Christ the King: Last after Pentecost
November 26 2017
Ezekiel 34.11-12, 15-24; Psalm 100; Ephesians 1.15-23; Matthew 25.31-46
Rev Páraic Réamonn, Church of Scotland
When I was a teenager, Matthew’s parable of the sheep and the goats was one of my favourite texts. I read it as a job description of what it means to be Christian: we are to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, care for the sick. And so I threw myself into the task of changing the world. Half a century later, I’m still trying, ineffectually, to do that. I still like Matthew’s parable. I still think this is what we are called to do.
But I’m older now, if not necessarily wiser. Reading the parable on the brink of retirement, I am struck by aspects of Matthew’s story that in my adolescent enthusiasm I was inclined to gloss over.
As a teenager, I cheerfully universalized what Matthew was saying. I don’t think I’m alone in this. As Christians we believe that we are to care for the poor, the suffering and the downtrodden without discrimination.
But this is not what Matthew says. The nations in this story are to be judged by how they treat, not the poor and needy in general, but the least of the sisters and brothers of Christ: how they treat Christians.
We can understand why Matthew speaks in this way. He is writing for a small, struggling and persecuted Christian community in the first century of our common era. He believes that the community of those who follow Christ is the beginning of the renewal of Israel and the restoration of all things. So why not take how others treat Christians as the touchstone of whether they are the good guys or the bad guys, sheep or goats?
There are Christians today who are particularly concerned with Christians in other parts of the world; and that is not wrong. In many parts of the world, Christian communities are treated abominably. But if that is all that concerns us, it makes me uneasy.
The Christian community in this land is under immense pressure and shrinking fast. How long before the only Christians here are pilgrims? But should we not be concerned also with all the others – secular and religious, Muslims, Druze, Bedouin, and Jews – who suffer too as a result of the conflict and the “situation” here?
In the second place, Matthew divides the nations of the earth into sheep and goats. As a teenager, marching to the American embassy in Dublin to protest the war in Vietnam, I did that too; but today this also makes me uneasy.
There may be limit cases where people are pure goat and rare cases where people are pure sheep; but even the greatest of saints see themselves as sinners. In reality, are we not all of us part sheep, part goat? Are we not all doubly joined together: in the human solidarity of sin and the graced solidarity of salvation?
Thirdly, when Matthew’s Christ turns to the worthless goats and says, “Get away from me! You’re good for nothing but the fires of hell!” this makes me uneasy too.
Earlier in Matthew’s Gospel, in the Sermon on the Mount, Christ commands us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us, so that we may be children of God.
Today, apparently, this does not apply to the Son of God. He is not required to love his enemies; he may happily tell them to go to hell. Isn’t this a little like the parent or teacher who tells the child, “Do as I say, not as I do”?
Brant Rosen is an American rabbi known for his activism on behalf of the Palestinian people. A week ago, he presented a paper at the American Academy of Religion with the title, “God hears the cry of the oppressed”.
He quoted a familiar passage from the Bavli, the Babylonian Talmud:
Why does it say (Deut 13.5): “One should walk after God”? … It means that one should imitate God’s ways. As God clothed Adam and Eve (Gen 3.21), so should we clothe the naked; as God visited the ailing (Gen 18.1), so should we visit the sick; as God comforted Isaac after Abraham’s death (Gen 25.11), so should we comfort mourners; as God buried Moses (Deut 34.6), so should we care for the dignity of the dead.
To which Rosen adds: As God hears the cry of the oppressed, so should we hear the cry of the oppressed. The parallel with our Gospel today needs no underlining.
But then Rosen draws on Rabbi Aryeh Cohen for an analysis of Exodus that again leaves me uneasy.
Cohen quotes from Exodus 22: “Do not mistreat an alien or oppress him, for you were aliens in Egypt. Do not take advantage of a widow or an orphan. If you do and they cry out to me, I will certainly hear their cry. My anger will be aroused, and I will kill you with the sword; your wives will become widows and your children fatherless.”
Cohen comments that many have understood this as meaning that the lesson of oppression is compassion. That is, “You Israelites know what it means to be enslaved, oppressed, to be the stranger. Now that you are the dominant group, you must exercise compassion toward those who are like you were. You must exercise the compassion that Pharaoh did not exercise toward you.”
But Cohen points out that this is not what the text of Exodus says. It says, “If you wrong the stranger, or abuse the widow or orphan, God will kill you with the sword.”
Between the God of Exodus who kills us and the Christ of Matthew who consigns us to hell, there is not much to choose.
How are we to understand these texts and others like them in our scriptures?
What they are telling us, I think, is that actions have consequences, that what we do matters.
In the Exodus story, God hears the cry of the Israelites, and this leads to redemption. Pharaoh does not hear their cry and this leads to the devastation of Egypt.
Our choice is between imitating Pharaoh and imitating God, and these choices have repercussions. This is what Moses says to the people of Israel on the east bank of the Jordan in Deuteronomy 30:
“I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him…”
God’s purposes for us are always for good; but we can be our own worst enemies. When we behave badly, or when we harden our hearts and close our ears to the cry of the oppressed, then we kill ourselves. When we imitate Pharaoh and not God, we bring death to others and destruction to our planet; and inside we die.
That’s the bad news. Now for the good.
For 32 chapters, the prophet Ezekiel, writing in exile in Babylon, has been prophesying death and destruction for the unfaithful people of Judah. In chapter 33, the blow finally falls:
“In the twelfth year of our exile, in the tenth month, on the fifth day of the month, someone who had escaped from Jerusalem came to me and said, ‘The city has fallen.’”
It is precisely at this moment, when Jerusalem is in the hands of its enemies, that Ezekiel turns from prophesying judgement to proclaiming hope.
The kings of Judah may have been bad kings; the fat sheep of Judah may have exploited the lean and deprived them of pasture. But now God will be the shepherd of his people, will feed them with justice, will save his flock. And God will set up over them one shepherd – “my servant David” – and he shall feed them.
It’s not what Ezekiel has in mind, to be sure; but it’s not hard for us to read this double shepherding in Christian terms.
What is hinted at in Ezekiel is said out loud in Ephesians.
The hope to which the God of our Lord Jesus Christ calls us is rooted in God’s power, and in the way God puts this power to work when he raises Christ from the dead and seats him at his right hand.
Look around us, and in so many ways our world seems subject to “rule and authority and power” of the most destructive kinds. Look within ourselves, and we see divided hearts. Yet God has put all things under Christ’s feet, and that is why, despite everything, we may hope against hope.
On Friday, I was in St Anne’s Church in the Old City for a handover service in the ecumenical accompaniment programme. Group 68 was coming in; group 67 was going out, but not before handing over to the incomers candles they had lit from a single flame.
“We pass on to you the calling to walk in the light,” they said. “May you walk with kindness, hope, patience and love so that you are blessed and are a blessing to all.”
With the whole congregation, I welcomed those who were arriving and bade farewell to those who were departing with these words:
“In the midst of suffering and sorrow, in the midst of human kindness and ingenuity, make a faithful witness to the hope of God’s gift of new life to the world.”
What we said to them on Friday, the risen and enthroned Christ says to us all.
Aryeh Cohen, “Hearing the Cry of the Poor”, in Peter Ochs and William Stacey Johnson, eds, Crisis, Call, and Leadership in the Abrahamic Traditions (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009)
Eugene H Peterson, The Message Remix (Colorado Springs: Navpress, 2003)
Brand Rosen, “God hears the cry of the oppressed”, November 20 2017
Working Preacher, November 26 2017
Tom Wright, Matthew for Everyone, Part 2: Chapters 16-28 (London: SPCK, 2002)
Hail to the Lord’s anointed, great David’s greater Son! (CH4 474)
All people that on earth do dwell (Psalm 100, CH4 63)
Look forward in faith, all time is in God’s hand (CH4 237)
For your generous providing which sustains us all our days (CH4 655)
Send out the gospel! Let it sound northward and southward, east and west (CH4 681)