26th of November 2017 - Hugh Perry
Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24
God as the shepherd is one of the basic concepts of Christianity and, as long as we understand ‘shepherd’ in its Middle Eastern context of one who cares for and leads the sheep, it is a better metaphor than God the lawmaker. Both are metaphors that stress a concern for an authority beyond the individual, the family, the tribe, the nation, and indeed the empire in all their multiplicity of forms. However the shepherd highlights both the care for the flock and the connectedness of the individual members that best illustrates the Christ centred relationship between divinity and the human family.
God the lawmaker on the other hand stresses order through inflexible rules and gives licence to our inclination to bully the less fortunate and look for revenge and retribution.
Matthew 25: 31-46
Carter notes that ‘judgement scenes’ are common in apocalyptic writing. Standard features include the majestic judge, angels, the assembling of the people to be judged, the separation, the reward of the righteous and punishment of the wicked and the establishment of God’s empire. He then quotes a number of references to Hebrew Scripture that show that judgement was expected of the messiah in establishing God’s realm. The judgements are usually presented from the perspective of the underdog. Powerful empires are defeated and the rich, the landowners and the rulers get just rewards for their oppressive tyranny.
The oppressed on the other hand are free to enjoy God’s just and life giving rule. In this reading there is a judgment based on the way people have treated the marginalised. Bill Loader’s concluding wisdom suggests that the will to destroy our enemies finds its ultimate sanction in a theology that has God do the same. Yet Matthew's parable also offers an alternative vision of one who is to be found in loving and being loved.
Each lectionary year ends with the celebration of what is traditionally called Christ the King Sunday and our Methodist, Presbyterian lectionary titles Reign of Christ.
The term king comes from an era where a king was an absolute ruler, chief justice and supreme commander of the armed forces and many people see a returned Christ fulfilling that role. The opening verse of today’s reading backs up that hope.
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, (Matthew 25:31)
To a certain extent this echoes verse twenty in our Ezekiel reading. Therefore, thus says the Lord GOD to them: ‘I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep’ (Ezekiel 34: 20).
This is not an advertisement for Jenny Craig or Weightwatchers and as we read on we find that the fat sheep ‘pushed with flank and shoulder, and butted at all the weak animals with your horns until you scattered them far and wide’. (Ezekiel 34: 21)
The recipients of the metaphorical judgement here are the wealthy powerful kings, corporate executives, the independent wealthy and even pastors who increase their wealth by exploiting the vulnerable poor. It is a seemingly ageless issue and the desire that unscrupulous despots get what they deserve is timeless. Unfortunately that very seldom happens and even when a despot is deposed it is usually by another despot. Even when a seemingly well motivated revolutionary deposes a despot they quickly become a despot to protect their new position long enough to introduce their reforms. So throughout time humanity has a vision of an end time or after death judgment where despots are not only deposed but disposed of in the worst imaginable way.
Unfortunately religions have also used that vision to exploit vulnerable people and the church is no exception. The issue of indulgences that divided the church into Catholic and Reformed is a classic example, with the prosperity gospel running a close second.
Furthermore absolute rulers from Constantine onward have kept order by suggesting that they rule on God’s behalf Verse twenty three of our Ezekiel reading tends to support that notion. I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them and be their shepherd. ((Ezekiel 34: 23)
However that is David the warrior king who had one of his soldiers murdered to cover up the fact that he had raped the solder’s wife. That is certainly something to keep in mind the day after white ribbon day.
However despite the tarnished Davidic image many Christians see Jesus as the descendant of David who will return in his glory, and all the angels with him. Return to sort out the world. He may even sort out the Christchurch sports complex and the stadium as well.
However if we look at the gospel reading in more detail we can determine a vision of self judgment.
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. (Matthew 26:36)
We could imagine standing in front of the divine throne at the end of our life or at the end of time and having that commendation read out to us and thereby welcomed into eternal bliss. We could also sum up that list as being Christ to others in our day to day lives.
Being Christ to others as a way of living the divine realm into reality not only brings its own rewards but transforms our lives, the lives of others and transforms our world.
In our world we have just seen Robert Mugabe judged by his peers for not providing leadership that feeds the hungry, heals the sick and visits the prisoners. Yet he began his political career as a revolutionary who promised to do all those things that Matthew listed. Instead he became one of Ezekiel’s fat sheep that pushed with flank and shoulder, and butted at all the weak animals. As a result he has been forced out of office and just looks like a silly old goat.
In our own democratic community, we have an ongoing tension between the expectation that no one should go hungry or suffer from disease without proper care and people’s desire to have a chance of becoming fat sheep. Pushing the other sheep around has its attraction as does freedom from want.
In our democratic society we judge governments by our national ethos that stresses the need to feed the hungry, house the homeless and cure the sick but we also get nervous when we think we will have to pay for the social service we provide.
The Matthew reading tells us is that there are always sheep and goats and there are always Ezekiel’s fat sheep and thin sheep. The Ezekiel reading is a warning to the Robert Mugabes of this world and history is littered with such people who came to a much more unfortunate end than he has at this point.
But in suggesting how we might be judged in the everyday moments of our lives the Matthew reading calls us to a self-discipline of caring for others in every moment of our lives.
More importantly, like so many gospel texts, this story talks about how people become part of the kingdom of God. The opening verse may well invoke images of entering a heavenly throne room with a divine monarch surrounded by heavenly bureaucrats but that is imagery of a divine realm rather than fact about the next life.
Jesus said in Mark’s Gospel that the kingdom of God has come near or is at hand depending on the translation. (Mark 1:15) If the kingdom of God or the realm of God is at hand then we can understand it as being within reach, within our reach. Therefore we can understand that rather than be a list of judgment criteria Matthew lists the ways we can make God’s realm real in our time and place.
Furthermore Matthew’s list not only suggests how we might transform the lives of others but the context also infers that by doing so we will transform ourselves.
We have our final community dinner for the year on the 13th of December so let’s just think about the ways those dinners have grown and the way they have been appreciated by those who come to them. Think also about what having those dinners has done for the positive image of parish. Think about all those people throughout the country who provide free breakfast and lunches in schools. Then think about the dietary science that tells us that children who are properly fed learn better. Next ask where that learning might take the children being fed compared to the future they had with poor nutrition.
I have followed Julie King and her organisation Love Soup on Facebook as well as the occasional snippet on Television. What I have gleaned is that her organisation is faith based and she has suffered from depression. However her determination to feed others has not only reinvented her life but is also transforming the lives of her supporters and helpers and those she and her and her team feed. Undoubtedly her bubbly enthusiasm brings the kingdom of God just a bit nearer for an awful lot of people.
The reading is equally clear about those who excuse themselves from caring by saying that it is the responsibility of parents to feed their children and people who go hungry need to budget properly. Those people are bringing eternal punishment upon themselves. But for once gnashing of teeth is not mentioned so I presume part of the eternal punishment is that they have to pay their own dental bills.
There is a massive empathy across our nation at the moment for people forced to live in cars and couch surf with friends and relatives. There is also concern that our health system is not able to care for the sick in a timely fashion. But the advice from the fat sheep that people should have adequate health insurance are equally judged by the wider community.
For years now the main stream media has been promoting a vengeful justice system but, as the cost of providing more prisons rises, there have been a number of stories on television about the transformation of prisoners when caring people visit them and teach them skills and give them purpose to their lives. In the most recent item I saw a young woman was teaching youthful offenders to surf and just acquiring that leisure skill was transforming their world view and encouraging them to find jobs and make career goals.
The day after White Ribbon day it is also worth mentioning that the friend I have been mentoring for a very long time as she struggled to leave her past behind told me she has just recently applied for a couple of urgent restraining orders on behalf of her clients and had them granted by the judge. It is not an easy road but she is someone who in transforming her own life, and in so doing, is now giving hope to other women.
These examples are just tiny glimpses of Christ in all possible divine glory coming into our world. Not as a divine ruler with a heavenly prosecutor trailing a wheeled suitcase filed with evidence files. The ruling Christ comes into our world as the least among us and our world is transformed as we care for those less fortunate than ourselves.
The realm of Christ comes into our world when ordinary people live as Christ to others.
 Warren Carter Mathew and the Margins: A Socio-Political and Religious Reading, (London/New York: T&T Clark International 2004), p.491.