Last Pentecost, Year A
Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24
Thus says the Lord GOD: I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. As shepherds seek out their flocks when they are among their scattered sheep, so I will seek out my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land; and I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the watercourses, and in all the inhabited parts of the land. I will feed them with good pasture, and the mountain heights of Israel shall be their pasture; there they shall lie down in good grazing land, and they shall feed on rich pasture on the mountains of Israel. I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord GOD. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice.
Therefore, thus says the Lord GOD to them: I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep. Because you pushed with flank and shoulder, and butted at all the weak animals with your horns until you scattered them far and wide, I will save my flock, and they shall no longer be ravaged; and I will judge between sheep and sheep. I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd. And I, the LORD, will be their God, and my servant David shall be prince among them; I, the LORD, have spoken.
I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, and for this reason I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers. I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power. God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.
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.”
The Bible texts of the Old Testament, Epistle and Gospel lessons are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Church of Christ in the USA, and used by permission.
At last! Finally, the God of Violence is resurrected in this last parable in Matthew. At last we have the God who returns violence for violence, who abandons forgiveness in favor of judgment, who steps down off the Cross and massacres his enemies!
How else are we to read this parable? The outer darkness has finally morphed into what we wanted it to be all along. It is now “eternal fire” and “eternal punishment.” Hurray! Jesus must have been playing with us all along, saving this last bit for the final twist in the story, like “The Sixth Sense.” Everything we thought we understood for the whole of the gospel is reversed, the dead are living and the living dead, and the God of Violence reigns!
Either this reading is fundamentally wrong, or everything, everything that we have said at Preaching Peace is wrong, completely wrong. And I don’t think we are.
But to read this parable as one that reads us, it will take a little more work than usual. Our predisposition to supplant the God and Father of Jesus with the God of Violence isn’t too hard to see. In that way, the parable reads us too easily. The difficult portion is the unearthing, the resurrection of the God of Peace. I beg your patience as we undertake that task.
Let me begin by outlining some of the techniques for reading parables that I teach in my New Testament course. I’ll give you some of the basis in mimetic theory that I gloss over in that context. (I don’t have time to teach mimetic theory and the Synoptic Gospels in the time allotted!) Some of these principles for reading will sound familiar from your reading of Preaching Peace in past weeks, some will be new.
1) Don’t be quick to associate the person of power or wealth in the parable with God or Jesus. We’ve seen, in recent weeks, the tendency we have to do just that, and the way that this leads us into highly mimetic and violent readings of the text. The corrective for this, of course, is number 2, which goes to the heart of the Christology we’ve developed at Preaching Peace.
2) Measure the behavior of the king or rich man or master against that of Jesus. If they aren’t a good fit, the character simply is not God. br /> 3) Do not read parables as if they speak of a future reality. This is important from a mimetic theory standpoint, inasmuch as this future-oriented reading is inevitably dualistic. It posits an ideal future against which we wind up measuring the present. The use of the future tense in parables is a part of the way that they read us, not an indication that there is, in fact, an idealized future where kings throw banquets and the wicked get punished. This leads to a fourth, and doubly important principle.
4) Read the parables a-temporally. That is, do not read them as though they describe a sequence of events, one that occurs before another which is a result. This also is important from a mimetic theory standpoint, as this whole notion of sequence and time is a cultural creation, a result of the murder of the scapegoat. Rene has shown us that it is reflection on the murder, on the scapegoat, that creates our sense of “before” and “after.” From the death of the victim comes the idea that there are sequential results, rather than a universal “now.” (We can see that Jesus also instructed his followers to live a-temporally. “Do not live as though what you do now will affect you in the future. Why do you worry? Does not God look after even the sparrow?”) So, as we read parables, we read them as though all the conditions therein contained are contemporaneous. Related causally? Yes, but still contemporaneous.
5) Do not read the parables ever as though they prescribe or proscribe behavior. This is obvious to students of mimetic theory. Don’t read parables as morality tales, as narrative prohibitions. If your reading leads you to say, “If you want this (heaven, the kingdom, etc.) then you’d better that (care for the poor, feed the hungry, etc.). then you have a reading grounded in violence. Try again.
6) Instead, read the parables as descriptions of reality. Or rather, of the interaction of two realities. The parables describe the way that the reign of God is received by the reign of violence, and the way that the two interact when this reign of God is made present in the world. The parable is a description, not a warning, or a commendation.
Now, looking back at the parable for this week, we have some uncomfortable conclusions staring us in the face.
1) The behavior of the king does not square with the behavior of Jesus in the rest of his life. We do well, then, to be highly suspicious of any conclusion that this king represents God. I am immediately struck by the switch in language, as the Son of Man becomes a king as soon as he begins the (mimetic) task of differentiating the sheep and the goats.
2) Our traditional reading is all about some future reality. It posits an ideal future when all is made clear by the (mimetic) behavior of the king. It is irredeemably dualistic.
3) It speaks of events as though they were sequentially causal. If you have done one set of things or the other (cared for, or not cared for, the needy of various stripes) then you will later receive just (there’s a mimetic word) reward or punishment for your deeds.
4) If the traditional reading does not proscribe certain behaviors, then I am a monkey’s uncle. If it does not say, “You’d better…. or you will….” I don’t know what it does say. This is mimetic prohibition, plain and simple.
How then, are we to read this text? How indeed?
I’ll break my reading up into sections like the numbers above, for clarity’s sake, but this has it’s limitations. It will lead to an unruly reading, one that no one will want to read, probably. If you find this tedious, skip over to “So What.” I’ll put a clearer version of my conclusions there.
1) From the time that the Son of Man becomes the “king,” the character’s behavior ceases to look anything like that of Jesus. We can only conclude from this that the rest of the parable does not describe the actions of the God who created us, but rather the God whom we created.
2) The parable, if my principles are useful at all, describes the present interaction of the reign of God with the kingdom of violence. It is not a description of some future last days, but rather a description of the present struggle of the world of violence to overcome the gospel now that it’s been introduced into the world.
3) If the events are not sequentially causal, but contemporaneous, then we see the consignment of the goats to the eternal fire as an ongoing reality, one that occurs alongside an ongoing (perpetually present) judgment. It is not as if our actions are all summed up at one future point, and the judgment decreed for all future moments. Rather, the judgment occurs daily, in the present, at all times.
4) Finally, the parable does suggest that the king will prescribe certain behaviors, and proscribe others. In the end, what Jesus describes in the parable is the (apparent) victory of mimesis as it encompasses the values of the Gospel and turns them into new prohibitions, prohibitions with results even more violent than those generated by those who failed to see Christ in the hungry and naked. “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force.” (Matt. 11:12) This parable describes perfectly the traditional reading of this parable, and it’s violent use. The kingdom of heaven is indeed taken by force.
This week’s lesson has a history. My thoughts and Jeff’s crossed in the ether of the Internet. They are different readings, but I am in fundamental agreement with Jeff’s mimetic reading of the text. We are both aware that this is not technically a parable. However, Matthew’s culmination of his powerful eschatological sermon with a series of parables makes good sense; the end can only really be talked about in parabolic fashion, to do otherwise is to speculate with the apocalyptists, something Jesus does not appear to do. His discourses on the conditions of the afterlife are quite sparse compared with his compatriots.
Jeff has convinced me that a congruent reading of the parables really brings out their iconoclastic power, for once one understands the parables are about ‘power’ and ‘violence’, and God’s relation to these powers, then from beginning to end the parables can be read from below. The parables tell us the ‘coming God’ is different than we think.
I began with the figure of the Son of Man, seen as a corporate figure, Humanity in its fullness and completeness, judging the structures that had governed human life, for it is the ‘nations’ that are judged. This is in keeping with the notion of the nation state as a corporate personality. The King figure is the retributive God of the retributive nation state. And the coming of the Son of Man provokes the self-judgment of humanity; this is in keeping with Matthew’s deapocalypticizing the last judgment, where divine judgment becomes human self-judgment in Jesus’ teaching.
I appreciate Jeff’s reading of the parable, it ‘feels like’ the dénouement that it is. Jeff’s reading is a hermeneutic; namely, that the judgment of the left is as real, and hurtful, as the judgment from the right. There is all kinds of finger pointing going on in American Christianity. It all stems from the fact that, whether left or right, American Christianity is Gnostic and doesn’t care for the church, as structure, as institution; there is little or no humanity in ecclesiology.. Critics and scapegoaters, no matter where they are from, don’t mind rending the flock of God, tearing at other believers. It comes as no surprise that sometimes Christianity is the spitting image….of our father, the devil. Jesus cares for his church, the devil doesn’t.
At the same time, Michael points to an important aspect of the “parable.” (I am inclined to think that, while our current text doesn’t fit the form “parable” terribly well, that there is a parable somewhere in its history…) Prior to the conversion of the Son of Man to “king” in the text, there is a very real and important correspondence to the corporate rejection of the structures (nations) that fail to recognize Jesus in the powerless. What the “parable” adds, though, is the punitive judgment of the scapegoat mechanism, demonstrating that even the values of Jesus can be perverted, turned to something “anti-Gospel.”
I have three observations:
First, this final “parable” in Matthew’s Gospel is the icing on the cake, it summarizes and highlights all that he has previously said regarding the interrelationship between a) recognition of Jesus, b) obedience and c) judgment. It was not actually recognized as a parable until the late 19th century. Sherman W Gray in his doctoral dissertation (The Least of My Brothers: Matthew 25:31-46, A History of Interpretation [SBL Dissertation Series 114, 1989]) has demonstrated several important theses regarding our parable. Most important, from our perspective, there is a gradual increase to interpret vs 40 in a universalistic manner in the early middle ages which explodes in the late twentieth century. Gray suggests that our growing awareness of global conflicts and poverty and the influence of WW I, WW II and the 2nd Vatican Council all contributed to seeing ‘the least of these’ as referring not simply to other Christians but to any who shared the bereft condition. A more particularist interpretation keeps the works described in vvs 35-35, 42-43 in house, so to speak, whereas a universalist interpretation extends the acts of mercy to all.
A second observation concerns vvs. 41 and 46, the reference to the eternal fire. We have suggested that in Matthew’s parables, the eternal fire is the place of scapegoating, those cast into outer darkness are not the guilty but the innocent. Here, that which failed to care for the ‘least of these’ is indeed guilty of failure to recognize Jesus, of failure to recognize the scapegoats who have previously been ‘cast into outer darkness.’ This parable reverses the notion of outer darkness/eternal fire and for the first and only time in Matthew’s gospel exposes the true character of that which deserves judgment: that which utterly failed to care for the extruded, the lost, the victims of society.
Third, in vs 32, it is the nations that are separated, not individuals within the nations. It is the nations, ‘ta ethne’ that are to be judged, the corporate expressions of the powers. This parable is about the way communities have treated their victims. It does not so much refer to individual judgment as it does to corporate judgment.
What this parable says, simply, is this: When the Son of Man comes, the king will take his place on the throne of the church. The king will take the values of Jesus, care for the hungry, the naked, those in prison, etc. and turn them into prohibitions, and condemn with great ferocity all those who fail to care for the “least of these.”
We have, in essence, the perfect description of the modern, “liberal” church.
We have the perfect description of the way that liberalism has become the double of the world, condemning to eternal fire those who fail to recognize the face of Jesus in the powerless. It is a perpetual process. The fire to which we condemn them is no less lethal that that into which the king of the wedding banquet cast the man without the right garment. Indeed, it sounds much more fearsome.
A great contemporary debate in America is whether or not we are a ‘Christian’ nation.’ In the light of our parable we must ask whether the moral trivialities we fight over are evidence of our character. How can a nation spend $500 billion on a war and neglect the poor and suffering around the world? How can the US promote to the World Bank and the IMF figures who evidence a theology of blessing requiring countries to toe a corporate line and ignore all of the suffering in those countries? How can the US give huge no-bid contracts to companies in the aftermath of hurricanes Katrina and Rita while lowering the wage of poor workers seeking to rebuild broken devastated communities?
How can we the people continue to support governmental administrations that execute innocents on death row? How can we support leaders that justify torture? What will be the fate of America on the Day of Judgment in the light of our parable?
It is questions like these that prompt our reflections and the urgent need we feel to call Christians in America back to authentic Christian moral responsibility. Can it in fact be said that America, as a nation, both right and left, has failed to recognize Jesus? What would the church look like if it did not scapegoat? The church needs the gospel as much as the world!