Your Kingdom Come (Part ll)
Christ the King, Judgment and Mission
In the previous address I endeavoured to give a brief overview of the Lucan approach and his understanding of the Kingdom of God. Central to the writer of Luke was Jesus as exemplar of the prophesied Suffering Servant. Important as well was the Lucan analysis of society and Jesus’ mission. In this respect Jesus is seen as both heralding and personally bringing in the Reign of God. This mission of the Christ or Messiah is characterized by a total reversal of the status quo of society. Jesus message is to the poor and marginal not the rich and powerful. The third element or characteristic is the implication that this social reversal is universal in its unfolding and of absolute importance to the life of all peoples.
In this address I will focus on what is, in my opinion, the most important scriptural passage having to do with the Kingdom of God: Matthew 25:31and following. This passage is placed in the Matthaen Gospel just before the beginning of the events of the passion of Jesus. In a sense it is the penultimate point of Jesus’ ministry whereby the writer of Matthew explains the divine plan of salvation and links it to the coming Kingdom of God/Heaven. Leading up to this point the writer of Matthew presents the three elements of Jesus’ mission: the proclamation and bringing in of the eschatological rule of God as a precursor to a reconciled relationship with the Father; the fulfillment of the demands of the Law and the prophets and thereby renewing a righteous relationship between God and humanity; and the establishment of a new community of believers based on eschatological hope whose mission is to evangelize the world.
To a greater or lesser extent all three elements can be seen to find their completion in this pericope of Matthew’s Gospel. To aid us visually, I have asked that Michelangelo’s Painting of the Last Judgment be shown. Let me briefly read an excerpt from the art interpretation provided by the Curators of the Vatican:
“The mighty composition, painted by Michelangelo between 1536 and 1541, is centred around the dominant figure of Christ, captured in the moment preceding that when the verdict of the Last Judgment is uttered (Matthew 25:31-46). His calm imperious gesture seems to both command attention and placate the surrounding agitation. It starts a wide slow rotary movement in which all the figures are involved… Next to Christ is the Virgin, who turns her head in a gesture of resignation: in fact she can no longer intervene in the decision, but only await the result of the Judgment. The Saints and the Elect, arranged around Christ and the Virgin, also anxiously await the verdict. Some of them can be easily recognized: St Peter with the two keys, St Laurence with the gridiron, St Bartholomew with his own skin which is usually recognized as being a self-portrait of Michelangelo, St Catherine of Alexandria with the cogwheel and St Sebastian kneeling holding the arrows. In the centre of the lower section are the angels of the Apocalypse who are wakening the dead to the sound of long trumpets. On the left the risen recover their bodies as they ascend towards heaven (Resurrection of the flesh), on the right angels and devils fight over making the damned fall down to hell. Finally, at the bottom Charon with his oars, together with his devils, makes the damned get out of his boat to lead them before the infernal judge Minos, whose body is wrapped in the coils of a serpent. The reference in this part to the Inferno of Dante Alighieri’s Divina Commedia is plain.”
So let us now turn to the passage at hand and enter into the vivid story presented in the Gospel.
Matthew and the Judgment of the Nations
31 ‘When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. 32All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 34Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” 37Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” 40And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family,* you did it to me.” 41Then he will say to those at his left hand, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.” 44Then they also will answer, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?” 45Then he will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” 46And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.’
The great vision of the judgment of the nations from the Gospel of Matthew both looks to the future, to the eschaton, and to the past. Up to this point the writer of Matthew has portrayed Jesus as the inspired communicator of the coming of God’s reign. In The Gospel of Matthew each step along the way unfolds the story of how the Christ is to help to bring about the establishment of the kingdom of God.
In his ministry Jesus taught, healed, prayed and lived out in his relationships the message: that God’s plan of salvation was meant to draw the people of Israel into a closer communion with the God that had called them over the generations. As the story unfolds in Matthew, so does the plan of salvation begin to open up and become a plan that is universal in its application. For example, in 25:32 we see the words “All the nations will be gathered before him,” In the original Greek text we read “panta ta ethne” which essentially means on ALL peoples: both Jews and Gentiles alike.
From one point of view, the parable is very straight forward. We are presented with a final judgement in which there will be an unambiguous separation of the righteous from the unrighteous. The righteous are those who have performed ‘deeds of lovingkindness’ according to ancient Jewish standards. They have relieved the sufferings of the unfortunate, and in so doing they have obeyed the divine commandment to Israel, as set out in the books of the Law and the prophets. However, Jesus’ presentation of this standard judgment scenario is given a revolutionary twist. The king (of the parable) says to the righteous: “inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world, for I was hungry and you gave me food, Iwas thirsty and you gave me drink, etc.” ie., the deeds of loving-kindness rendered to the needy have been rendered equally, in the same gesture, as it were, to the one described here as ‘the king’ namely Jesus himself.
Jesus’ parable, points out the lie that stood at the heart of the ritual alms that were given by the rich and powerful of his day. These acts were not at all given in the spirit for which the Law had originally been mandated. The Law in fact had failed to do what it was meant to do, and that is to make society more human and compassionate. What the parable does is turn the social division between superiors and inferiors on its head, by re-framing the way we assess social differences, because we learn that the king is, in fact, on the side of the have-nots. “Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me”.
The Canadian Theologian John Simons, in a Sermon on the Parable of the Last Judgment wrote about this spectacular reversal in this way, “It is significant that the one who speaks these words is invested with the status of the king because, in this ancient context, the king is not just the one who legislates and maintains order and executes justice; the king is also the one who dispenses honour, something that lives on in our society with the Queen’s honour list or the Governor-General’s awards. To be recognized by the king is to be given social status. All this being so, the point of Jesus’ identifying himself as king with the needy of history is to say that within the social order that reflects God’s way of valuing his creation, the haves are not more worthy than the have-nots. And the so-called ‘less fortunate’ are not inferior to those who are in a position to help them.
In this radical re-ordering of society then, to do the will of God and align ourselves with the bringing in of God’s reign, means that our focus must be on serving the most vulnerable persons in our society. We know already that this is not how society functions. We know in fact that the world works contrary to both this parable and the Sermon on the Mount. That is why it is such a startling communication. The major point that the writer of Matthew seems to be underscoring here is that this is the basis of judgment. This is the norm by which we know who is doing the will of God and who is engaged in bringing in God’s reign. We will not be judged on how often we attended worship, or whether we gave the full amount of money that we were capable of offering for the work of the church, nor the number of church committees we worked on. Judgment will be rendered on the basis of our humanity and our capacity to serve God by serving our fellow human beings.
Finally, there is another issue that we in the Church today need to reflect on. It is clear that Jesus repeatedly sought out and entered into relationships with individuals who were outcast in society. Prostitutes, tax collectors, Samaritans, those who were sick, those who were considered ritually unclean and many others, found in Jesus, someone who would listen to their story, respond to their needs and affirm by word and action their own humanity. The challenge for us then is not just what action we are to pursue in responding to the needs of those who are poor or lowly or marginal but what are our own attitudes and pre-dispositions toward such human persons? Do we seek them out? Do we get to know them in real relationships? Do we make a place for them in our heart and in our own community? Surely the startling reversal presented in the Gospel of Matthew must lead to the creation of a very different Christian Community than the ones of which we are presently a part.
During the 1970’s I had the good fortune to study a new approach to theology called Liberation Theology. Through Leonardo Boff and Gustavo Gutierez and the other Liberation theologians the church was reminded of something quite jarring to the bourgeois Christianity we have inherited and that is that in the biblical perspective, God is biased; he has ‘a preferential option for the poor.’ The phrase gets at the basis of the judgement rendered by the king in this parable. God honours social rejects, the needy, those whose need alienates them from society. They are the brothers and sisters of Christ the king. And if they are the brothers and sisters of Jesus than we ought to be with them in our own communities, living, worshipping and struggling together.
This vision of Judgment portrayed in the Gospel of Matthew is startling in its implications for us in contemporary 21st Century society. But before we look at what such judgment might mean for us, we must grapple with the discomfort that we of our age experience with the whole notion of Judgment.
We try very hard in our society not to get too close to anything that resembles judgment. We neither like to receive judgment nor to be seen as rendering judgment unto others. We often hear quoted Jesus exhortation, “judge not that ye be not judged,” even though, generally speaking, the individual quoting is doing so out of context and often as a defensive reaction. Jesus’ words considering judgment in Luke 6:37 were used in the context of explaining the radical love that was being called forth from all humans in their relationships one with another. We are exhorted not just to love our neighbour but indeed to love our enemies as well and to live lives of forgiveness and compassion.
What Jesus was not saying, is that judgment is irrelevant or that it is not a reality. In fact throughout the Gospels we see time and time again Jesus dealing with many aspects of the issue of Judgment. The Parable of the Good Samaritan is but one example.
As regards our discomfort or avoidance of the whole concept of judgment, we use many social strategies to pretend that it is not real. Our school systems often refuse to give children failing grades because we fear the adverse effects on the youthful psyche. We establish “no fault insurance” because we find the adversarial system of the courts too costly. And even when we speak to other Christians, how often have we heard the phrase, “I don’t believe in a God of Judgment”. This last one raises of course many issues which can’t be dealt with within the context of this address, but one wonders whether some people’s vision of God is modeled on a happy face along the lines of the popular emoticons.
So what is it that we fear about judgment? I believe that we live in fear of Judgment because we fear responsibility, accountability and the consequences of our actions and beliefs. We, the human race are by and large a people living in denial. We want to rule ourselves and our world but we don’t want to do it in reference to any other person or power that might inhibit or limit our choices and actions.
But as Matthew so dramatically points out in the 25th Chapter, to reject Judgement means also to reject Justice. In fact the things that we say and do, even if misguided, foolish, hurtful or sinful have effects and often those effects are not in the interests of either the common good or the lives of the poor and needy.
In William Shakespeare’s tragedy Macbeth, the main character makes an insightful observation about himself, his plan to kill the king and the lot of human kind. “But in these cases we still have judgment here. That we but teach bloody instructions, which being taught, return to plague th’inventor.” In other words his actions are not neutral, they may lead him to the crown, but it is more likely that they will destroy him in the end, and they do.
So the “reign of God” is central to the Gospel preached by Jesus and therefore must be central to the Church. In the context of bringing about the reign of God the Church becomes both a symbol of the coming reign but also the focus for the ongoing work by which the revelation of its coming becomes manifest in the world.
In the reign of God we see that social boundaries or relationships become altered. They essentially become blurred as those who are traditionally excluded: the poor, the marginalized, the alien, and the sick are acknowledged as being intrinsically worthy and beloved of God. There is inherent in this new community an inclusivity that breaks down the walls of exclusion and social division.
This is more than merely an ideal. It is an unfolding reality founded upon our relationship with Jesus Christ who has become the head of the Church, the cornerstone of the Kingdom and the means through which God’s ultimate act of reconciliation finds its focus. In other words, the Church as it relates to the reign of God has a purpose: to be the vehicle through which we live out our reconciled lives in response to God’s call to preach the Gospel and live in communion with Our Lord Jesus and each other and to acknowledge his intimate presence in our lives.
As the Catholic Theologian Gregory Baum said in his fourth Massey Lecture, “God is here, not ‘over and above’ but’ in and through.’ Theologians call this God’s immanence. Of course, God is at the same time transcendent. God is sovereign unconditional origin. God is other. But divine otherness need not imply that God is far away, over and above, ruling the world from on high. God’s otherness here rather specifies what we call the mode of divine immanence. God is graciously present in human history, but never imprisoned in it. God is immanent, but forever transcending. God is forever new and surprising. God present in history remains forever judge of the world, condemning it for its injustice, and forever redeemer of the world, enlightening and empowering people to build a more human society.”
Understanding the abiding and empowering presence of God in the Church is helped by focusing on the Five Marks of Mission established by the Anglican Consultative Council . They are as follows:
– To proclaim the Good News of the Reign of God.
– To teach, baptize and nurture new believers.
– To respond to human need by loving service.
– To seek to transform the unjust structures of society.
– To strive to safeguard the integrity of creation, and sustain and renew the life of the earth
– (A sixth has been proposed by Canada. –To strive to bring about peace, and conflict transformation, and reconciliation.
In conclusion I stand here to both affirm and challenge you to be Christ’s own builders of a new society. A society based not on political ideology nor on the tenets of one economic theory over another. We are Gospel people who have been called to bring in the Reign of God. There is no question about the wonderful work that Churches all over the Diocese of Huron are doing and have done for generations. An observer like me only has to read the Huron Diocesan Paper to see the multitude of social ministries in which you all engage.
But the challenge I bring you today is to go even further in response to God’s Call. It is a challenge I am about to make to my own Diocesan Synod next week. I believe that Jesus is calling us into a closer relationship with the poor and marginalized. As we look through our church communities, it is rare that we find numbered among our members people who are considered poor or who have significant social challenges. I believe that this is a sign to us. If we are to do the work that we have been sent to do, if the Reign of God is truly to come in, we must learn how to gift the Church by living in communities which are based on radical inclusivity. The preferential option for the poor clearly presented in Matthew’s Parable of the Last Judgement must become for us a paradigm of the future Church.
Surely, if Our Lord regularly sought the outcasts and the marginal and established relationships with them, we must do the same. Feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the prisoner is important and we are presently doing these things. I believe the next step is to live together in communities of solidarity and learn from the experience of living together. If all we can do is speak about the poor and marginalized from a distance, than we will miss the most important aspect of God’s Reign which is: living in a dynamic community based on Faith Hope and Love, and I believe that profound community experience will bring us into the very presence of Our Risen Lord.
The day that we can look around our churches and see the full diversity of God’s Kingdom manifest around us: male- female, educated- uneducated, rich- poor, refugee- corporate executive, African- Asian, homosexual- heterosexual, unemployed- employed and know that we are one in the Spirit, and are willing to give our lives fully one to another. Then, I believe the Reign of God will no longer be a fleeting elusive concept but a shining beacon of existential reality. We will no longer “see through a glass darkly” but bask in the effulgence of Christ’s own light, reflected in the faces of those he has asked us to love, protect and serve.
2 John Simons; Sermon on the Parable of The Last Judgment
 Gregory Baum; Compassion and Solidarity: The Church for Others, p. 73