God is Infinite; we are not. That being so, it is natural that two things follow: we do not fully comprehend Him; and we tend to emphasise the parts of Him that seem most relevant to us. To these limitations, we can add our own sinful natures. Little wonder that we need Christ to save us and to show us more clearly who God is. But even there we have to be careful of our own limitations. Christ spoke in hyperbole at times. For example, if my right eye happened to catch a rather fetching young lady and my thoughts turned in a direction they should not have as a result, then should I actually do what the Lord says in Matthew 5:29? As I look round, I see no one with gouged out right eyes, so I assume either that everyone is utterly immune from the temptations which sight can bring, or that we are, and we all understand that what Jesus is really saying is not ‘rip your eye out’ but that we should exercise caution and be aware of occasions of sin. But if anyone wants to be a literalist here, let me know and I can recommend help.
If we are not literalists here, why are we about, say, Matthew 25:31-33 or Luke 13:24? Well, few of us would feel that we wanted to rip out our right eye, but many would feel more comfortable with the idea that whilst they, following the narrow way, were going to be saved, many others – those sinners over there, who I am not like – were going to get the just desserts for their sinful ways; that is a part of our fallen human nature. It is less clear, or so it seems to me, that Jesus thought this way. His strictures towards those who did, indeed, think of themselves as being better than that sinner over there are clear from Luke 18:9-14. The Law of Moses was absolutely literal about the penalty for being caught in adultery (Lev 20:10; Deut. 22:20) and it was precisely for that reason that the Pharisees thought they would catch Jesus out by bringing the woman caught in adultery to Him. Tired of his preaching of mercy and love, they presented him with a case which they thought would oblige him either to abandon that teaching, or to clearly break the Law; either way, they would have been able to discredit him. We know the result, the Lord of Creation confronted those judgmental men with their own sins, and so touched their hearts that not one of them could play the hypocrite by throwing the first stone.
That interesting word Paraclete might detain us for longer than it usually does. The Church teaches is He is the Holy Spirit, but that Greek word covers a variety of meanings, including ‘advocate’ – He is our advocate, as Jesus is our mediator. If you want to think of it in terms of courts, when we get to the final judgment we have a powerful advocate and a mediator. Let us take Saul of Tarsus, a nasty, judgmental sort of fellow if ever there was one. A well-educated Pharisee, he has no time for those backsliding followers of the crucified prophet Jesus, and was happy to persecute them. We are not shown any sign that he repented of his sins before that scene on the Damascus Road. How could he move from non-repentance to repentance in the twinkling of an eye? St John gives us the answer in 1 John 4:19 – he loved us first. If we will but repent, then we can receive that love. It is there already, only our false pride and our blindness prevent us from seeing it and receiving it.
Even on the Cross in agony, one of the last things Jesus did before surrendering his Spirit was to ask for forgiveness for those who, moments earlier, had hammered nails into his hands. So, yes, sheep and goats will be separated, but to assume, as some do, that we have to take Jesus literally when he says ‘many’ will not be saved, but not when he tells us to pluck our eye out, raises interesting questions about how we, as individuals, emphasise those parts of Scripture which seem most relevant to us. Jesus is warning us about ourselves, he is telling us not that we should literally tear our eye out, he is warning us of the effects of sin; so, too, is he doing when he talks to us about sheep and goats. If we will but receive him, he will redeem us. He knows, alas, that many of us will reject him, but he still loves us, and he wants us all to be saved. That we shall not all be is down not to a vengeful God, but to a foolish and prideful humanity which in its folly rejects the offered love because it has not the humility to receive it.