While ensconced in my current reading through the Gospel of Matthew, something that is popping out of the text is the idea that at the end of the age, God, with the assistance of some angels, is going to sort us out.
Skeptics or deniers of the validity of the Bible and the Christian message often point to its exclusivity claims as their primary objection. How can it be, they ask, that God will judge people according to their beliefs about this one man, Jesus Christ? How can we believe that trusting Jesus is the only path to eternal life—if there is such a thing as eternal life?
Others ask, what about the Buddhists, and the Muslims, and the people who’ve never heard of Jesus, and the little babies who die before reaching an age where they can understand such things, and those with intellectual disabilities who lack the cognitive skills to comprehend abstract ideas?
These are all valid questions, and there are some very grounded theological answers to them. It is not my aim in this little blog to present all of those biblical arguments. But I’ll point to a few: the fulfillment of thousands of years of prophecy, the resurrection, the teachings of Jesus, and his claims about who he was and what he came to do. These may not be satisfactory arguments for people who have no openness to the gospel. They would call them self-referential and circular arguments. They are somewhat correct on that count, so it requires more discussion if we are to convince these folks.
But my reflection today is not on the arguments for the exclusivity of Christ. Instead, my reflection is on a truth Jesus taught through several parables, that God does make a distinction somehow, between those fit for his kingdom and those who are not.
God is allowing human history to unfold until the time he has foreordained that he will bring it to a conclusion. In the meantime, he is building a new kingdom populated with a certain category of people and will remove all who don’t fit into this category. Before going any further, let me share three of the illustrations provided by Jesus, the master storyteller.
“And he shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divides his sheep from the goats:And he shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left.Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand,’ Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world’” (Matt. 25:32-34).
“Once again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was let down into the lake and caught all kinds of fish. When it was full, the fishermen pulled it up on the shore. Then they sat down and collected the good fish in baskets but threw the bad away” (13:47-48).
“The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field. But while everyone was sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away. When the wheat sprouted and formed heads, then the weeds also appeared… “The servants asked him, ‘Do you want us to go and pull them up?“‘No,’ he answered, ‘because while you are pulling the weeds, you may uproot the wheat with them. Let both grow together until the harvest. At that time, I will tell the harvesters: First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned; then gather the wheat and bring it into my barn.’” (Matthew 13:24-26,28- 30).
The sheep mill around in the same pens and graze in the same fields as the goats, but only the sheep will remain after the sorting. The kingdom net takes in all kinds of fish, but only some will be kept, and the rest thrown away. In this kingdom, weeds grow up right along with the wheat. The wheat will be harvested, and the weeds burned in the fire.
I didn’t say these things, Jesus did. And he said them with authority, because he knew God had assigned him to be the chief sorter at the end of the age.
I don’t know everything about how Jesus and his Father and the Spirit and the angels will do this sorting. If they wanted me or anyone else to have a full picture of it, they would have given it to us. I know a few things, but only a few. This makes me very grateful that God is the sorter and I am not.
The criteria for sorting have nothing to do with ethnicity, or age, or intelligence, or skin color, or nationality—I’m certain of that. I know it’s not just about good and bad works. It’s not about religiosity.
I argue (with good biblical support) that the criteria for the sorting process is whether people acknowledge and love the King. And this is tested and validated by how we love each other. Because these things are matters of the heart, God must be the one who sorts us out, because we don’t even truly know our own hearts.
This is the answer I give when I don’t have time for a lengthy theological discussion. I don’t have all the answers, but there is someone who does. And he does the sorting.
All I want is that I’m a sheep and not a goat, a stalk of wheat and not a weed, a healthy fish and not a stinker to be thrown on the compost pile. That’s enough.