January 20, 2006

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Jesus in the Gospels: The final judgment

See Matthew 25:31-46

Only Matthew’s Gospel tells us about the final judgment, when the Son of Man will come in glory to judge the nations. We should notice that Jesus says that all the nations will be assembled before him, indicating that Jesus expected his message to be carried to the Gentiles as well as to the Jews.

We might also notice that this isn’t the first time that Matthew mentioned that Jesus will judge us. In Mt 16:27, he quotes Jesus as saying, “The Son of Man will come with his angels in his Father’s glory, and then he will repay everyone according to his conduct.”

Now Jesus is more specific. We will be judged, he said, on the deeds of mercy we have performed for the least of Jesus’ brothers—on whether or not we fed the hungry, gave drink to the thirsty, welcomed the stranger, clothed the naked, cared for the ill and visited prisoners.

Jesus identifies himself with those in need. He says that those who do such things for others do them for him and thus will inherit the kingdom, while those who do not do them will go off to eternal punishment.

In his meditations on the Way of the Cross, the late Pope John Paul II, when writing about Veronica wiping the face of Jesus, reminds us, “The Savior leaves his imprint on every single act of charity, as on Veronica’s handkerchief.”

Throughout his public life, Jesus taught us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us, to forgive those who have injured us, and to do to others whatever we would have them do to us. He said that the second greatest commandment, after love of God, is to love our neighbor as ourselves. It should come as no surprise, then, that he is now telling us, at the end of his public life, that we will be judged on how well we treat others.

Does that mean that anyone who hasn’t worked in a soup kitchen, welcomed an immigrant or visited a prisoner will be condemned to eternal punishment? Let’s hope not or a lot of us are in serious trouble. Let’s hope that Jesus was exaggerating a bit in order to make a point. Nevertheless, he does expect us to see him in the needy and to treat them as we would treat him.

In this passage, Jesus says that the accursed will depart “into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” This is the passage that has given us the picture of hell with devils tending the flames with pitchforks. Jesus doesn’t, though, specifically say anything about hell. His reference here is to the First Book of Enoch, a Jewish writing but not one that made it into the Old Testament. In that book, it is said of the evil angels and their leader, Semyaza, “In those days they will lead them into the bottom of the fire—and in torment—in the prison [where] they will be locked up forever.” †


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