Matthew 25 31-46
We have come to the end this week, the end of the church year with this celebration of Christ the King, and also the end of this particular apocalyptic discourse right at the end of Jesus’ teaching. Jesus has been trying to give the disciples a view of the coming reign of God in the Kingdom. He has told so many parables, teaching that the Kingdom of God is like…. but now, suddenly we are in a different space, that of judgement. I said last week, that I would look more at the idea of judgement today and that is because both the passage from Ezekiel and this last bit of Matthew before the crucifixion narrative, deal with God’s expectations of us and the criteria on which we will be judged. And both judgements are bigger picture than the individual, and their personal sins, which is how we think of judgement.
In this passage of Ezekiel, written during the Babylonian Exile the concept of judgement is interesting because it begins not with a general judgement of the populace but quite specifically referring
to the religious leaders, those who are called upon to be the under shepherds of Israel. Ezekiel, speaking for God, is scathing in his assessment of the religious leaders. They are feeding themselves at the expense of the ones they are supposed to care for. They are not strengthening the weak, nor healing the sick. They are not binding up the injured nor seeking for the lost but instead are harsh rulers. Shepherd is code for God in the OT and these leaders are ungodly. The consequence is that God, God’s-self is taking over and searching for God’s sheep from every nation God will call them out and like the good shepherd of Psalm 23 will bring them to green pastures and flowing streams, those metaphors for safety and plenty. God says that God is against the shepherds that have failed God’s people.
And then the judgement moves on to the flock itself and how they relate to each other. Do they push each other out of the way? Do the fat ones prevent the lean ones from accessing the pasture, do some spoil the pasture they are not eating for others? Or pollute the water? These questions, seem quite close to home to me and I wonder which camp we find ourselves in?
But the message is that God, god’s-self will be their God and care for them, in the person of servant David. Now it is important to remember that this is a long time after King David- Ezekiel is referring to some other iteration of the Davidic line, and we see it, of course, as meaning the Messiah, Jesus the Christ.
So, when Jesus begins talking about the reign of the Son of Man, sitting in glory on his throne, again of course, part of this extended metaphor of kingship, he is alluding to both this prophecy from Ezekiel and also the apocalyptic writing of Daniel.This is what the end times look like- a judgement of the sheep. It is important to understand that in the middle east, to this day, there is very little observable difference between sheep and goats. In fact, genetically that are quite distinct but they look very similar, so this judgement is not quite as obvious as it seems. And just as Ezekiel shows God judging between sheep and sheep, Jesus is judging between two groups that are outwardly similar. And by popular standards Jesus has the judgement all wrong. We think of people being judged for what they have done wrong, rather than what they either have or have not done right. The failure to do the right thing, the failure to love your neighbour as yourself is the criteria upon which you are judged. Jesus has already told the leaders and the people that loving your neighbour is like loving God and here he spells it out more clearly. Have you cared for others? Then you have cared for Jesus, have you not bothered about people in need? Then you have not bothered about God.
This is very clear, isn’t it? Whether you think of yourself as a good, God fearing person, or not, it is how you behave to the people in need that is the test. Growing up, as I did, with a strong reformation faith the idea of Salvation by Grace not Works was inculcated into me, and yet here I think Jesus is telling us that it is by our works that we will be judged. The reality is that God loves us all, that God’s grace is sufficient for all of us, but nonetheless we are called to be actively loving. It is not enough to say I love God with all my heart and soul and mind and strength if I do not love my neighbour as myself. And, this is not some passive, idealistic love- no, this is hands on, concrete, gritty, love. John McKenzie is wont to say that we have outsourced our care for others, and this is very true, but I still think that we have opportunities to love the Christ in others and demonstrate it practically.
I find it interesting, too, that just as in the Ezekiel passage, the whole world is involved in this. It isn’t just our cosy Christian neighbourhood but the nations. I do sincerely hope, however, that I won’t be judged by what the nation of Australia is doing for the poor and needy: cutting the aid budget, and locking up refugees, polluting the planet and failing to act on climate change, and allowing exploitation of just those ‘little ones’ of whom Jesus speaks. Of course, other first world countries are in the same boat, and sound remarkably like the leaders in Ezekiel’s day. Thank God for the individuals in our society that embrace this model of being rather than the selfish, and hedonistic way of life. When Mother Theresa died, a reporter was trying to get to the nature of her greatness, and was questioning one of her associates. What was her leadership style that made her so effective? Well, she saw Christ in each person she met, was the reply. It didn’t satisfy the reporter but it was the simple truth, Mother Theresa loved God by caring for her fellow humans as if they were the Christ. She was an outlier in our society, living in the now of the Kingdom of God while many of us live in the not yet. I think the most confronting part of this passage is that the ones who did things for others didn’t necessarily think that they were doing it for Christ, it wasn’t a conscious thing as it was for Mother Theresa, and likewise the ones who failed are horrified, if they had seen the Lord in need they would have met the need. This about the whole of life, not what you do on Sundays but how you are every day and to everyone.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, ‘He comes in the form of the beggar, of the dissolute human child in ragged clothes asking for help. He confronts you in every person that you meet. As long as there are people, Christ will walk the earth as your neighbour.’
As a leader I feel confronted by Ezekiel’s prophetic words, am I caring for the little ones, or am I getting fat at their expense? As the sheep of God’s pasture are we pushing people out or making sure that what we have we share, so that all are fed?
As we look up at our Christus Rex, Christ the King, with the four gospel writers around him we need to remember what the Kingdom of God looks like, according to Jesus. The Kingdom of God is a place of abundance and grace filled by those who share with God in caring for others. As we bring this strange year to a close, at lest in terms of the Church Year, let it be with a sense of joy and gratitude that we have been entrusted with this work of caring for others. I pray that we might follow the Good Shepherd into this next year and beyond.
Rev. Roberta Hamilton