Matthew 25

–from Zach Gleason

Matthew 25

When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.

Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’

They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’

He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’

Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”

The way to God is thoroughly ethical. God expects us to treat people well. To the ears of modern evangelical Protestants (which is what we are fast becoming), the challenging issue with this passage is its lack of faith or belief language. We expect any biblical talk about salvation to include faith, not just as a detail but as the centerpiece. But here Jesus only speaks of faith-fullness.

All the righteous ones answer the King with surprise when they are invited into their inherited kingdom. What kind of faith is that? What kind of belief is that? It is faith and belief so fully embodied that the possessor is not necessarily even consciously aware of it. Salvation is not just partly ethical. It does not merely lead to ethical behavior. Salvation is itself a change in our ethical actions.

That’s not Law. Jesus is not here promoting salvation by works of the Law. But he is promoting a salvation which is nevertheless ethical. And that is where our attention should fall. Lutheran ideas of salvation and justification, works and faith, might be interesting topics of conversation for another time, but when looking to the teaching of Jesus himself, the context has got to be ancient Judaism(s). And in that context Law looms large.

Jesus is making a move that runs parallel to much of what the prophets did. Oft quoted passages from Hosea or everybody’s favorite verses from Micah 6 come to mind. Again we have Law standing in opposition to, not Lutheran faith which can be distinguished from action, but faithful participation in and with Christ. This is not legalism dressed up as something new. It is belonging to a community with a different perspective – a perspective not of purity-maintenance or legal standing but of ethical other-affirming neighborliness. And if that sounds too wishy-washy or sappy, remember they killed Jesus for it (not to mention Gandhi, King, and Romero).

So, is the inclusion/exclusion controversy about ethical other-affirming neighborliness? Is it about the things Jesus died for? Do we hear voices of exclusion arguing that inclusion would be un-neighborly? Maybe, but that’s a pretty big stretch. A stance that is faithful to the new covenant, the law written on our hearts, is one that redefines purity in terms of embodied love for one another.

I cannot think of any modern issue that more closely parallels the original contexts of this core biblical teaching – the arbitrary, traditional, and cultural is abandoned for love of that expanding group of people deemed ‘neighbor’. In biblical times ritual purity was to be dropped in the name of embodied love. Then it was circumcision that was dropped. Now it is arbitrary standards of sexual purity. All three trace their roots to scriptural mandates, but all are radically recast in light of Christ.