, neither sheep nor goats, but victims of impoverishment and injustice or apathy, perhaps the most amazing revelations of this parable is not what it tells us about the Last Judgment, but this; it was with such people that Jesus identified; he was one with them.

Where is Jesus in this story? He is the Son of Man, who – as we say in the Apostle’s Creed – was born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried; he descended into hell; on the third day he rose again from the dead; he ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty. He is the anticipated Son of Man, seated upon his throne of glory, who will come to judge the living and the dead. But he is also the One present among those ignored and overlooked and needy, and therefore how we treat them – not on some final day but now – while we live – is how we treat him, and will be the criterion of judgment on that day. So maybe the question we really ought to ask is not “Where do we see ourselves in this picture?” but “Where would we like to see ourselves in this picture?”  What are we doing with our lives?

Perhaps the most famous depiction of the Last Judgment is the one I mentioned earlier, painted by Michelangelo (1475-1564) on the altar wall of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican in Rome. Commissioned by Pope Clement VII to paint it in 1534, Michelangelo began working on it 25 years after the completion of the Sistine Chapel ceiling. By that time the forces of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation were re-shaping the church. Furthermore, now 60 years old, quite old for that time, Michelangelo was also more reflective regarding his own place not only in history but in God’s kingdom.

While traditional medieval last judgments showed figures dressed according to social position, in his portrayal of the Last Judgment Michelangelo created a new standard. His portrayal of the Last Judgment shows figures equalized in their nudity, stripped bare of rank, the righteous ascending to heaven on Christ’s right, the damned descending to hell on Christ’s left.

Even before it was completed, it was controversial. The Pope’s own Master of Ceremonies, Biagio Da Cesena, said of the painting that “it was mostly disgraceful that in so sacred a place there should have been depicted all those nude figures, exposing themselves so shamefully,” and that it was no work for a papal chapel but rather “for the public baths and taverns.” In revenge, Michelangelo worked Cesena’s face into the scene as Minos, judge of underworld with donkey ears, indicating foolishness, not to mention having a snake bite his private parts. It is said that when Cesena complained to the Pope, the pontiff joked that his jurisdiction did not extend to hell, so the portrait would have to remain.

Not far from that is the famous image of a figure being pulled down to hell, on whose face Michelangelo captured perfectly, the realization of how wrongly he has lived. Is he suddenly realizing he has lived a life solely for himself, ignoring the needs of others?

But perhaps most interestingly, between this figure and the center figure of Christ, is the figure of St. Bartholomew, who suffered martydom by flailing, symbolized by holding, in his hand,  his own skin. And the face on the skin? It is the face of Michelangelo. We know from Michelangelo’s poetry that at this point in his life he was feeling more devout and concerned about the fate of his own soul. And so he places his self-portrait, midway, in a diagonal line, between Christ and the image of the man being pulled down toward hell, hanging precariously by what appears to be the fragile grasp of one hand.

On this Christ the King Sunday, as we consider Jesus’ Parable of the Last Judgment, this is the question before us, even as it was for Michelangelo: “Where do we see ourselves in the picture?”


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