A little known fact, even among Christians is that we work from a different calendar than the typical 12 month one. For Christians the “year” begins on the first Sunday of Advent, and runs through until “Reign of Christ Sunday.” Which is this week, so yes, our Christian Year is almost over. Perhaps it’s fitting then that the Gospel text for this Sunday is Matthew’s vision of Christ in Judgment at the end of time. The end of a year is a popular time to ‘judge’ the year just passed, but when we associate the word “judgment” with Christian religion, it takes on a much more ‘scary’ tone.
This passage (Matthew 25:31-46 http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Matthew%2025:31-46&version=MSG) has inspired artists to paint it in all is glory and horror (just do a google image search and you’ll see. What I find even more frightening however, is the way that this text has been used within the Christian tradition to generate fear, to browbeat and guilt-trip people into submission in a way that runs completely counter to the original intent of this passage, which was to portray in vivid terms the Dream of God, which is the reconciliation of all creation to Godself.
Matthew doesn’t make this easy for us to see however, because he has a tendency to overdrawJesus’ teaching about judgment. We have to remember that this particular Gospel was written in a climate of persecution and fear in the aftermath of the destruction of Jerusalem by Rome in CE 70. Matthew’s community was predictably defensive, and wary of both Rome and the Jewish communities which attacked them for their allegiance to “the Way” of Jesus of Nazareth. They were sensitive to the judgments of others, and desperate to show that their “Way” was in accordance with the teaching of Jesus.
Jesus is likely the originator of this vivid portrait, precisely because he is steeped in the Old Testament prophetic understanding of God’s Kingdom, where justice, the practice of mercy, and the protection of the poor are benchmarks of God’s covenant relationship with God’s people, and of the people’s faithfulness to God. As God has done for us, so God calls us to do for others.
Portrait is a good word to describe this text. Unlike what most of us have been led to believe, this text is not a description, nor a prescription, nor yet a prediction of “what will happen.” It is a parable. Yes. Let me repeat that. It is a parable. A word picture using vivid extremes to fuel our imaginations about what the Kingdom of God come among us looks like. The kingdom come among us is when not only God, but we are busy feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, sheltering the homeless, visiting the prisoner and tending the sick. Those who are citizens of this God-Dream-Come-True are doing what God has been doing for us all along. By contrast, the second half of the parable describes what the opposite will look like, and it is so ridiculously awful that no-one would choose to go there.
And that’s the point of a parable. Opening an imaginative window of possibilities that allow us to imagine ourselves in God’s Dream, and then to change or reorient our lives to make that dream come true. Jesus tells the parable so that we have the opportunity to imagine and to choose to weave dreams with God and to build the kingdom of peace with justice, of compassionate love, along with Jesus and the company of the ‘blessed.” This is a GOOD NEWS picture, if only we can jettison all that fearmongering that has encrusted it for so long.