Jesus’ parables are more than just nice stories. Everyone should engage with and learn from them, as they are just as relevant today as they were thousands of years ago. They even speak to the struggles of modern times, especially to the divides we face today.
Fortunately, Jesus has prepared us for such divisive times. In his discourse on end times in the synoptic gospels, Jesus speaks about religious and political distress and the social upheaval that lies ahead. His words pique His disciples’ curiosity; they want to know what to expect from the future. He personalizes His response for His closest followers, but He doesn’t leave us out. Jesus presents a precise and tantalizing conclusion to the world, and as you can imagine, this captures His disciples’ attention. They ask questions about the end of the world and the signs of His coming (Matthew 24:3). Jesus answers, indicating that the days ahead will include deception and deceit, militarism and war, pestilence and natural disaster, persecution and cosmic dissolution (Matthew 24:6–10).
Such signs seem to be appearing in today’s daily news. Prophecy seekers emphasize imminent trouble, but they are not known for being compassionate. As Christians, we tend to meddle with end-time predictions, creating jitters, anxieties, and fear. As love waxes cold in the world, we start to envision the end of civility and raise troubling questions about the direction in which society is going. Those who are afraid want to protect themselves from the coming anarchy and rabble. Such fears can dictate our relationships with others, making us rude and unpleasantly harsh. What is wrong with this picture? While Jesus describes trouble and difficulty, He also cautions, “Don’t be alarmed. These things must happen, but this isn’t the end yet” (Matthew 24:6, CEB). He further states that these signs are meant to tell us that “redemption is drawing near” (Luke 21:28, ESV). If we truly believe that redemption is drawing near, we should be the bravest and most confident people around, but if we doubt God’s presence, we are set on edge and our focus strays from Jesus.
How can we think about this in light of what is happening in the world today?
The future may not soon become easier, and like the disciples, we may have questions, but God has not left us unaware of what to seek or do. In addition to looking for the prophetic signs Jesus describes, what we can do to be prepared? The parables in Matthew 24 and 25 emphasize readiness and prepare us to make sense of the situation ahead. Each parable stresses being alert and living for the long haul. Waiting and watching is hard, no doubt, but the challenge is eased by remembering that we already know the outcome. Instead of being fearful and angry, we can ready ourselves. In Matthew 25, we also find reference to sheep and goats, which are represented by parabolic language (Matthew 25:31–46). It’s a final judgment scene that addresses everyone on earth. While often interpreted as judgment, the story focuses on love, not preoccupation with fear. It calls us to make every moment in this life precious, to make every opportunity to perform a good deed special. I am well aware that such talk is not popular today. We mostly want to hear about the gospel of individualism, which gives us freedom to choose our own feelings and preferences over the solemn responsibilities that we have for one another and the world around us.
The image of judgment in Matthew 25 is based on people’s responses to others during their hours of greatest need. The criterion is love. However, if we define love as a response to what we think is good and valuable, we risk imposing our views on our neighbors. Forcing my values on others who hold different values is not love. Without a proper definition of love, we may violate other people’s values without thinking about their real needs. The question we thus face is what kind of love notices others and reveals their real needs? Matthew 25 gives us an example of how to discover such needs. When we neglect to ask people what they need, we begin to treat them as less than human, and if we fail to engage one another or see one another as genuine, we can become intolerant. The only hope for mankind is other-centered love, the primary aspect of God’s character. We must not be distracted by the anxiety and fears around us or by the empty promises that seem to guarantee continued peace and safety. If we don’t reach for mercy and kindness, we will become as mean and cruel as the worst among us. While watching for the return of the Master, don’t abandon the values of love and kindness by submitting to fear and anger. If we conform to the surrounding world, fear and animosity will become appallingly common, but if we embody compassion, love will survive. When mercy and lovingkindness flourish, we become fully alive and enjoy life. Strangers are welcomed, enemies are loved, the hungry are fed, the homeless are sheltered, the sick are healed, and prisoners are heartened.
In a breathtaking scene, the Son of Man sits on a heavenly throne surrounded by angels to bring judgment. Eternal security is tied to caring for the “least of these.” Jesus speaks of the “least of these” as “members of my family” (Matthew 25:40, GNB). In our context, working on behalf of the “least of these” is not limited to caring for the poorer brothers or sisters in our in-group, such as Jesus’ disciples or those who attend the same church (Matthew 12:49). Neither is it putting the underclasses (such as minorities and immigrants) in service of our political or economic ends. We are called to love one another as we love our family members, so in the end, it’s about being neighborly toward everyone because we all deserve love (Luke 14:12–14). Sometimes, we are generous philanthropists to the poor and underprivileged while being rude and harsh to those closest to us. Participating in charity, however, does not meet Jesus’ criteria. Our love for the “least of these” is meant to grow into a universal love that promotes a kinder, more just society. In the end, God does not judge us as good sheep or bad goats but on the behavior we manifest. The parable is not about judgment but is demonstrative, revealing what people are or have become. On that day, all people manifest their own true natures and polarize into two camps. Some have treated others well while others are judged for being cruel and hateful. To the latter, Jesus says, “‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels’” (Matthew 25:41, ESV).
In the Old Testament, both sheep and goats are equally valued and accepted for ritual worship, but on the Day of Atonement, the goats are separated. The Jewish Talmud recounts that the goat on the right hand goes to the Lord, while the one on the left hand is sent away to a mysterious desert demon named Azazel (Leviticus 16). On this judgment day, the goats “will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life” (Matthew 25:46, ESV). Though not apparent on the surface, the devil appears in the details. There are fatal powers in this world (the devil and his angels) working to separate people from God’s love. Vicious agents of hate and violence are plundering and gathering flocks into their herd (Ezekiel 34:17–22), but the sheep must not to listen to anything that might separate them from the love of God (John 10;5; Romans 8:38–39). Through this reference, Jesus expresses that those on the left hand “go away” into their own punishment with those working against God’s purposes. True to His nature, however, God does not cease to have empathy and compassion for the goats (Ezekiel 18:31–32), and He does not throw them into a fire. They exact their own punishment, however, by being separated and destroyed with “the devil and his angels.” The story clearly does not end well for the goats, but their fate is death, not eternal torment.
This story is not meant to fill us with the fear of judgment or hellfire but to motivate us to cherish a spirit of kindness. The key is noticing the different behaviors and patterns of life manifested by each group. Harsh discord and neglect of others expressed through how we treat the powerless and poor will become our own undoing. There is so much meanness and hatred in our world that if we conform to the surrounding culture, we will fail. Jesus’ rallying call encourages us toward compassion, mercy, and kindness, which suggests there is only one valid answer left for mankind: to be loving by bestowing acts of mercy in whatever ways we are able. In this story, each decision turns on this one point. In the end, there will be only two groups, each with a destiny determined by what it has done or neglected to do for Him in the persons of the poor and suffering. I imagine that Jesus’ return will trouble many, but whatever deceptions such people previously believed will become instantly clear. Many will lift their heads and move toward life and joy after embracing mercy and lovingkindness. Others will instead affirm their resistance and rejection of others.
Finally, there is an allusion to the disguised king in the Son of Man, which takes everyone (the sheep and the goats) by surprise. That there is room in the kingdom for those who do not know God surprises those who have encountered the king in his moment of need. This not only raises questions about true and false disciples but opens the door to those who have never even heard of Jesus (Romans 2:12–16). The implication is that the good pagan, the good heathen, and the good atheist are all counted among the sheep.
In the final chapter of his book The Last Battle, C.S. Lewis tells the story of the end of Narnia in a way that reflects what the end of the world will be like. As this fictional world comes to a close, a pagan soldier who has unintentionally served the false god Tash confronts Aslan, who represents Jesus. Aslan replies, “I take to me the services which thou has done to him.” Bewildered, the servant of Tash cries out, “Yet I have been seeking Tash all my days,” and Aslan replies, “Beloved . . . unless thy desire had been for me thou wouldst not have sought so long and so truly. For all find what they truly seek” (The Last Battle, pp. 756–757). This scene is an exposition of Matthew 25:40: “And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me’” (ESV). God is clearly not interested in appearances—in those professing faith—but in the bestowal of acts of lovingkindness (Matthew 7:21–29; 10:40-42). The standard of judgment is not a theology quiz but love; it’s by grace that one finds a place in the kingdom. The main message is that we should be compassionate. God’s values are all that count, and we must live up to those values to the best of our ability. The challenge has been issued to the nations, and now everyone must determine their values and desires and then respond with all their might. Hopefully, we have been adequately motivated to cherish a spirit of mercy and kindness.
Craig Ashton Jr.