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The Final Exam

Date: April 7, 2019/Speaker: Sharla Hulsey
Bernhard Plockhorst - Good Shephard

Scripture: Matthew 25:31-46

Scripture Reader: Alan M.

When Jesus told parables, he told them using images that were familiar to the people he was speaking to.

He told stories about shepherds and sheep, about planting and harvesting, about working and getting paid, about bread-baking—he told stories that started with something his hearers would recognize.

If Jesus were here today telling parables, he might use different images.

Sure, he would use some familiar ones; after all, we do still plant and tend and harvest crops, whether those crops are grains or tomatoes.

We know about weeds and what they can do to the yield of the crop we’re raising.

We know about working for a living, and about what it feels like to get an unexpected bonus—and what it feels like to see someone else getting a bonus that we aren’t getting.

We know about working for bosses that are demanding, sometimes even unpleasant, and what it sometimes takes to keep such a boss off our backs.

But I’m not sure as many of us today know about sheep and shepherding—particularly not how it was done in Jesus’ time.

So maybe if Jesus were here today telling us about the Last Judgment, he might use a different image, something that might be more familiar to us.

He might not talk about sheep being separated from goats—this was something that would have been immediately understood by anyone in his time who had even a passing acquaintance with shepherding; sheep and goats could graze together by day, but at night the goats had to have more shelter, whereas the goats could stay on the hillsides through the night.

We might not understand that as well, so maybe he would talk about the Son of Man coming in his glory to administer a final exam.

Any of us who’ve been to school past, maybe, sixth grade have probably taken a final exam at some point.

And it’s a common nightmare to show up at a class for the first time and discover that you’ve missed the entire semester and walked in on the final exam, an exam you didn’t know was happening, covering content you had never been taught, and for which you didn’t study.

Or maybe you show up for a final exam you were expecting, but when you open it you realize it’s on a completely different subject:  maybe you went to the English Lit class you’d been going to all semester and are given a final that covered basic concepts of particle physics.

In either case, these dreams are pretty terrifying.

A lot of Christians, when they think about the Last Judgment, might be similarly terrified.

I was part of a conversation online several years back with a young man who had been raised in a very legalistic, fear-based Christian tradition.

He was convinced that one thing in particular—for the sake of not derailing the discussion with conversations this isn’t the time or place for, let’s say going to drive-in movies—was a grievous sin for which a person would be sent to eternal conscious suffering in hell.

Many people were trying to help him to see his faith in a different way, and he was just about convinced…but then the fear came back.

What if I do start going to drive-in movies, because I no longer believe it’s a sin—but then when I die I end up in hell because it truly is a sin after all?

His faith was based almost exclusively on avoiding hell, and avoiding hell meant avoiding the detailed list of behaviors his church believed were sins.

It’s no wonder he had a lot of anxiety about the final exam.

On the other hand, I and a lot of other Christians believe we’re saved by grace through faith alone, and our sins have been forgiven by Jesus’ death on the cross and our baptism.

And we believe that we can’t lose our salvation even though it’s sort of inevitable that, on our own, we can’t stop sinning, even after being baptized—although we would hope that we would sin less as we grow closer to Christ, or at the very least that we don’t make the same mistakes over and over again.

We may not worry about the final exam because we don’t think there will be a final exam.

Trouble is, the Bible says there will be, and the Bible says we’re going to be judged by the things we have done and not done.[1]

So maybe both of these things are true at once:  yes, we are justified by grace through faith in Christ (some translations render this as grace through the faithfulness of Christ, making it even clearer that it is not something we do anything to earn); but also yes, we will face a final judgment—a final exam, if you will.

Over the endless years I have spent in school, I have had some teachers who have told us exactly what was going to be on the final; and I have had some teachers who absolutely would not give even the slightest hint.

I’ve had some teachers who allowed us to have our notes with us when we took the final, and some who gave open-book finals (which aren’t nearly as easy as they sound like they should be), and some who absolutely didn’t let you bring anything into the room other than a pencil.

When the Son of Man comes in his glory…he will give a final exam, and then people will be separated into two groups:  those who passed and those who failed.

Now in the parable it’s pretty clear that those being judged have no idea what was going to be on the final—or maybe they thought they knew, but proved to be mistaken.

Possibly the ones Jesus in the parable calls the goats, the ones on the King’s left hand,[2] thought they had it in the bag.

They were ready, they had studied, they had done everything they believed would be required and avoided everything they believed was forbidden—but they failed.

Then the ones Jesus calls the sheep, the ones on the King’s right hand, may well not have given any thought at all to a final exam.

They had just lived their lives, being kind and compassionate, doing what they could to make life easier for people they met who were in need—they showed up at the final not having studied at all, not having prepared at all, or so they thought.

And they passed.

Both groups were surprised by how they were sorted.

“Wait…when did we see you…?”

What kind of final exam is this?

No teacher worth their credentials would set this kind of test before students, with the result that those who prepared end up failing, and those who didn’t bother preparing ace the test.

I don’t know.

Maybe we’re not looking at it in the right way.

Maybe this parable ties a bunch of things Jesus ahs said throughout Matthew’s Gospel together in a way that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to 21st-century Americans who have been immersed for generations in the notion that our faith is mainly, if not only, about our individual, personal salvation and what happens when each of us, individually, arrives at the moment of our death.

If that’s what faith is about, then it’s definitely true we either want to be certain that nothing we do or fail to do will change our fate once we have accepted Jesus as our Savior, or we believe we do have certain things we need to do, in order to maintain our salvation—

and if that’s the case, we need that list in front of us, in our hands, permanently posted in our homes, our schools, and our public places, so we don’t forget. 

Whether we call that list the Bible, or the Ten Commandments, or the Torah, or the Catechism, or some other kind of creed and behavioral covenant all members of a particular faith community must agree to, it needs to be kept before us at all times, because failure to observe all the rules has eternal significance for each of us as individuals.

But what if Jesus’ message isn’t necessarily about individual, personal salvation and making sure we go to heaven instead of hell when we die?

If that’s the case, then this parable—and a whole lot of other things Jesus taught—take on completely different meanings.

Think about it this way: 

“I was hungry and you fed me…” and so on, not because doing this means we will go to heaven instead of hell, but because when we are part of the beloved community known as the kingdom of heaven,[3] we are all brothers and sisters, and we notice when someone is in need, and the love that binds us together compels us to do something to help.

“I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink…”

not because as we do we either are serving Jesus or imitating Jesus, but because we are bound together in one beloved community, and Jesus says that whenever some of us are together in such a community, he is there with us.

And the surprise at the end?

The ones who were certain they would receive eternal reward went to destruction; and those who apparently gave no thought at all to their eternal reward, but simply lived as part of that beloved community in relationship with the real, living, Jesus, went to the eternal kingdom…because they were already living there.

Or, in other words, “…those who want to save their life will lose it,” and those who don’t worry about such things but simply love their God and love their neighbors and live in community with their brothers and sisters in Christ, will be saved, counted as part of the kingdom of heaven because they are already part of the kingdom of heaven.


[1] This parable says so, but there are many other places in the Bible where there is a final judgment mentioned.  See, for example, Psalm 50; Matthew 12:36; 1 Corinthians 4:1-5; 2 Corinthians 5:10; Revelation 20:11-15.

[2] My apologies to those who are left-handed; in ancient times in a lot of cultures, the left was seen as evil or wrong—it’s embedded in our language; the Latin word for left is sinister.  Until fairly recent times, in this country teachers and parents tried to force left-handed children to become right-handed.  When my mom’s first teacher tried this, taking the pencil out of her left hand and putting it into the right, my mom just moved it back to the left and went right on.  The teacher realized she was no match for Robertson stubbornness and my mom remains left-handed.

[3] Where the other Evangelists use the term “kingdom of God,” Matthew generally uses “kingdom of heaven,” probably to avoid calling God by name.

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