One of my favorite buildings in all the world is the Chartres Cathedral in North France. I had the privilege of living in France for a year near Chartres and I used to love visiting and getting to know the amazing work of art.
I especially loved the stunning west front of the cathedral and those incredible stone carvings of Adam and Eve, the prophets, apostles, saints and martyrs. But at the very center, that favorite scene of all: the Last Judgment. And it was illustrated by that favorite symbol – the weighing scales. Each poor soul would in turn, stand before the terrifying judge of all, as his good works were put into one side of the scales, and his evil deeds into the other. Would he be a sheep or a goat? If his evil deeds outweighed his good, down he would go into the fires of hell. But if on balance he had done enough good works, up he would go to join the heavenly host. And what a host! You’ve never seen such smug, self-satisfied faces as those in heaven! And we may sympathize with the view that if they are the ones going to heaven, I might prefer the other place!
The picture of judgment, based on our works, is how many people see Christianity. They see us trying to be good, to get enough points to get into heaven. Our reward will come after we die. Of course, this is a travesty of the Gospel – but to our shame, the church has throughout history sometimes used the model in repressive manipulative ways. In the Middle Ages, right through the Victorian Age, people have been told to put up with their lot, however dreadful, and they will get their reward in heaven. “Pie in the sky when you die.”
So how should we understand judgment in the New Testament, and how might we even long for judgment? When I was taught to preach in seminary, my teacher told us never to use theological jargon, but use plain ordinary words – and I remember him saying, for example, never use the word eschatology. Well, sorry, but eschatology is a useful word when we’re talking about judgment, a very Advent word. It literally means the study of the last things – what is going to happen to us and to the world at the end.
Running through the New Testament there are two distinct currents of eschatology. The first are in those pictures which Jesus paints about future judgment. We have an example in our Gospel reading today: the story of the sheep and the goats. We also have it in the story of Lazarus, and in other warnings where Jesus uses imagery, such as hell fire and burning, which he draws from well-known traditional Jewish stories and images.
Clearly, our words and our actions now do have significance, and one day we shall have to give an account for what we have done, how we have lived our lives. But these images and pictures are not used by Jesus to describe literally what is going to happen to us, nor did Jesus come to earth as some kind of divine policeman, frightening us into acting correctly, keeping the law, and threatening us with a final day of reckoning where our deeds will be counted up and put on a weighing scale. No. These stories are part of that current of eschatology which looks to the future. But they cannot be understood without reference to the other current of eschatology running through the New Testament. And this current is not looking so much to the future, but is now. That now is the time of judgment. And John the Baptist, when he appears baptizing in the wilderness, and Jesus himself when he comes to be baptized, both proclaim this second current of eschatology that now is the time of judgment.
The first recorded words of Jesus in the earliest Gospel – Mark – come immediately after he has been baptized by John. “The time has come, the Kingdom of God is upon you. Repent and believe in the Good News.” (Mk 1:15) In other words, the time for judgment is now. The time has come. When Jesus walked the earth and encountered men and women, Jesus brought judgment there and then. He was the agent of God’s judgment, and when he encounters us today he brings judgment. “What do you think, Pharisees, there was a man attacked by robbers and only the Samaritan helped him – the people walked by on the other side.” What do you think? Some walked away from Jesus, muttering, with their hearts closed – rejecting, hating: in that moment of challenge, of decision, of crisis, they received their judgment and received their bitter reward.
Yet some were challenged and responded. “Forgive me Lord, give me new life.” And by repenting and following Jesus, they too were being judged. And already they were tasting the rewards, the first fruits of eternal life – now.
Jesus came not to warn us of a future day of judgment and to frighten us into keeping the law sufficiently so that when our deeds are put on the weighing scales we can get into heaven. Jesus came, and comes now, to convert us, through love, to change our hearts of stone into hearts of flesh – to love us so much that we shed tears of repentance. And change our ways. So that, in the words of Isaiah, “We might share our bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into our house, and when we see the naked to cover them.” (Isa. 58:7)
And I do believe that our deepest longing is to be challenged by Jesus, to have our hearts turned from stone into flesh. Our deepest longing is to be made holy. So in this profound sense we can indeed long for judgment. For to be judged by Jesus is to stand before Jesus naked, just as I am, and to allow him to look at us with love, and love us into repentance for our sins, and to receive his loving words of forgiveness – and then to be set free, and even now taste the first fruits of eternal life.
And it is when we know ourselves to be judged with love and forgiven, restored and set free, that we can read the story of the sheep and the goats in a very different way. The words, “I was hungry and you gave me no food. I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink,” (Mt. 25:42-43) do not fill us with fear about the final judgment, but break our hearts with compassion.
We who have known personally what it is like to be judged with love, forgiven, and set free – can we neglect those in need with whom the same Jesus who has loved us, so clearly identifies? “I was hungry and you gave me no food. I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink. Insofar as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” (Mt. 25:45)
Those words have the power to judge us again – and again – throughout our lives. What happens in your heart when you see someone in need – a street person, someone not like you? Do you recoil, feel your heart harden, withdraw, avert your eyes, walk by? Jesus comes every day to convert our hearts of stone into hearts of flesh. And that is the place of judgment.
I will always remember a lecture by David Shepherd, a great former bishop of Liverpool (who also played cricket for England), and an Old Testament scholar. He said the one thing in Scripture about judgment which is absolutely clear and without dispute, is that God judges us on how we treat the poor, the anawim – the needy, destitute, down-trodden and marginalized.
As we prepare ourselves this Advent for Christmas, allow yourself to be judged by God. Be honest. Look at your life. Do you hoard wealth? Do you put up walls and barriers? Do you remain silent before injustice? Where have you hardened your heart, closed your door? Allow yourself to be judged. Long to be judged because with God’s judgment comes forgiveness and wonderful first fruits of the Kingdom, which is already here.
And on that day when we stand at the final judgment before our God, we will not be frightened, for we will have already experienced the loving and forgiving judgment of God. We will have already tasted the first fruits of that eternal life which we shall then know in all its wonderful and unimaginable abundance.