Niedner on Matthew 25

Frederick Niedner, from Proclaiming a Cruciform Eschaton, a small booklet published for the 1998 Institute of Liturgical Studies at Valparaiso University, pages 5-8.


Christ the King (Proper 29), Series A
21 Nov 1999 — 24 Nov 2002 — 20 Nov 2005

Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24; Ephesians 1:15-23
Psalm 100 or Psalm 95:1-7a; Matthew 25:31-46

The Searching Judge

Someone has said there are two kinds of people, those who divide the world into two kinds of people, and those who don’t. Having done time among the first group, I now struggle to remain among the second.

Scores of biblical texts, however, challenge any attempt to keep from dividing the world into two kinds of people. Few pose more difficulty than Jesus’ vision of the judgment in Matthew 25:31-46. The Son of Man comes in glory to judge the nations. He separates people as a shepherd does sheep and goats. Sheep go to the right, to eternal life. Goats move to the left, into eternal fire. A simple criterion distinguishes them. One has fed, clothed, visited, or otherwise cared for the Son of Man when they saw him in need; the other has not. Neither remembers seeing him, however. Both ask, “When did we see you?” Jesus’ answer, straight from the KJV: “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.”

The parable has all the power of common sense. Its criterion for judgment sums up both Torah and the teachings of Jesus with the same simplicity as Jesus’ epitome of God’s law, “You shall love God with heart, soul and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt. 22:34-40).

The characters in the parable have long, complex histories, and these matter. The judging Son of Man’s roots go back as far as Daniel 7, perhaps Ezekiel, but also to the story of Cain and Abel. In Jewish apocalyptic, the Son of Man serves not only as judge of the nations. He is also appointed to gather up for God the blood of all the martyrs which enemies of God’s people have poured into the earth. Who better to do this than the first martyr whose blood the earth swallowed up because of the way he worshiped God? That was Abel, son of Adam, whose offerings God regarded, the one slain by Cain, whose sacrifices God disregarded. In Abel’s brief genealogy, he is simply ben adam, “Son of Man.” Matthew names Abel as first in a long line of those whose righteous blood was shed (23:34-36). Moreover, Abel redivivus fits nicely into the Son of Man role in the judgment scene because the criterion of judgment centers on how people have treated, literally, “the littlest brother”. Abel ben Adam, younger brother of Cain, comes as the ultimate little brother.

Abel’s arrival on the scene in Matthew 25 enables a fresh set of possibilities for how the judgment might play out. How would Abel draw the line of demarcation between sheep and goats? Most obviously, the sheep’s behavior separates them from the goats. They had ministered consistently to the needs of the little ones — most of the time, anyway. Well, at least once or twice.

The goats had not. Ever? It tries the imagination to think anyone could get through a lifetime without a single act of compassion on behalf of one of earth’s teeming host of little ones, but evidently it happens. Hence, there stand the goats, over to the left.

Seen another way, the judge himself, Abel ben adam, separates the sheep from the goats. More precisely, little brother Abel’s experience of the others distinguishes them and reveals their character as either sheep or goats. Abel experienced kindness from some, but indifference or even hostility from others. But what was the fullness of Abel’s experience? Genesis 4 tells us almost nothing. Abel was born, he kept sheep, and offered up to the LORD firstlings of his flock and fat portions. His brother spoke to him. His brother killed him. Sadly, he seems to have lived merely to be murdered. Perhaps the innocence and simplicity of this martyred shepherd qualifies him to judge all humanity.

There is more to Abel’s story and experience, at least as Elie Wiesel describes them (Messengers of God, Summit Books, 1976). Wiesel scrutinizes all the story’s players. Cain, unable to control his anger at God for the arbitrary and perhaps even capricious disregard of Cain’s offerings, strikes back by killing God’s pet, Abel. Before this, however, when God sees trouble on Cain’s face and speaks to him, God ignores Cain’s grief and says nothing of the past over which Cain is hurting. Instead, God warns Cain about the danger that stalks him and points him toward the future without a shred of assurance that God would not continue to disregard him and favor Abel. Nor does God intervene when Cain’s anger drives him to wring the life from the only symbol of the perceived injustice he could get his hands on.

Contrasted with Cain, Wiesel says Abel is “victim personified. Every victim throughout the ages was and is meant to recognize himself in him.” Nevertheless, writes Wiesel, Abel shares in the responsibility for the tragedy that took his life.

Cain was angry with God but not with his brother. Not yet. He forgave him for having stolen his idea, his gesture, for having outdone him by bringing better offerings than his own. When he finally felt the need to speak, to confide, he turned not to God — nor to his parents — but to his brother. Rejecting dialogue with God, vayomer Cain el Hebel akhiv — Cain spoke to his brother, Abel. What did he say? We don’t know. Perhaps he simply repeated to him the words he had just heard. It hardly seems to matter. Cain, grief-stricken, wanted to, had to, unburden himself. All he wanted was someone to talk to, to communicate with. To feel a presence. And break his solitude. To have a brother, an ally when confronting God.

And Abel? Abel remained aloof He did nothing to console his brother, to cheer him up or appease him. He who was responsible for Cain’s sorrow did nothing to help him. He regretted nothing, said nothing. He simply was not there, he was present without being present. No doubt he was dreaming of better worlds, of holy things. Cain spoke to him and he did not listen. Or else he listened but did not hear. Therein lay his guilt. In the face of suffering, one has no right to turn away, not to see. In the face of injustice, one may not look the other way. When someone suffers, and it is not you, he comes first. His very suffering gives him priority. When someone cries, and it is not you, he has rights over you even if his pain has been inflicted by your common God. To watch over a man who grieves is a more urgent duty than to think of God. Though too weak to oppose God, man is strong enough to defend his fellow-man or at least to dress his wounds. Abel did nothing — such was the nature of his fault. (Messengers, pp. 56-57)

Not that this exonerates Cain, Wiesel adds, for Cain did not try to understand his brother either. Being God’s chosen one entails as much suffering as enduring God’s rejection, but Cain, blinded by his own disappointment, could not see that. In the end, the brothers failed each other, and each paid a terrible price. The earth which soaked up Abel’s blood became an accursed place of perpetual wandering for Cain.

Now comes Abel, fresh from that experience, as it were, to serve once more as a shepherd who separates sheep from goats. “Come, you chosen ones,” he says to the sheep, “inherit the kingdom prepared from eternity for you.” To the others he says, “Get out of my sight, you wretches! Off with you to the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his lackeys.”

“Stop!” something in many of us wants to cry out. This would never do, for this resolution only repeats the initial tragedy, except this time the chosen live and the angry die. Either way, half of the future is gone, just as it vanished when Cain killed his brother. Someone must speak to the Son of Man! Who will intercede?

We must call on the sheep. Do you know individuals like the sheep in this scene, people who spend their lives on behalf of the little and endangered of this world? They do what they do because love and compassion so fill their souls that it doesn’t occur to them to look away from another’s need or pain. Think for a moment and you’ll soon have a small committee in mind to set among the sheep.

Then be quiet and listen.

“Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the realm prepared for you from the foundation of the world,” says the Son of Man. But the sheep just stand there, looking across to the other side, their eyes wide not with rejoicing or satisfaction, and surely not with gloating, but with astonishment and the kind of fear the compassionate have when they see others in danger. For over there, on the other side, among the goats, are so many of those for whom they have cared all this while, and now what will become of those others? Are they to be separated forever? Who will care for them now?

The sheep know about many kinds of starvation, illness, and imprisonment. They have fed the hungry with bread made from wheat and given water to the thirsty. They have visited those with pneumonia, cancer and AIDS. They have visited in penitentiaries. But they have ministered to others in need as well. They have provided sustenance for to fill spiritual hunger and the awful thirst for meaning, the very cravings that drove the goats to selfishness and seemingly unconcerned arrogance. The sheep have welcomed and befriended the goats when the goats were so estranged they’d become strangers even to themselves. And the sheep kept visiting the cells of those imprisoned in hatred, the goats who hated everyone, and themselves most of all. And the naked who lived without any chance of another’s love to clothe them, or to adorn their faces with gladness, those the sheep had clothed with their own humble garments of affection and care. To those sick to death with the boredom of their world’s routine, the sheep had come with the bread of encouragement.

The sheep had given so much of themselves to those others. How could someone now separate them forever from those others? How could the Son of Man in this moment call them “blessed?” How could they rejoice over their inheritance as they looked across the chasm, toward those who remained lost, sick, naked, and imprisoned in their own pitiful selfishness? How could they ever again sing a glad song?

As we eavesdrop, we hear them weeping. Then they address the Son of Man. They remind him of that other ben adam, his own brother, Cain. “Son of Man, your brother stands in that crowd over there. All he wanted was someone to talk to, to commune with, to have a brother, an ally when confronting God. When someone suffers, and it is not you, she comes first. When someone cries, and it is not you, that one has rights over you even if his pain has been inflicted by our common God.

“Besides all that, Son of Man, your brother still has that mark on him, the one God put there to protect him from vengeance. You cannot end all this in a stroke of vindictive justice. Son of Man, we cannot in this moment do nothing. We must go across to them,” the sheep insist. “You must let us go to them.”

The son of man studies them and calmly says, “You cannot go across. It is too late. For you there is no more time.” For a moment there is stillness.

“Then you must go,” declare the sheep. “Son of Man, you must remember now how your own heart quivered in horror in the instant when you saw in Cain’s eyes what came bursting from his heart, and his strong hands were upon you. Son of Man, you must remember the moment when the soldiers pinned you to the cross, pounded in the nails, and you were condemned. You must remember the thirst out of which you cried, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ Remember the torture of abandonment! You must go to them, Son of Man!”

A deep and heavy silence comes over the judgment scene. The Son of Man says nothing. He looks at the sheep, his own eyes now wide, looking like theirs. Then he turns, and he steps across. How could he not heed their voices? He had taught them to talk like that. They were using his own best lines on him. He would go. He could not judge from vengeance. He would have to go — to Bethlehem, to Calvary, to Antioch, to Rome, to Kansas City, to Calcutta, yes, even to hell. He would spend eternity, if it took that, like a shepherd forever in search of lost sheep, working restlessly to slake the final thirst and break down the last prison. Some might hide from him forever, but his heart told him, and the look in the eyes of those sheep told him, he could never give up. If he was to be king, he must be a shepherd king, a tireless, searching king, a king with holes in his hands and crowned forever with thorns, scouring endlessly the depths of hell, looking, calling, and . . .

. . .hoping one day to sit at the right hand of God, at table with everyone, every last one, to eat and drink of the supper which will have no end. His big brother Cain would be there. They would talk. Perhaps they would together solve the mystery of the offerings. Or perhaps they wouldn’t, because it would no longer make any difference. Most important, they would be brothers once more. Both halves of the human race would have a future.

Back here in space and time we taste of that meal when we share the bread and cup. We experience a moment of our own biographies outside of or beyond time. We sit together, little ones and bigger ones alike. But then we return to time, to play our roles as sheep and tireless intercessors before the Son of Man on behalf of the condemned. We serve as the caring ones, transformed in space and time as the feet, hands and voice of the Son of Man, the shepherd king. We restlessly roam the earth, invading the hells all around us, finding the naked, the hungry, the prisoners. We go tirelessly, nourished by our meal, looking, calling, hoping. . .

That leaves the judgment scene suspended outside time, as it were. Within the realm of time, the possibility still remains for any of us to waste the one chance we get to live as flesh and blood on this earth by living a whole life unmoved by compassion for another human being. Within time it also remains possible for the sheep to visit those others on their sickbeds of selfishness and to feed those who are starving to death because they have no idea how to give of themselves. And all the while, beyond time, by the mysterious, boundless mercy of God, the Son of Man roams eternity, visiting and preaching to the spirits stuck in prison with the goats who laughed at Noah.

For now there may be two kinds of people in the world, sheep and goats, if you will. If the Son of Man has his way, however, that will not last forever. I myself cannot imagine a single table where parties to history’s countless wars, or the vast host of murderers and their victims, not to mention the incalculable numbers of abusers and the abused, might sit together as one and share together a common cup of blessing. I cannot. But the Son of Man has an eternity to work on this, and that’s enough for me.

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