McFarland

Wednesday Bible Study by Pastor Tim

Light a candle

Read Matthew 25:31-46

This coming Sunday, Nov. 22, we celebrate Christ the King, and the final Sunday in the liturgical year. A new church year begins with Advent on Nov. 29. This past lectionary year (Year A) has featured the Gospel of Matthew, and this text will likely be the last story from Matthew we will hear on Sunday for three years. Accordingly, Matthew sends us out with a bang!

This text is sometimes called the “Final Judgment” or the “Judgment of the Gentiles.” Once again, Matthew depicts the scene in sharp divisions—this time between sheep and goats. He also ratchets up the judgment “heat” as we read through chapter 25. First, some of the bridesmaids are kept out of the wedding feast (25:11-13), and then the slave who hides the talent in the ground is thrown into outer darkness (25:28-30). Now, in this last scene, the “goats” are thrown into eternal fire (25:41). Where is the good news in this? It’s challenging to say the least!

Let’s explore a couple of different interpretations, and see where the Holy Spirit leads us. One interpretation is that this text is a call for Christians to serve the hungry, thirsty and the needy, because Christ is in the “least of these” (25:40). However, what strikes me in this scene is that neither the “sheep” nor the “goats” see Jesus anywhere. Both groups ask the king the same question, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry…?” (25:37, 44) The reason for separating out the two groups is not because one saw Jesus and one did not, but rather because one group responded directly to human need and one group did not. So perhaps this story leads us not to look for Jesus’ face, but simply to care for other human beings who are in need. And leave it at that. (By the way, Matthew 7:12 from the Sermon on the Mount provides instruction about how to treat those around us: “Do unto others….”)

Another interpretation centers on the phrase that could be translated “all the nations” or “all the Gentiles” (25:31)—the same word (Greek, ethne) could be translated “nations” or “Gentiles.” Does the Son of Man gather all nations and judge all of humanity? Or does the Son of Man gather and judge all the Gentiles, which for Matthew means those outside of the faith community (non-Christians and non-Jews)? So if the word “Gentiles” is meant, then this would be a judgment scene for those outside of Matthew’s beleaguered community, and they would be judged by their deeds of mercy toward the “least of these,” who are Jesus’ disciples. Scholar Daniel Harrington says that this scene asks an important question: “By what criterion can non-Jews and non-Christians enter God’s kingdom?” (Harrington, “The Gospel of Matthew” in the Sacra Pagina series, p. 360) In other words, does God look favorably on those outside of faith communities because of their acts of humanitarian aid and support?

One final viewpoint is to note that this text is not the end of Matthew, but rather it leads to Jesus’ passion, death and resurrection. Immediately when he finishes the story, Jesus tells his disciples, “…The Son of Man will be handed over to be crucified.” (26:2) The Son of Man in today’s story, the Righteous Judge, is the same Son of Man who is crucified—the human being (Hebrew, adam) who thirsts for justice, is thrown outside the city, and left to die naked and abandoned. Jesus identifies with our human vulnerability, weakness and mortality.

Dirk Lange suggests that the suffering and death of Christ reveals God’s mercy for all of us. The cross and resurrection is the final judgment of God—and the way the faith community lives out mercy. In Jesus, the church discovers that “God is always outside the circle they draw and the boundaries they create.” (Lange, “Commentary on Matthew 25:31-46,” 11-23-08, workingpreacher.com)

In the vulnerable human being, Jesus Christ, we receive the mercy and compassion of God’s kingdom. His kingdom, his loving presence, continues to break into our lives as we care for the hungry, thirsty, ill and strangers around us—even if we do not see it.

Reflection Questions

1) Where do you experience the kingdom of God, the reign of Christ?

2) What are the pressing needs around you—in your family, friendship, co-workers, neighborhoods and world? How is God leading you to respond to them?

3) When have you received mercy and compassion while you were hungry, ill, sick, in prison or struggling with life?

4) How does the Holy Spirit speak to you through this story?

Extinguish the candle