Sunday 26th November 2017
Ezekiel 34: 11 – 16, 20 – 24;
Psalm 95: 1 – 7;
Ephesians 1: 15 – 23;
Matthew 25: 31 – 45;
By Leslie Spatt
God of judgement or God of love?
When you walk into the Sistine Chapel, you are visually overwhelmed and spiritually challenged by the entire East wall of this impressively high chapel, covered in Michelangelo’s interpretation of the Last Judgement. There’s a very muscular, extraordinarily angry Christ raising his right hand to condemn the sinners to Hell, while the Virgin Mary sits meekly submissive at his side. The sheep and the goats are being well and truly separated for the march into eternity. It’s a magnificent work of art.
But regrettably, as great a work of art as it is, a vindictive, almost violent, judgemental Christ doesn’t really fit with my own hope of what the second person of the Trinity might be like – either as Jesus, the compassionate, inclusive human being who lived among us, or the risen, glorified Christ who has returned into the heart of the Trinity in order to bring us there too. Even when he was angry with what people did to each other, Jesus was more concerned about inviting the whole world to establish a new relationship with God and neighbour than with throwing sinners into eternal punishment. Jesus wanted his hearers to change the direction of their lives, which is what the word metanoia, usually translated as “repentance” means. He wanted to forgive and gather in – not condemn and cast out.
The sheep and goats story is one we all think we know very well in both the text and the meaning. And perhaps in the surface, obvious meaning of what we read, this may be true. You do good deeds – you go to heaven. You do evil deeds – you go to hell. Sounds simple, doesn’t it. But as we all know, the bible texts are rarely simple, and their meanings even less so; frequently concealed in layers of symbolism, precise definitions of words altered through translation; philosophies and thought-processes of faded cultures now incomprehensible to our 21st-century minds. Staying on the surface, relying on only what the words say in English can lead us into strange places which may be very far away from what the original writers intended their texts to mean.
One of the many interesting things about this story is that it’s found only in Matthew, when you might have expected a version of it to be also in Mark and Luke – and just possibly John – if the early Church was so concerned about judgement, Heaven and Hell. However, Matthew is the legalistic, carefully constructed gospel intended for a Jewish-origin congregation, who would be familiar with a Jewish concept of merit and doing good deeds – but not necessarily to ensure a place in paradise. In Judaism, then as now, doing good deeds is both a duty and a privilege in many ways, being able to observe one of the great commandments – to love your neighbour as yourself – and to bring merit to the world by helping to heal it.
Merit is not to build up a credit balance with the Almighty, nor an abstract list of things to tick off and then forget. Not to make us feel righteous and definitely not a passport into heaven. It’s an attitude which says “that’s what we do because it’s the right thing to do.” The underlying theology of “do good” is indeed very Jesus, but not because of fear of punishment. Do good, as the Hebrew Scriptures tell us many times, because it’s what God wants from us. It reflects the Jesus image of love, agape, selfless love which doesn’t expect a reward; altruistic but not being sanctimoniously pious about it and certainly not parading it in front of others. We all know what Jesus had to say about hypocrites and the outward show of things!
But what Matthew is doing here with his story is taking that idea of merit and embroidering it to put it firmly into a reward system. And where there are rewards there are almost always punishments. Much responsible biblical scholarship maintains that these are not Jesus’ words, but Matthew’s. Was his story created in order to tweak this concept of merit into saying something else about the early Church’s increasing conflict with Judaism, something which said, effectively “those who welcome, believe in and follow Christ will be saved while those who ignore and deny him will be condemned”?
Crucially, much of biblical interpretation relies on prodding beneath the surface of what the text says. It’s more to do with what the words mean. I personally find it very difficult to think that humans can be divided into black and white, good and bad – because we all do a combination of good and bad things throughout all of our lives. Are we going to be condemned for ignoring one or even ten sick people because we don’t visit them; are we going to Hell because we turned away from a hungry, cold homeless person in the street? On the other hand, will we earn our way into heaven because we do one good act of volunteering as a prison visitor… but do nothing about welcoming refugees? Will we worry about the Last Judgement every waking moment in case we ignore someone or fail to spend time in helping others?
I wonder if we feel we have to choose between a God of love and a God of judgement. We might live in fear of going to Hell if we don’t tick all the right boxes. Perhaps we find it hard to really believe that God loves and forgives us – or maybe we’ve grown up being taught that God is angry at us when we sin, and very angry at us because our personal sins are responsible for God sacrificing Jesus on the cross, even 2000 years later. Not where I go, I have to say, but that’s certainly the impression given by lots of Christian leaders and theologians – and some hymn writers – over centuries.
In this year of remembering the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, and what looks like Luther’s insistence on salvation by faith alone, following St Paul, I wonder if it’s possible to be saved by having perfect faith even while behaving abominably towards the rest of the world. However – and it’s a very big ‘however’ – I, and perhaps you, believe that we could have perfect faith in Jesus but if we only sit piously in church and pray for our neighbours, without getting out into the streets to help them, then our perfect faith is useless. If next door is starving what they really need is food to eat. Not prayers that we are thinking of them. Among other things, Luther was trying to get the Church to reform the abuse of up-front paying money to get out of Hell and through Purgatory; but his vision of reform has frequently been modified into a stripped down, simplistic notion of individual piety lacking corporate compassion and action.
We still see this argument between faith and works being tossed back and forth within the Church – toned down from a full-scale row in the early Church into something less contentious, but just as angst-producing: a very self-centred “how am I going to get into Heaven and save myself ?” Rather than the challenge we hear from Jesus, “what are you going to do to bring about the Kingdom of God?” Learn what this means, he says. I desire mercy and not sacrifice, not merely going through the religious motions. Turn your faith into action: cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow; these are the things which matter. The threat of retribution may bring about obedience through fear, but that’s probably not the best basis for ordering our relationships with each other and God. Jesus doesn’t want us to be afraid of the Father or of being condemned to eternal punishment – he wants us to love God and care for each other.
If the sheep and the goats story is rewritten just a bit to leave out the “punishment” factor then it coincides fairly well with showing our faith through what we do. We are obliged to care for the hungry, homeless and lonely, the sick and the stranger; to welcome anyone without judgement; to include people who might not be “like us” but are just as much a part of God’s plan as we are. Not because we’re damned if we don’t, but because this is what Jesus did; and in him we see the reflection of the God who wants to bring all creation into the Kingdom of Heaven.
And where do we place ourselves in all of this? Do we consider ourselves sheep or goats, or don’t we really know? Can we relate to the black and white terms of this story that Matthew would have us see, or understand that we’re all a rather messy grey of mixed up good and bad? Do we cower underneath Michelangelo’s angry Christ and hope that we aren’t counted with the goats, or trust in the Jesus who will go in search of the one missing sheep and bring it home safely. And, more importantly, do we listen to the real question: What are we going to do to make the world a better place NOW? This is the challenge from Jesus, we are called to carry on his work of reconciliation and love, through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Not only through prayer and faith, important though that is. But by real positive action to show that what we speak with our lips we believe in our hearts, and that what we believe in our hearts we may demonstrate in our lives. Works and faith have to complement each other.
We need to be sent out, to share the messages of the Kingdom and its real meanings with everyone; as well as practicing what we preach. And, really, not worry too much about Heaven and Hell. Or sheep and goats.
©Leslie Spatt 2017