“When the Son of man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will place the sheep at his right hand, but the goats at the left.”
It is hard for us to remember that these words were uttered by a Man standing in the gathering dusk on the Mount of Olives, in the midst of a tiny band of forsaken men, and looking out over a city where even at that moment his enemies were completing the plans for his arrest and execution. When Jesus uttered these words, by every human appearance he was defeated. The powers of darkness were triumphant, the shadow of the cross was falling across his path way, the crowds that once had followed him had long since gone, his friends were fearful and powerless, and one of them was even then set to betray him. Yet as he surveyed the centuries he saw the light that was yet to come, and without uncertainty in his words, in that hour of triumphant evil and seeming human defeat, he declared, “When the Son of man comes in his glory…he will sit on his glorious throne. [And] before him will be gathered the nations.”
The arresting thing about this is that Jesus is clearly saying that the ultimate mark of an authentic Christian is not his creed, or his faith, or his Bible knowledge, but the concern which he shows to those who are in need. The practical demonstration of love is the final proof. And note also that Jesus does not ask anyone to present his case or argue his cause. He asks no questions nor requests any evidence. He simply extends to this one group the invitation, “Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom.” Then he explains the basis of his choice. He has simply noted that when they had opportunity to help someone in need, they did it. Nothing more is required. It is sobering to realize that Jesus identifies himself with those in need. If you help them, he says, you are really helping me; and if you ignore them you are ignoring me. He flings the cloak of relationship around them and calls them “my brethren.”
Thus for Jesus the only distinction between men that ultimately matters seems to be not whether they are churchgoers or non-churchgoers, communists or capitalists, Catholics or Protestants or Jews, but do they or do they not love — love not in the sense of an emotion so much as in the sense of an act of the will, the loving act of willing another’s good even, if need arise, at the expense of their own. “Hell is the suffering of being unable to love,” said old Father Zossima or, as John puts it in his first epistle, “He who does not love remains in death.” It is no wonder that enthroned in the ivory diptych with his mother on her knees at his side, Jesus throws up his hands in dismay.
If we are not going to be tested by the times when we are alert and on guard, but God is “unfair” enough to catch us when we are simply responding to what we are, then what we are must be what he demands. There is only one life that is sufficient for that kind of demand. Only one life is capable of responding instantaneously with unselfish love to the needs of others. That is the life of Jesus Christ. If we have not received him into our hearts we do not have that life. If we have received him, we need to make ourselves available to him. We should be willing, moment by moment, to reach out to others in the strength and love which he will impart to us, as soon as we begin to obey. This alone is the life that can meet the test.