Any reading of the Gospels will soon reveal the emphasis placed by the Lord Jesus upon the final day of human history, when “The Son of man shall come in the glory of his Father with the holy angels; and then shall he reward every man according to his works” (Matthew 16:27). Several of his parables elaborate upon this and conclude with a judgment scene; a calling to account of the characters in the story and their division into two groups. One is consigned to outer darkness, to the flames or the rubbish heap and the other is gathered into barns, invited to a great banquet or welcomed into the Kingdom of heaven. Such are the conclusions to the parables of the talents, the wheat and tares, the sheep and goats and many others.

Each of these parables, taken on its own does not answer every question that we might ask about the Day of Judgment. They were not given merely to satisfy curiosity about where, when or how the judgment will take place. They were given to provoke a response in the hearer or the reader, to make his disciples examine the way they conduct their lives in the here and now. Nor does any parable of judgment, on its own, give a complete account of the criterion by which men will be judged. No parable conveys the fullness of the subject; but one aspect of the whole. They are like the facets of a gemstone, which, held up to the light, refracts it in different ways as it is turned around. Thus we are shown only a small part of the spectrum at any one time. To gain a fuller picture, we must put the parables and sayings of Jesus side by side.

Let us then look at three of his parables, which appear to say slightly different things, but which, when put together tells us very clearly what the Lord expects of us. In Matthew 25:14-30 we have the Parable of the Talents, which tells of a man who entrusts each of his servants with a sum of money to invest while he goes abroad. On his return he calls them to account. Two of them have invested wisely and have received a good return on their investment and so their master promotes them. The third was unwilling to take any risks, so he played safe and timidly hid the money in the ground so as to avoid making a loss. Perhaps he expected to be commended for having preserved it intact. Instead, he found himself charged with breach of trust and laziness because his action, or lack of action, had in effect deprived his master of the profit he should have made. The word ‘talents’ does not bear the meaning that popular use ascribes to it; a talent for gardening art or music. They are not ordinary natural abilities. The master gave them out to his servants ‘according to their abilities’. We can perhaps understand them as the various opportunities, the gifts which God has, in various amounts, given to all of us to be used in His service. They cannot be pinned down to a precise definition, because we each have different gifts.

The significant thing about the ending of this parable is that all the servants were assessed according to the results they had achieved. Those who invested their talents most wisely were given the greatest rewards at the end. Now, if we take this aspect of the story on its own, in isolation from everything else in the New Testament, then it almost suggests a doctrine of salvation by works. There is no suggestion that all have fallen short of God’s perfection and must rely on His mercy. But, as I said earlier, these parables deal only with one aspect of the subject. To gain a fuller picture, we must put each parable side by side with others.

Matthew 7:21 also pictures the division of mankind into saved and condemned. What is the criterion by which they are divided in this parable? In verse 21 the Lord solemnly warns: “Not everyone that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall inherit the Kingdom of heaven, but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven”. There are many who do acknowledge Christ as Lord. We would doubtless count ourselves among that number. But an acknowledgement of his lordship on its own will avail us nothing if we do not act as though he is our Lord, and “do the will” of his “Father which is in heaven”. How do we do that? The Lord’s next words indicate that it means more than simply doing good works. He describes men presenting themselves before his throne and reciting the good works they have performed:

Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name, and in thy name have cast out devils? And in thy name done many wonderful works? (Matthew 7:20).

The works these people claim to have performed are the same works which the Lord Jesus himself performed during his earthly ministry. Yet their Judge rejects their service as defective: “Then will I profess unto them, I never knew you, depart from me, ye that work iniquity” (v.23). The man who was condemned for hiding his talents had done too little. These people had, in a sense, tried too hard. They boasted about having excelled in the more spectacular and impressive aspects of religious endeavour. Yet there was not an atom of humility in their attitude. At the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount stands a list of qualities of character: ‘the poor in spirit’, ‘the meek’, ‘the pure in heart’. These people, for all their impressively fine endeavours did not embody any of these characteristics. They had performed good works with no other motive than to win the admiration of men. It was all outward show.

There is something profoundly tragic about this passage, for these people are not wicked or godless. They are clearly men who have convinced themselves, perhaps quite sincerely, that they are disciples of Christ. Nevertheless, the verdict upon them tells us that it is easier to expend time and effort on impressively good works and fine projects than on those activities which Jesus counted as works which are an expression of his Father’s will. Many of his disciples are blessed with organising ability, powers of language and expression, gifts of leadership. The ecclesia depends upon these gifts. But all these abilities are given to us by God, and neither their possession nor their use constitute true obedience. Something more is needed if they are to be counted as works in harmony with our Father’s will.

Returning to Matthew 25, we have the very last parable which Jesus spoke. And this parable expounds most clearly what Jesus wants to see in the lives of his people. It is another judgment scene, in which, once again, he delivers his verdict upon people who have done good works:

When the Son of man shall come in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then shall he sit upon the throne of his glory: And before him shall be gathered all nations: and he shall separate them as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats (25:31,32).

Although this is sometimes called the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats, it is, strictly speaking, not a parable at all. The imagery of sheep and goats is not sustained after verse 33. The Lord mentions them only to compare the division of humanity into two groups to the action of a shepherd dividing his animals. After the introduction to the story it is clear that those whom the Judge addresses are humans, nor sheep and goats. It is, therefore, a simile.

There is a grandeur, a majesty about the picture he describes. In v.34 he refers to the ‘King’ who presides over the great assize of the Last Day. Jesus never referred to himself as a king throughout his earthly ministry, and was reluctant to accept the title from others, perhaps because the title had political connotations which did not fit in with the character of his ministry. But now, in his prediction of the future, ‘king’ is the most appropriate title for the One who presides over the destiny of the nations. There are a number of questions that must occur to us when we read this account. Before him stand ‘all nations’. Does this mean the whole of humanity, every individual who has ever lived – even those who have never heard his Gospel? Or are they a limited group from among all nations, those who have heard his Gospel and are ‘responsible’? We can only speculate. We are told very clearly on what basis they will be judged:

For I was hungry and you gave me meat, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me (v.35,36).

The treatment they gave to the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger and so on, was in effect, an action done to the Lord himself. So the depth of their compassion for the afflicted is the yardstick by which the Judge will assess those gathered before him. But again, questions arise. Firstly, who are these victims of sickness, poverty and imprisonment and with whom the Lord identifies himself? In verse 40 he refers to them as ‘these my brethren’. If they represent his disciples or missionaries of his Gospel, then why commend the ‘sheep’ for actions done to them alone? Christ urged his disciples to love all men, to see all men as neighbours, and to show benevolence even to their enemies. Or are ‘these my brethren’ the wretched of the earth in general? And those who are commended for acts of benevolence toward them, is this the only basis on which they are judged? Where are faith, repentance and baptism? A devout Buddhist or even a secular humanist with no belief in God can perform acts of charity toward their fellow men.

And so the questions multiply. But I would suggest that we miss the central point of the parable when we start asking about who was doing good to whom. I said earlier that the parables and sayings of Jesus are like a gemstone that reveals one segment of the spectrum at a time. Each parable conveys one small aspect of the truth. This particular picture of the Last Judgment does not tell us that faith and repentance are of no account. But it does tell us two very important aspects of the Christian life, and of our relationship to our Lord. Firstly, we notice the surprise of those who were commended for their benevolence: “Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? Or thirsty and gave thee drink? When saw we thee a stranger and took thee in?” What a contrast with those who recited the good works they had performed in his name. Here are people who had done nothing spectacular; no mighty works, no prophesying or casting out of devils. They had performed simple acts of kindness, reaching out to those in need, not because such actions were a grim duty or a command they felt obliged to obey, but because compassion was ingrained in their nature. They were completely unself-conscious in their benevolence. Perhaps their works went unnoticed by those around them, but they were noticed by him who sits in heaven. Secondly, and perhaps this was the main source of their surprise; Jesus identified himself with the hungry, the poor, the afflicted. This is a theme which is found elsewhere in the New Testament. In Matthew 10:42 Jesus tells his disciples:

Whosoever shall give to drink unto one of these little ones a cup of cold water only in the name of a disciple, verily I say unto you, he shall in no wise lose his reward.

Again, questions could be asked of this saying about the other qualifications required to gain a reward. But the point is that even the most basic act of charity is in effect done to him who identified himself with the poor, the needy and the humble: ‘Whoso shall receive one such little child in my name receiveth me’ (18:5). There is another side to this, for the New Testament is equally insistent that the opposite is true; acts of cruelty and oppression committed against men are committed against the Lord. That was the first great truth that Saul of Tarsus learned when he was stopped in his tracks on the road to Damascus. The voice he heard did not introduce itself as ‘Jesus, whose disciples thou persecutest’, but as ‘Jesus, whom thou persecutest’. The Risen Lord identified himself with his people in their suffering. In his earthly ministry, Jesus experienced hunger and thirst. He often relied on the generosity and good will of ordinary people. He was sent to prison before he was taken out to suffer the cruel death of a criminal. He knew first hand, the callousness and cruelty of which human nature is capable. And his words tell us that he still identifies himself with those who suffer.

Returning to Matthew 25 - in the parable of Judgment the goats had to learn that the Risen Lord himself was the object of their callous indifference to suffering. As such they were a mirror image of the sheep: “Then shall he say also unto them on his left hand, Depart from me ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels”. And the reason for their condemnation was not because they had inflicted suffering, but because they had done nothing to alleviate it when they had the opportunity to do so. Compassion was simply not part of their nature. “Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me”. As with many parables, it describes a future which already has an application in the present. We decide even now, by how we live our lives, how we use our talents and how we relate to our fellow men whether we are sheep or goats. Our whole lives are already subject to the scrutiny of him who sits on the throne of judgment. The lake of fire ‘prepared for the devil and his angels’; in one sense is a symbol of eternal annihilation, in another sense it is, like all the visions of hellfire in the Gospels, a picture of the kind of life we make for ourselves now, when we turn our backs on the love of God and fill our hearts not with love for others, but love of self and indifference to the suffering of others.

There is an obvious exhortation from this parable. And that is to try harder to show compassion, to force ourselves to help others, to strain every nerve to become like the sheep at the Lord’s right hand. But it goes without saying that if we draw that lesson from it then we miss the point. The sheep were taken by surprise when the Lord commended them for their good works. In contrast, it was the people described at the end of the Sermon on the Mount who tried too hard to make themselves worthy of his commendation. Rather, we become better people when we forget ourselves, when we empty our hearts of any preoccupation with our own righteousness. We do not need to force ourselves to be something we are not. On the other hand, if we truly follow Christ, if we allow our hearts to dwell on his example, if we love him for all that he has done for us, then we will grow like him, and become the channels through which his love flows so that his compassion and kindness for others will become part of our nature. And then, on his return he will see in us a reflection of himself and will speak to us those words of welcome and consolation: ‘Come ye blessed of my Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world’.