Rev. Jim Ryan, M.Div., Ph.D. firstname.lastname@example.org
On this 34th and Final Sunday of the Year, Cycle A, I extend an invitation to consider the last 3 Gospels that have delivered this end – all of them taken from the 25th Chapter of Matthew. These 3 parables comprise the bulk of this chapter. First (32nd Sunday) is the one about the foolish and wise attendants with their lit/unlit lamps. Second (33rd Sunday) we have the one about the greedy employer and the employees who must decide what to with the boss’s money. Third (this 34th Sunday), and final, is the judgmental shepherd who separates sheep from goats. In each one of these parables – the first on preparedness, the second on responsibility, and the third on service – lessons about ethical traits and actions are being taught.
That’s all well and good. I have no criticism of that effort. What does concern me and what goads me to dismiss Chapter 25 is the God-imagery contained therein. Look at them. Each story involves a person with power over others’ lives who doesn’t seem to be aware of circumstances that can modify the directives of the power person.
I mean, dismissing people over unlit lamps?, berating people for being paralyzed with fear?, condemning people for being obtuse in recognizing the presence of God in the marginalized? (If that were the case then this society would be made up of nothing but goats.)
No, the God-imagery contained in Chapter 25 is too much Old Law for me. Now, I’m going to say something here that will probably get me in trouble. You may or may not be aware that in scholarly circles the Gospel of Matthew is referred to as the Jewish Gospel. The audience for the author, it’s commonly argued, was the Jewish community and its diaspora throughout the Roman Empire. One can reasonably argue that an indelible feature of the God image under the Old Law contained traits of exile, revenge, and final judgement. Haven’t we all been raised knowing that Jesus came to release the people from such imagery? Then why is this imagery in these parables? Seems to me that Jesus knew better. I can accept, with difficulty, that Jesus used this imagery of an exiling, vengeful, and judgmental God – knowing his audience. Along with acceptance, though, I must also believe that he knew better.
In the Gospel of Matthew the ethical teaching of Jesus had no better ground than the Beatitudes (Sermon on the Mount). Chapter 25, IMHO is an anomaly, a puzzle whose pieces don’t fit together. The God-image of Chapter 5 does not sync with that of Chapter 25. It may have had an effect on the Jews who were in process of leaving the Old Law behind. For me, it leaves me unconvinced – this power God, this gotcha God, this throne-sitting God.
This is why I welcome the passage from 1 Corinthians (15:20-26,28) today. Say what you will about St. Paul’s limitations and biases, on this one he has it right. After many visions about Resurrection and subjecting all things to the one Power that matters the point is “that God may be all in all.” (v.28)
Along the way to the Final Day look at what gets dropped as Christ hands off to God the Creator – no less than “every sovereignty, authority, and power” (v.24). Suddenly, all that imagery of exile, revenge, and judgment that means so much on this earth is gone. None of that matters. God is all in all.
The God imagery of Matthew, Chapter 25, finds itself up against the God imagery of 1 Corinthians, Chapter 15. It is the true enemies that will be detroyed not foolish attendants, not fearful employees, and certainly not the weak who choose not to see. The final enemies to be “put underfoot” (v.25) are those who claim power for themselves, those who grab hold of saying who’s in and who’s out, those who believe in their own narcissistic, self-enclosed throne-rooms.
We who rise from the dead will find ourselves in the arms of Christ and living in the Creator’s dwelling because of the action of our life and the depth of our faith. I read recently a quote from Thomas Merton in Make Peace Before the Sun Goes Down that sheds light here, so long as one realizes that one’s ethical actions must emerge from a disquieting depth in one’s soul. It is difficult to let go of the God imagery of power that only masks the fearfulness of one’s own emptiness. On August 7, 1960 Merton writes in a letter to Dorothy Day, when considering the challenge and the task of perseverance:
“We should in a way fear for our perseverance because there is a big hole in us, an abyss, and we have to fall through it into emptiness, but the Lord will catch us. Who can fall through the center of (oneself) into that nothingness and not be appalled? But the Lord will catch us. (Christ) will catch you without fail and take you to (God’s) Heart.”
God will catch you. Do you see why I can’t accept the God-imagery of Matthew, Chapter 25?
I live – we live – in God’s jumble of exile & return, revenge & reconciliation, judgment & inclusion. We are often silly in our missteps when approaching you, loving Creator of all. We regularly judge as unworthy those who assert their libertarian ways. This life you have given us is subject to Christ, the Word made flesh, the Son of your creating love. May we persevere in faith, in hope, in love. In this way we prepare ourselves for when You catch us. Amen.