From the Gospel according to Matthew:
Jesus said: “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Matthew 25:31-46 (NRSV) – July 16, 2014)
I don’t usually quote the entire Daily Office Lectionary lesson in these meditations, I try to focus on one image, one metaphor, one statement in one or two verses from one of the lessons or psalms for the day, but today it just seems right to set out the whole end-time, judgment day, sheep-and-goats story that Jesus tells of the Last Day. Here’s why:
A couple of days ago a friend and colleague in ordained ministry posted a link to an essay on her Facebook page. The essay concerned the difficulty the essayist felt in being what he called “a liberal Christian.” He complained (rightly, in my experience) about the fact that among his politically liberal (and not uncommonly agnostic or atheist) friends, he found himself criticized and even ridiculed for his religious faith, while among his religiously Christian (and not uncommonly politically conservative) friends, he found himself criticized and even rejected because of his liberal politics. (The essay is here.)
The very first comment posted by any of her Facebook friends was this, “Chaplain, why not just preach The Word without regard for particular social groups?” (My friend has spent most of her ordained ministry in uniform ministering to American armed forces personnel, which explains why she is addressed as “Chaplain” by the commenter.)
Apart from the ambiguity of whatever it may be that the commenter means by “The Word,” which would be a subject for another meditation perhaps, my reaction to the suggestion was, “Is that even possible?” My faith is a social one (I’m even tempted to say “a political one”); “the word” (here, I mean “the bible”) is almost exclusively about God’s dealing with “particular social groups.” Whenever the prophets of the Old Testament speak, they speak to social classes (usually the ruling class) about the treatment of “particular social groups” (usually the poor). When Jesus deals with individuals (apart from the healing stories), it is usually not about their individual faith or personal behavior, and if it is, it’s almost always about how that behavior affects others.
For example, although in his conversation with the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s Well he and she do mention her personal life he does not focus on that. Instead, he turns the conversation toward the propriety of worship by groups (her Samaritans, his Jews, and eventually “true worshipers”) in various places and at various times. (Jn 4) When the Canaanite (or Syrophoenician) woman seeks healing for her daughter, neither the nature of the illness nor the personal behavior of the woman or the child are the subject of conversation; the discussion focuses on the targets of Jesus’ ministry (“the children” – i.e., the Jews – or “the dogs” – i.e., the Gentiles). (Mt 15:22-28) When Jesus does address matters of individual religious practice, it is usually to criticize it for taking the believer’s attention away from the needs of “particular social groups”:
The Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” He said to them, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.’ You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.” Then he said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition! For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘Whoever speaks evil of father or mother must surely die.’ But you say that if anyone tells father or mother, ‘Whatever support you might have had from me is Corban’ (that is, an offering to God ) — then you no longer permit doing anything for a father or mother, thus making void the word of God through your tradition that you have handed on. And you do many things like this.” (Mk 7:5-13)
And then today’s Daily Office gospel lesson. How can one “preach The Word without regard for particular social groups” when the Word Incarnate does not do so? Here he specifically tells us that his followers will be (are they not already?) divided into “particular social groups” at the day of judgment, into the “sheep” on his right and the “goats” on his left. And he will address each group with regard to how they treated other “particular social groups” — the naked, the hungry, the thirsty, the sick, the imprisoned, the “members of my family.”
I cannot see any way to “preach The Word without regard for particular social groups.” Neither Judaism nor Christianity is an individual faith; neither is concerned exclusively, nor even primarily, with individual behavior and practice, with the individual’s relationship with God. Both have major social components; both are concerned with human beings living in community, in covenant relationship with other human beings, in “particular social groups.” The Jews are nowhere described as “the chosen individuals of God;” they are the People of God. Christians were not told that where one is praying Jesus would be there, but “where two or three are gathered.” (Mt 18:20) Ours is a social, even a political, faith concerned with “particular social groups.”
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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.