Have you ever seen, or heard, Rowan Atkinson’s sketch about Hell? In this, the comedian plays the part of the devil and welcomes newcomers to hell, directing various types of people into different groups. Through humour he thereby pokes fun at our stereotypes, not least English stereotypes, and challenges us to think again about who we regard as ‘good’ or ‘bad’, ‘in’ or ‘out’, in the eyes of God.
On the third day he (Jesus Christ) rose again;
he ascended into heaven,
he is seated at the right hand of the Father,
and he will come to judge the living and the dead.
‘He is seated at the right hand of the Father, and he will come to judge the living and the dead’ – what does this mean? It is ringing language, isn’t it? Yet it is very strong theological, mythic, or picture, language. It is not easy to understand, even though it is an expression of that deep assurance at the heart of the Christian Faith: that, despite much present appearances, ultimately the love of God in Jesus Christ is in charge and all that belongs to love will be vindicated in the end. That is not quite the message of Rowan Atkinson’s comedy sketch, is it? For God, in Jesus Christ, takes us beyond ordinary human judgement into the ultimate, and even more surprising, reality of eternal compassion…
Like Rowan Atkinson’s comedy sketch, today’s Gospel passage has strong features which seem quite straightforward but which can easily mislead. Indeed, in preparing this sermon, I was struck by exactly how much energy and anxiety is spent by many people on this text. For as we take time to consider its meaning, it does not fit easily into any particular line of thinking. Firstly, for example, conservative Protestants are somewhat taken aback. Classic Protestant theology stresses what is called ‘justification by faith through grace’. In other words, we are saved, or made just’ by God, not by what we do, but by the faith response we make to God’s sovereign grace. So what on earth is Matthew’s Gospel doing here, suggesting that people are judged by what they do (for the poor, the sick, the prisoner and the hungry)? Conservative Catholics have a similar problem. For, despite Reformation claims, the Catholic Church has always believed that God’s grace is the crucial element in salvation, not what we do or don’t do as such. In addition, the Catholic Church has traditionally taught that salvation comes through participation in the life of the Church, where God’s grace can be experienced through the sacraments, and the bible, and the life of the Christian community. Yet there is no specific mention of these things in today’s Gospel passage. The only criterion of judgement seems to be, did you help the poor, visit the sick and prisoners, and/or feed the hungry?
So is today’s Gospel reading meat and drink for liberal Christians? Hardly. For a start, liberals will struggle with all that talk of eternal punishment. Nor is this a passage which easily justifies a contemporary inter-faith perspective or those who argue simplistically that theological ‘doctrine divides, love unites’. Conservative scholars rightly point out that a number of this passage’s key words and images are specific to Christian theology, not least aspects found earlier in Matthew’s Gospel. Those in need, for instance, are largely described in similar ways to the needy, vulnerable or persecuted followers of Jesus in previous chapters.
What we then have in today’s Gospel passage is a powerful cry of Christ’s ultimate kingship of love which busts up all our human ways of thinking: whether we are inclined to be conservatives or liberals, or whatever. No one can therefore easily use this passage to further their own ends or ideas. All of us are forced to recognise its challenge and its strangeness. For, unlike Rowan Atkinson’s comedy sketch, it compels us to go beyond our usual stereotypes and our usual assumptions about ‘good’ and ‘bad’, and who and what is ‘in’ and who and what is ‘out’. As such, perhaps it is best viewed as a piece of what scholars call ‘apocalyptic’ literature. Such writing is a kind of cry of protest against the ‘ordinary’ ways in which existence is seen and acted out. Against the usual ordering of life, apocalyptic literature cries out: no, God’s ways are not your ways. God is ultimately in control and God’s love will be done. In a number of ways, this Gospel passage doesn’t fit with some other elements of the Christian Faith. Only in Matthew’s Gospel for instance do we find such powerful emphasis on hell as a place of eternal punishment. In this, and in some other ways, like Rowan Atkinson’s devil, today’s Gospel reading goes beyond what is essentially Christian and paints things in lurid colours. Like Rowan Atkinson’s sketch, don’t therefore treat it literally and don’t get it out of balance with what else there is in Christian Faith. Yet do listen to what it is saying to your heart.
For the key to this strange but powerful Gospel reading is surely the compassion of God which is so much more than our limited human ideas of goodness, badness, and judgement. Such compassion goes far, far beyond our human conceptions. For, ultimately, it is not about believing anything, as such. Nor is it about doing anything, as such: even the good works mentioned in this passage. In the end, we are saved by the power of love in which we live, or do not live. It is a matter of the quality of our being. Sheep and goats, you see, are really not that different at all. In the ancient Middle East, only a really good shepherd could tell the difference between the two. That, says our Gospel reading today, is very similar to human beings. Sheep or goats, we are all the same to God. God loves us all and longs for us to share that love. Unlike Rowan Atkinson’s devil, God does not judge between us, as we understand judgement. It is really we who judge ourselves. It is we who decide whether we want to share love or not. It is we who decide whether we are sheep or goats.
Which leads to us the final conundrum about God and judgement. For, let’s face it, hardly anyone who has ever lived has been entirely a sheep or a goat. Almost all humans are what someone once called a ‘geep’ or a 'shoat': that is, part goat, part sheep. If today’s Gospel reading were a literal picture of the Last Judgement, the King would therefore not have one group of sheep and another of goats. He would simply have one group of geeps or shoats. I guess that is one reason why the Roman Catholic Church came up with the idea of Purgatory: simply to deal with all of those geeps and shoats. Unfortunately that is still another human conception of judgement. Better still, we might wonder whether the real spiritual challenge is not actually to share in the compassionate outlook of God. God looks lovingly on all us, whether we are more sheep-like geeps or goat-like shoats. Can we do the same? Can we be compassionate, in thought and deed, towards other geeps and shoats who only look like goats to us? Can we be compassionate to ourselves, to the goat-like bits of ourselves? Can we live with all our geepiness and shoatness and love one another despite of it all? Maybe, as an American university suggested not so long, ago we actually need a Non-Judgement Project? If so, then we start living in the spirit of Christ the King, who is all compassion. For it is compassion, not judgement, which is the ultimate ruler of all.