At the Jesuit high school I attended many years ago, there was a custom known as “the reading of marks.” Several times a year, at report-card time, the whole class of some 300 students assembled in the auditorium where the principal read aloud the grades of each student. The reading was often accompanied by the principal’s evaluative comments, whether positive (“Good work”) or negative (“You need to work harder” or something even worse). The rationale given for this anxiety-producing exercise was that it was “good preparation for the Last Judgment.”
In the early parts of the Old Testament, it was assumed that good and wise persons would be rewarded and bad and foolish persons would be punished in this life. That principle, especially prominent in Deuteronomy and Proverbs, is called the law of retribution, and it often works. Life is not so simple, however, and the Book of Job subjects the law of retribution to rigid scrutiny. The historical experience of ancient Israel and of individuals within it also casts doubt on the absolute validity of the principle. The prophets looked increasingly to some future “day of the Lord” when God would intervene on his people’s behalf and set things right again. Later Jewish writers (both sapiential and apocalyptic) began to look beyond this life for the implementation of God’s justice and to a general resurrection when all will be judged according to their deeds: the righteous will be vindicated and the wicked will be punished by God.
In many early Jewish writings and in the New Testament the Last Judgment had become an established article of faith. It would be part of the full coming of God’s kingdom, so the expectation of a final judgment plays a role in many of Jesus’ parables about the kingdom of heaven. On this final Sunday in the church’s year, the reading from Matthew 25 presents an elaborate scenario with Jesus the glorious Son of Man as the judge of “all the nations” revealing the criteria by which we will be judged.
Today’s Old Testament readings provide background for some of the imagery in Matthew’s judgment scene. The passage from Ezekiel 34 highlights God’s special care for his beloved “sheep.” And Psalm 23 depicts God as a shepherd who cares for his flock and guides them through the dark and dangerous moments in their lives. The excerpt from 1 Corinthians 15 offers another end-time scenario consisting of the general resurrection, the vindication of the righteous, the eternal reign of Christ the King and the destruction of death. The fullness of God’s kingdom means that God will be “all in all.”
The Matthean judgment scene features the risen Jesus as the Son of Man seated on his throne and passing judgment on all the nations. Among the many fascinating aspects of this scenario, perhaps the most surprising concerns the criteria by which the good and wise (the sheep) and the evil and foolish (the goats) are judged and then rewarded or punished. These involve simple and common actions available to almost anyone. Traditionally called the corporal works of mercy, they include feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, comforting the sick and visiting the imprisoned. Those who perform such actions will probably not receive much publicity or become rich and famous for them. What holds these actions together is their other-centeredness. They pull us out of our self-centeredness and self-absorption and direct us toward the humble service of others. In doing so, we serve God and Jesus the Son of God. We all are enriched by those who perform these simple and direct acts of mercy toward those most in need (“the least”).
This essay completes my three-year responsibility for the Word column in America. It has been an honor and a privilege to carry on what has become a great tradition of this magazine. As a biblical scholar I have tried to communicate to a general audience some of the best and most positive insights of contemporary research. At the same time I have repeatedly experienced the inexhaustible riches of the Bible as the word of God. I end more convinced than ever of what has been the central conviction of my life: “The word of God is living and effective, sharper than any two-edged sword” (Heb 4:12).