Last revised: November 24, 2017
Click Reload or Refresh for latest version
CHRIST THE KING SUNDAY — PROPER 29 (November 20-26)
RCL: Ezek. 34:11-16, 20-24; Eph. 1:15-23; Matt. 25:31-46
RoCa: Ezek. 34:11-12, 15-17; I Cor. 15:20-26, 28; Matt. 25:31-46
Opening Comments 1: Judgment of the Nations
In 2017 the title of my sermon is “The Smallest Huge Translation Mistake in the Bible: Creating Two Distinct ‘Sheep and Goats’ Parables,” stemming from the translation of one small word in Matthew 25:32:
All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people/them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats….
The small word at issue is autous, simply the pronoun them. The older King James and Revised Standard Versions correctly render it as “them.” But newer translations, such as the NRSV and NIV, change the meaning of the parable by rendering it as “people” — in other words, by interpreting the them as “people.” The clear referent of them in this sentence is the subject in the first clause, “all the nations.” This may seem a small translation decision, but I propose that it has huge implications for interpreting this parable. It changes the major action from sorting nations to sorting people, directing us to imagine it as a sorting of individuals instead of a sorting of whole communities of people, ethnē, “nations.”
This seemingly small translation decision then allows or enables the Christendom eschatology of focusing on the fate of individuals in the afterlife. So instead of a parable that judges the politics and economics of empires, we get a parable that supports empires by playing the same games of sorting people into us vs. them. We get a parable that follows up the imperial, transactional practice of rewarding friends and punishing enemies with a Jesus the King who does the same thing in the afterlife. The sacred violence of empires on earth gets repeated and justified by Jesus/God for an eternity in heaven.
And I submit to you that the choice of “people” for autous greatly enables such an imperialistic reading. Yes, there is a tension with typical imperialism that Jesus’ criterion for sorting brings: the ultimate sorting into an eternal fate of heaven or hell is done on the basis of caring for the least in Jesus’ family. But the tension between imperialistic power and Jesus’ anti-imperialistic Gospel has generally melted away in light of the individualism allowed by changing the referent of autous from “all the nations” to “people.” The parable of judgment can be reduced to a matter of individuals being free to choose charitable action in order to feel better about their fate in the afterlife.
But what if Jesus’ mission as the “Son of Man,” the New Human Being of Daniel 7, is an anti-imperialistic mission of judging the systemic violence of the politics and economics of empires? What if his mission favors the least powerful in Jesus the King’s family rather than the most powerful in the imperial family? What if it is about transforming nations towards justice and not just the choice of individuals to pursue charity? Then this passage must be read as a sorting of nations, not a sorting of people — as a sorting of communities of people at the very least, and not simply people as individuals.
Since Brian Zahnd‘s A Farewell to Mars in 2014, I’ve come to see this passage as the quintessential Gospel passage on “Apocalypse,” a revelation of God’s judgment on sacralized collective human violence — the systemic violence of empires and modern militaristic nations whose economics are basically about extracting resources from any nation or ‘people’ who can be overpowered. Zahnd has been a reader of Mimetic Theory and understands, first of all, that the violence is never God’s. The revelation is about God helping us to see and understand the consequences of our human violence.
How do we measure and evaluate the consequences of human violence? Given Zahnd’s reading of this judgment passage, the answer is that God is revealing the divine plan that Creation has essentially been structured “since the foundation of the world” to yield blessing when all the least are cared for. Conversely, when the least are sacrificed instead of cared for, the result is a violence that envelopes even those in power — human beings who mistakenly see power as manipulating violence toward others and away from themselves. Human brokers of power are playing with fire in doing so. Creation has been structured by God to work best for everyone, “all the nations,” when the most vulnerable are attended to instead of the least vulnerable. (This is also a reality at the origins of our species since human infants are born the most vulnerable of all creatures; it takes years for human beings to mature enough to leave the nest. Is this another argument in favor of expanded roles for women, since mothers seem to know this more experientially?) Human beings can continue to behave otherwise. We can continue to operate with a power that favors the center rather than the margins. But it will prove to be as futile as spitting into the wind. God in Jesus the Messiah is revealing a Creation that favors the margins rather than the center. “Blessed are the poor in spirit….”
Matthew 25:31-46 thus reveals the key to human flourishing (with the rest of Creation still waiting for the children of God to get our act together — Rom. 8:19-23): communities that tend to the least will flourish, while communities (“nations”) that neglect the least will be playing with the fire of their own systemic violence. This has been true since the foundation of the world.
But there have been various blockages. The primary blinder/earplug has been culture based in Sacred Violence, epitomized by empires and modern militaristic nations, which structure human community to privilege the center, sacrificing those on the margins. Mimetic Theory helps us to be clear about the unveiling of that sin of our human origins — revealing things hidden since the foundation of the world.
Zahnd’s reading of Matthew 5:31-46 has rocked my world because it helps us to be more clear about another blinder/earplug to God’s revelation of human flourishing. And I propose that this second blockage has come about as an unintended consequence of the first unveiling. For the latter begins with forgiven and repentant individuals experiencing conversion — namely, a gradual ability to step out of cultures of Sacred Violence into cultures of compassion and forgiveness. But the ‘unintended consequence’ has become Individualism, an undue emphasis on salvation around conversion of individuals at the expense of meaningfully experiencing the transformation of homo sapiens in our cultural and institutional dimensions. The New Human Being gathers the nations for judgment, not just individuals.
The seemingly small but huge translation error of autous bears witness to this blockage due to Individualism. Readers ignore the gathering of the “nations,” in favor of making it be a sorting of “people.” For conservative evangelicals, it is read as the final sorting into heaven and hell between believers and unbelievers, respectively — despite the fact that the stated measure for sorting has nothing to do with believing. For “mainline” Christians it is read as the justification to compel charity. But both readings leave “nations” off the hook. I believe this to be a symptom of the first dimension of human conversion of individuals that has led to a distortion into Individualism — often then supported by a politics of Libertarianism.
Zahnd’s reading can provide the beginning of an antidote, helping to begin the unveiling of God’s healing salvation on the level of human institutions and cultures. God in Jesus the Messiah is healing our systemic violence that neglects or sacrifices the vulnerable. The cross and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah has begun an unveiling of a human flourishing through a conversion of human cultures (the advent of God’s Kingdom!) from privileging the most powerful to a compassionate caring for the least powerful. And we will need to consider how this conversion goes well beyond individual charity to a transformation of what truly makes for successful, flourishing nations. It will require following a completely different King. It will deeply involve the politics and economics of communities, “nations,” in history.
See much more on this below under the Gospel Reading, beginning with an alternate translation of the entire Gospel and its explanation. Let me conclude these opening remarks with a brief preview of Zahnd’s own words:
So how does Jesus judge or evaluate nations? What criteria does he use? When we evaluate nations, we tend to do so on the basis of wealth and power — Gross Domestic Product, standard of living, strength of the economy, strength of the military. But this is not the criterion Jesus uses to judge the nations as he sits upon his glorious throne. Jesus judges nations on how well they care for four kinds of people:
The Poor. I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink . . . I was naked and you gave me clothing.
The Sick. I was sick and you took care of me.
The Immigrant. I was a stranger and you welcomed me.
The Prisoner. I was in prison and you visited me. (Matt. 25:35-36) (p. 165)
One final thought as an illustration of what I think is at stake: in 2017 President Trump and the Republican Congress are offering a Tax Cut bill. How do we measure this bill in light of a revelation of a divine economics built-in to the Creation that favors the least in God’s family? We can once again opt for a politics and economics that favors the already powerful, but this parable suggests that that will eventually result in a ‘time of punishment’ when we suffer the fiery consequences of our own systemic violence.
Opening Comments 2: A Girardian Perspective on Kingship
1. René Girard; on Girard and kingship, The Girard Reader (p. ix) cites pp. 104-10 of Violence and the Sacred; ch. 3 of The Scapegoat; and pp. 51-57 of Things Hidden. There is also a good discussion of it on pp. 269-72 of the Reader itself, an explanation of his thesis: that primitive kingship began as the king basically being a sacrificial victim with an extended sentence. On page 107 of Violence and the Sacred, for example, Girard writes, The king reigns only by virtue of his future death; he is no more and no less than a victim awaiting sacrifice, a condemned man about to be executed.
2. Gil Bailie, Violence Unveiled, pp. 123ff., the section “The Victim with an Extended Sentence,” including some wonderful examples from Elias Canetti’s Crowds and Power. An incredible piece from the latter on African Sacral Kingship is:
Sometimes the length of [the new king’s] reign is fixed from the start: the kings of Jukun . . . originally ruled for seven years. Among the Bambara the newly elected king traditionally determined the length of his own reign. A strip of cotton was put round his neck and two men pulled the ends in opposite directions whilst he himself took out of a calabash as many pebbles as he could grasp in his hand. These indicated the number of years he would reign, on the expiration of which he would be strangled.
One of Bailie’s other favorite references when it comes to kingship is this description of the guillotine gone wild following the beheading of King Louis XIV of France. It is from H. G. Wells, The Outline of History (Garden City, N.Y: Garden City Books, 1961), 2:725:
The Revolutionary Tribunal went to work, and a steady slaughtering began …. The invention of the guillotine was opportune to this mood. The queen was guillotined, and most of Robespierres antagonists were guillotined; atheists who argued that there was no Supreme Being were guillotined; Danton was guillotined because he thought there was too much guillotine; day by day, week by week, this infernal new machine chopped off heads and more heads and more. The reign of Robespierre lived, it seemed, on blood, and needed more and more, as an opium-taker needs more and more opium.
3. For more on the sacrifice of kings as the founding event for democracy, see Robert Hamerton-Kelly‘s “The King and the Crowd: Divine Right and Popular Sovereignty in the French Revolution” (Contagion, Spring 1996, pp. 67-84). If the American Revolution seems a more civilized affair than the French one, consider that in America the king’s army was sacrificed as a substitute for the king to give birth to democracy. Was the madness of the guillotine worse than the slaughter of many innocent British soldiers in substitution for the king?
4. James G. Williams, “King as Servant, Sacrifice as Service: Gospel Transformations,” in Violence Renounced, pp. 178-199.
Reflections and Questions
1. A general reflection on “Christ the King” Sunday: We don’t often think in terms of kings or kingdoms anymore. The PC way of talking about it is to talk about a “Reign of Christ.” But I’m not sure that catches it, either. In this democratic, capitalist age we don’t talk about either kingdoms or reigns. Even “nation” is becoming less of an issue. What is it that we talk about the most these days when it comes to social constructs? Isn’t it “culture”? Everything these days is about “culture,” isn’t it? So how about the “Culture of Christ” Sunday?
And then Girard’s cultural anthropology, which is both generative and evangelical, promises tremendous insight. The generative aspect is quite unique. I’m weary, frankly, of going to seminar after seminar in which there is so much talk about culture that amounts to little more than a cataloguing of characteristics. I am not aware of any other theories about culture that actually suggests how culture is generated, how it comes into being. That kind of depth of understanding about culture has been sorely and ironically lacking in this culture of ours which talks ad nauseam about culture.
And Girard’s cultural anthropology is evangelical in that he puts the Cross of Christ exactly at the center of what reveals to us the generation of culture as founded in murder — which is exactly what this Sunday can be about. In the cross of Christ we see both the revelation of how we found our culture and how God founds the divine culture offered to us in Christ. The latter is founded in Christ’s giving himself up to the murder which founds our culture, at the same time that he forgives us for it. That’s grace!
I would love to attend, or lead, a continuing education seminar sponsored in the church that actually used this evangelical resource to understand culture.
2. How different are these two categories of culture, human and divine? Perhaps a pertinent example is the ongoing crisis against terrorism. Our human culture can conceive of no other option than to meet a violent force with another violent force. We make peace by threatening violence. We truly can’t imagine another option for the President, can we? How could we possibly found the affairs of State on something like the Cross? What would that look like? We can’t even imagine it. But God could. And God has, in fact, founded a new culture, a new reign, on the opposite of murder and vengeance, i.e., on “suffering violence” (Matt. 11:12) and forgiveness.
Ezek. 34:11-16, 20-24
1. James G. Williams, The Bible, Violence & the Sacred. Ch. 5, “Kings and Prophets,” gives some good background on a Girardian reading of kingship from the perspective of the Hebrew prophets, which is what this text is about.
2. James Alison prepared several presentations to deliver in San Francisco October 1999. The one entitled “The Good Shepherd” uses an interplay of the Ezekiel 34 text with the John 10 text. It’s an wonderfully concise expression of theology informed by the Girardian anthropology. One of the other two papers, “Moving On,” performs a wholistic Girardian reading on the Book of Ezekiel in the section entitled, “Jewish Hints.” It became chapter 5, “Moving on: the exilic transformation of anger into love,” of Faith Beyond Resentment.
3. James Alison, On Being Liked, pp. 118ff., in chapter 8, “The importance of being indifferent”; originally a talk given in Berkeley in 2002, “Ecclesiology and Indifference: Challenges for Gay and Lesbian Ministry” (found on the James Alison website). Here is a small taste of what Alison is up to in this essay:
I put it to you that what Ezekiel was doing was working through a fascination until he was able to achieve a certain sort of indifference. I want to be clear here about how I am using the word indifference. There is a way of using the word indifference which suggests a somewhat petulant gesture of disregard: ‘You leave me cold,’ said with a flick of the wrist. Indifference can suggest haughtiness, being ‘above’ something. But I would like to ask you to consider it in a much stricter sense, one with which some of you may be familiar from St Ignatius Spiritual Exercises. This is the sense in which something ceases to push any of your buttons either positively or negatively. You are neither repelled by something, nor attracted to it, it is just there, and whether it stays or goes is something which doesnt matter. And the reason this is so is because your heart is pointing somewhere else, and whatever happens or doesnt happen to this thing, you will in any case have your centre of gravity pulling you in quite a different direction, one which is in no way reactive, but creative of something else. (pp. 120-21)
1. Walter Wink, Naming the Powers, pp. 60-64.
1 Cor. 15:20-26, 28
1. James Alison, Raising Abel, pp. 190-91. In concluding his eschatology with the image of wedding banquet of the Lamb, Alison cites 1 Cor 15:28 in the context of speaking of a “loving interpenetration of bride and groom”:
But there is more: the banquet is not only a banquet, but it is a wedding banquet, and the guests also constitute the bride. That is, the rejoicing is not only that of guests, but of one being married, and here is where the image of heaven is, without any shame, marital. The wedding which is celebrated includes the completely loving interpenetration of bride and groom, in a relationship which makes of them one thing, a relation of infinitely creative fecundity, freed, of course, from all the tensions, rivalries and complications which surround and diminish our experience and living-out of things erotic. Paul points this out when he explains marriage in Ephesians 5, comparing the conjugal relationship to that between Christ and the Church, but please notice that he doesn’t start from the conjugal relationship in order to explain heaven, but it is the heavenly relationship, that of heavenly self-giving and interpenetration in love, which is his starting point so as to understand the earthly reality of marriage. It seems to me that this image is also to nourish our hope-fired imaginations: it is the story of the ugly duckling, of Cinderella, made, much to her surprise, capable and worthy of a relationship of loving exchange with her swan, her prince, quite beyond her expectations. When Paul says that, at the end, everything will be subdued to Christ, who will be submitted to God, “so that God may be all in all” (1 Cor. 15:28), it is to be understood within this interpenetrative vision. Since we are formed from within entirely by the Other who has called us into existence, since “the other is consubstantial with the consciousness of the ‘self'” (J-M Oughourlian “Un mime nommé désir” Paris: Grasset 1982 p 58), at the end we will be entirely possessed by the God who possesses pacifically in an interchange that is ever more fecund and creative. We will be married participants, all our desires fulfilled, in that effervescent creative vitality.
2. Walter Wink, Naming the Powers, pp. 50-55.
Below is a standard contemporary translation, the NRSV, side-by-side with modifications I’ve made in the translation which are then explained in the Exegetical Notes below.
|NRSV Translation||PJN’s Translation (changes in italics)|
|31 [Jesus continued,] “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.||31 [Jesus continued,] “When the New Human Being comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory.|
|32 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,||32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats,|
|33 and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left.||33 and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left.|
|34 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;||34 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;|
|35 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,||35 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,|
|36 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.’||36 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.’|
|37 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?||37 Then the just nations will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink?|
|38 And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing?||38 And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing?|
|39 And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’||39 And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’|
|40 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.’||40 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.’|
|41 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;||41 Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the time of fire prepared for the devil and his angels;|
|42 for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink,||42 for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink,|
|43 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.’||43 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.’|
|44 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?’||44 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?’|
|45 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.’||45 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.’|
|46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”||46 And these will go away into a time of punishment, but the just nations into life in God’s new age.”|
1. V. 31, hyios tou anthrōpou, “Son of Man.” Much has been written on this phrase, since it is Jesus’s primary self-designation in the Synoptic Gospels — 30 times in Matthew, 14 in Mark, 25 in Luke. But it is even prominent in John — where Jesus uses other self-designations, most notably the “I am” sayings — appearing 13 times in the ‘rogue’ Gospel, too.
Background: “Son of Man” appears in Ezekiel a number of times as a translation of ben Adam (translated as “Son of Man” in the KJV but simply as “Mortal” in the NRSV), primarily as God’s way of addressing the prophet when delivering significant visions (such as the ‘dry bones’ vision in Ez. 37). Scholars largely agree today that the significance of “Son of Man” in the Gospels comes from Daniel 7:13, the appearance in a vision of a kebar enash in the Aramaic, a human one, in contrast to the four beasts that have preceded it. Here “Son of Man” has a representative connotation. The beasts represent oppressive human orders — empires. Scholarly opinion sees the lion as Babylon, the bear as Media, the leopard as Persia, and the dragon as Greece (with its ten horns representing the ten successors of Alexander the Great). The Son of Man, the human one, represents how human beings are truly meant to live, a kingdom according to the original design of the Creator, the Ancient One. Daniel 7 is the quintessential biblical vision of oppressive human reigns giving way to a truly human way to reign:
As I watched in the night visions, I saw one like a human being coming with the clouds of heaven. And he came to the Ancient One and was presented before him. To him was given dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed. (Dan. 7:13-14)
In First Century Palestine the Book of Daniel held a place among Jews that can be compared to the place of the Book of Revelation today for many Christians — even, perhaps, the troubling aspects of often misinterpreting it as a triumphalistic hope in a divine violence to conquer one’s enemies. It epitomized their hope of a reign of peace. Increasingly, scholars are coming to see that this fits well with Jesus’s basic message of the coming of the kingdom of God. In designating himself as the “Son of Man,” Jesus was expressing confidence that he represented the coming of God’s way to reign in the world, a way that is truly human, a way that God the Creator designed for us from the beginning.
The more recent trend in scholarship also tends to correct a mistake of earlier scholarship (one that is still prominent in many circles). Earlier modern scholarship tended to view “Son of Man” as expressing a hope for the “parousia,” the so-called Second Coming of Jesus. Jesus, or the early church putting these views in Jesus’s mouth, was looking ahead to a time of return, when the reign of God would be fully established. Hope for a Second Coming are certainly part of Christian hope, but scholars are increasingly saying that that’s not what Jesus is referring to with the designation of Son of Man. Yes, many of the Son of Man sayings are in the future tense, looking ahead to when the Son of Man comes. But this is Jesus looking ahead to the moment in his life that inaugurates the coming of God’s reign of peace. It is Jesus looking ahead to his Passion and Resurrection. In short, it has everything to do with the significance of his First Coming, not a Second Coming.
There is a climactic moment in the Synoptic Gospels when “Son of Man” becomes emphatically in the present, not just the future. It is the moment that Jesus is judged by the Sanhedrin. Matthew’s version, the final and truly climactic instance of “Son of Man” in his Gospel, is:
Jesus said to him, “You have said so. But I tell you, From now on you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven.” (Matt. 26:64)
“From now on,” ap’ arti, is an emphatic way to say, “right now,” “immediately at this moment.” So the use of the future tense with it, “you will see,” conveys continuing action that begins immediately and continues on into the future. In short, the future is beginning now. And what will they see? Precisely the vision of Daniel 7 coming true: a truly human reign of peace coming from God, pictured in the present tense as seated next to God, coming on clouds. Especially in Matthew’s Gospel, this kingdom born of heaven comes through a suffering of human violence rather than a ‘fighting fire with fire.’ (See Matthew 11:12 and my comments on it in Advent 3A.)
Brian Zahnd, in Chapter 7 of A Farewell to Mars, the chapter featured on this page, quotes Matt. 26:64 and says,
Listen carefully to what Jesus told Caiaphas. After Jesus acknowledged that he was indeed Israel’s Messiah, he added that he was also the mysterious Son of Man and that Caiaphas would from now on see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of God and coming in the clouds of heaven. The phrase from now on should make it quite clear that Jesus was not primarily talking about his Second Coming. Jesus was not referencing something that would take place way off in the future but something that was coming to pass in the present moment, something contemporary with Caiaphas. Recognizing this is a big deal — a game changer! Unfortunately, we have been so conditioned to hear all of Jesus’s ”when the Son of Man comes” language as a reference to a far distant second coming that we fail to realize that most of the time Jesus was talking about the reign of God he was establishing there and then. (p. 158)
And after laying the background of Daniel 7 and quoting it, he writes:
Daniel’s dream was that the Son of Man ascended up into the clouds of heaven and was given dominion over the nations. It was this vision that shaped both the apocalyptic expectations of first-century Jews and informed Jesus’s understanding of his identity and vocation. Jesus saw himself as the Son of Man who would receive dominion over the nations and liberate the world from the tyranny of military empires. But he would not attain this dominion through violence for that would make him just another beast! (This was the essence of the third wilderness temptation: to bow down to Satan in order to receive dominion over the nations. It was the temptation to become the latest Pharaoh, the latest Caesar, the latest beast.) No, Jesus would not be a violent beast; he would be the glorious Son of Man.
When Jesus was on trial before Caiaphas, he claimed to be that Son of Man. Jesus told Caiaphas that from now on, Caiaphas would see the Son of Man installed as King over the nations, coming before God the Father in the clouds of heaven and given an everlasting dominion. Jesus claimed to be that King. This is why Caiaphas tore his robes and cried, Blasphemy!
Jesus was condemned to death by both Caiaphas and Pilate for the same reason — he claimed to be a king. Not a spiritual king over a spiritual kingdom but a real king over a political kingdom — but a very different kind of political kingdom. It is a kingdom that you have to be born again to even perceive, as Jesus told Nicodemus. And as Jesus told Pilate, his kingdom would not come from the world system of empires. The kingdom of the Son of Man would not be based upon the coercive power of the beasts but upon the cosuffering love of a new humanity formed around Messiah. (pp. 160-61)
A new humanity. We might propose, then, the following translation of hyios tou anthrōpou: “New Human Being.” hyios conveys a new generation; and it’s no stretch at all to translate anthrōpou in the general sense of humankind, a human being.
2. If you are interested in more research on “Son of Man,” especially in its relationship to eschatology, I have found most helpful N.T. Wright‘s reading of the Gospels in this regard. He has been very consistent over his career to reinterpret the trend set by Schweizer and Bultmann to read Jesus (Schweitzer) or the early church (Bultmann) as expecting an imminent return of Christ, or Second Coming. No, says Wright, Jesus’s apocalyptic element is looking ahead to the significance of the cross and resurrection as vindicating his prophetic ministry. Jesus wasn’t wrong about a Second Coming. On the contrary, he was right about the consequences for his people if they didn’t heed the significance of his first coming — namely, he was right about the Roman-Jewish War of 66-70 C.E. and the utter destruction of Jerusalem at its climax. It’s the kind of judgment anticipated in Matthew 25:31-46. Nations that don’t follow God’s path to peace in King Jesus end in destruction.
So Wright is also consistent in his reading “Son of Man” passages and their connection to Daniel. You will find this way of reading already in his first “big book” The New Testament and the People of God (1992); see especially ch. 10 on “The Hope of Israel, and specifically pp. 291-97, a section on Son of Man and Daniel 7. And the consistent message is carried right on through his more recent book on the Gospels How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels (2012), perhaps my favorite book of his; see especially pp. 190-96 for a section on Daniel 7. In many ways, Zahnd’s reading of this passage has confirmed for me in a stunning fashion Wright’s reading of the Gospels as God becoming King.
This way of understanding the “Son of Man” is also a central Girardian theme as elaborated in one of the books that spurred me to start this website, James Alison‘s Raising Abel: The Recovery of the Eschatological Imagination. Alison portrays Jesus’s transformation of the apocalyptic thinking, where the hope is in God’s ultimate sacred violence, to an eschatological thinking, where the nonviolent God is rescuing us human beings from our own violence. Relevant passages on the “Son of Man” in Raising Abel can be found on pages 86-87, 102-3, 111, as a prelude to the remainder of the book beginning in chapter 6, “The Apocalyptic Imagination and the Delayed Parousia,” in which he directly engages the theme in modern scholarship (from Schweitzer and Bultmann) of the delayed Second Coming. Here is the core of Alison’s position (where this passage is also cited):
The question then, is this: when Jesus talked of his coming and of the end, was he simply enclosed within the apocalyptic imagination? That is, did he accept the dualities proper to the apocalyptic imagination as part of what he was preaching and announcing? It will come as no surprise to you if I say that, as I see it, he was not. It seems to me that what we have with Jesus is precisely and deliberately the subversion from within of the apocalyptic imagination. What I have called the eschatological imagination is nothing other than the subversion from within of the apocalyptic imagination. That is, Jesus used the language and the imagery which he found around him to say something rather different. There are various ways of glimpsing this in the Gospel, for example in the contrast which is made between the preaching of John the Baptist, which does indeed fit within the apocalyptic imagination, and that of Jesus. Maybe we can see this better if we draw up to it in an indirect way: that is, Jesus’ attitude with respect to the social and the cosmic dualities would already be a good indication of his attitude with respect to the temporal duality.
It is evident that Jesus did not simply accept the social duality of his time, the division between good and evil, pure and impure, Jews and non-Jews. In fact, his practice and his teaching add up to a powerful subversion of this duality. Neither did he accept the cosmic duality, as can be seen in his announcing the coming about now of the Kingdom of God, and, for example, in his teaching his disciples to ask, in their prayer to God:
Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
His practice of, and teaching about, celibacy lived now for the kingdom of God — for the children of the resurrection neither marry nor are given in marriage — would be another indication of the same thing. So that it would be very surprising if, breaking as he did with the apocalyptic scheme in these areas, we must imagine that his teaching concerning the temporal duality and the coming of the end remained perfectly within the duality which we have seen, leaving it intact.
There is then a good prima facie reason for thinking that the subversion of the apocalyptic imagination by what I have called Jesus’ eschatological imagination is something proper to Jesus rather than something invented by a disconcerted early community in the face of the indefinite postponement of the Day. This prima facie evidence deepens somewhat when we discover that at the root of the subversion which Jesus was making of these dualities, the criterion of the victim is to be found. Jesus offers a prophetic criterion in terms of ethical demands that are capable of being carried out as the basis of his subversion of these dualities: the social duality is redefined in terms of the victim, so that the victim is the criterion for if one is a sheep or a goat (Matt. 25), or if one is a neighbor (Luke 10); it is victims and those who live precariously who are to be at the centre of the new victim people, to whom belongs the kingdom of God which is arriving (Matt. 5-6). No one can be surprised that this insistence, more in the line of the prophetic imagination than the apocalyptic, comes also to be subversive of the cosmic and temporal dualities. It is thus that the forgiving victim, the crucified and risen one, comes to be, himself, the presence of the kingdom in the here and now. (pp. 125-26)
3. One further, crucial aspect of this eschatology (emphasized by N.T. Wright and others): The raising of one person in the middle of history prompted an adjustment to the Jewish eschatology of two ages. The prophetic view envisioned a pivot point, a “Day of the Lord,” when This Age will give way to The Age to Come.
The new Christian version of this eschatology in terms of two ages required envisioning them now as overlapping, beginning on Easter, the “Day of the Lord.” New Creation has begun, with the power to live “in the Spirit.” And this fits Luther’s “saint and sinner simultaneously.” Because we live in two overlapping ages, our humanity itself dwells in two realities. We are in the process of becoming human in a new way — a life of healing the sinner for the emergence of the saint. But the dimension that is most often missing in this conversation involves the institutional and cultural dimensions of being human. The Book of Revelation is about communities living in this time of transition, an exhortation to seven churches. And it ends in Rev. 21 with the hopeful vision of the healing of the nations. What is the measure of healing for the nations? I think we witness that measure in Matthew 25:31-46. The healing that is underway since Easter is transforming nations toward care of the least in God’s family. It’s a slow evolutionary process, punctuated by apocalypses of violence — empires that don’t follow this Way coming to an end in a time of fiery consequences, an era of ‘punishment.’ Surviving are stumps of communities that do practice caring for the least. Christian hope is for the latter to eventually prevail.
4. V. 32, ethnē, nations, or Gentiles. There is considerable conversation in the modern commentaries about how to read ethnē in this instance. Many actually favor reading it as “Gentiles,” arguing that Matthew most often uses it in that sense. In this context, then, judging “Gentiles” would be precisely the us-them thinking that this site stands against. It would be Jesus, or the early church, saying that the ultimate judgment is against those others who persecute us. This reading, in my opinion, would be a prime example of an occasion where historical criticism utterly fails us. The reading I’m suggesting here, especially from Brian Zahnd, depends on reading ethnē as “nations.” This passage is about how to read history as a rise and fall of nations based on the criterion of caring for the poor, the sick, the immigrant, and the prisoner. (Without going into a detailed analysis here, I have looked up all the instances of ethnē in Matthew and don’t agree with the conclusion of many commentators who say that Matthew favors “Gentiles.”)
5. V. 32, “and he will separate them from one another,” kai aphorisei autous ap’ allēlōn. The King James Version correctly leaves the pronoun autous as them. In most modern translations (NRSV, NIV) autous is rendered as “people.” But this has precisely changed the meaning at issue here!! — once again, “the smallest huge translation mistake in the Bible.”
There is one grammatical issue here. Ethnē, “nations,” is always neuter in its grammatical gender. And the standard practice in Greek is to match the gender of nouns and any referring pronouns. So in this case one would expect the neuter pronoun for “them,” auta. What we have is autous, the masculine form. Is that a problem with my insisting on autous referring to “nations”? I don’t think so. I believe that what we have here is a Greek form of exclusive language. In English, for example, instead of the neuter “humankind” it was convention until recently to use the masculine “Man” to refer to large groups of human beings, regardless of the gender, and then use male pronouns to stand-in for “Man.” I believe there is a similar convention at work here in the Greek. Ethnē is a neuter-form word designating large groups of people, but when it is paired with other words in a phrase those other words are declined in the masculine.
Here’s another example from Matthew’s Gospel: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them . . .” (Matt. 28:19). “Baptizing them” is clearly referring to “nations,” which always takes the neuter form, but “baptizing them (autous)” is declined in masculine gender.
What’s clear to me in both these examples is that them refers to “nations.” What other choice do we have that makes sense? It does make some sense to translate autous as “people” to the extent that nations are made up of people — which is probably why male exclusive language is used in the Greek, as it formerly was in English. But my argument is that there is also a great risk with translating autous as “people,” namely, to gloss over the collectivity of people in a nation and conceive of the people as isolated individuals. In Matt. 25:32 this is crucial to two very different readings: (1) judgment of the fate of individuals in the afterlife; or (2) judgment of the fate of a nation’s people in history.
6. V. 32, “as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.” This image from Jesus seems to come from the Good Shepherd metaphors that were arguably part of his repertoire (used in Synoptic passages such as Matt. 9:36, 18:12-13, 26:31; and preeminently in John 10). It is featured in the First Reading assigned for this day, Ezekiel 34.
But I’d like to suggest adding another reference that makes sense with the rest of the passage: Daniel 7. There, the nations or empires are represented by beastly animals, non-humans — a lion, bear, leopard, and dragon — who are contrasted with the “Son of Man” as a representative of a kingdom that is truly human. Rather than choosing predatory beasts in Matt. 25:31-46, Jesus uses the shepherd and sheep background as a way, in James Alison‘s language above, to subvert the apocalyptic language. Jesus de-escalates the inflammatory imagery of beastly animals to that of goats separated from sheep.
What is most crucial here, though, is to see how animals, in the apocalyptic tradition, are representative of nations, thereby corroborating the reading here which emphasizes a judgments on nations, not individuals. A lion in Daniel 7 is not a person; it represents Babylon. Similarly, I’m suggesting that this parable, in the same apocalyptic tradition, is using sheep and goats to represent nations, not individuals.
7. V. 34, apo katabolēs kosmou, “from the foundation of the world.” “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.” “Since the foundation of the world”– apo katabolēs kosmou in the Greek — appears in only one other place in Matthew: in 13:35, which is the verse Girard quotes for the title of his magnum opus, “things hidden since the foundation of the world.”
There are five other instances of the phrase “since the foundation of the world” in the NT. Interestingly, Luke uses the phrase in another prominent Girardian passage, his version of the “Woes to the Pharisees” (Luke 11). It is a passage that precisely names that which has been hidden, namely, sacred violence, collective murder that is sanctioned by the community.
47 Woe to you! For you build the tombs of the prophets whom your ancestors killed. 48 So you are witnesses and approve of the deeds of your ancestors; for they killed them, and you build their tombs. 49 Therefore also the Wisdom of God said, ‘I will send them prophets and apostles, some of whom they will kill and persecute,’ 50 so that this generation may be charged with the blood of all the prophets shed since the foundation of the world, 51 from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, who perished between the altar and the sanctuary. Yes, I tell you, it will be charged against this generation.”
The final four occurrences are as follows (two in Hebrews and two in Revelation):
NRS Hebrews 4:3 For we who have believed enter that rest, just as God has said, “As in my anger I swore, ‘They shall not enter my rest,'” though his works were finished at the foundation of the world.NRS Hebrews 9:26 for then he would have had to suffer again and again since the foundation of the world. But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the age to remove sin by the sacrifice of himself.
NRS Revelation 13:8 and all the inhabitants of the earth will worship it, everyone whose name has not been written from the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb that was slaughtered. (KJV Revelation 13:8 And all that dwell upon the earth shall worship him, whose names are not written in the book of life of the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world.)
NRS Revelation 17:8 The beast that you saw was, and is not, and is about to ascend from the bottomless pit and go to destruction. And the inhabitants of the earth, whose names have not been written in the book of life from the foundation of the world, will be amazed when they see the beast, because it was and is not and is to come.
Heb. 4:3 seems the most obscure to me, but the others each have their own point of interest. Heb. 9:26 speaks about Christ not suffering over and over again since the foundation of the world but having “appeared once for all at the end of the age to remove sin by the sacrifice of himself.” This would seem to support Girard’s thesis that the Christ event is both alike and different from every other victimization since the foundation of the world. It also strikes the theme of Christ’s having transformed sacrifice by making it of himself rather than someone else.He lets his own blood be spilled instead of spilling another’s. In Matthew’s terms, the kingdom of heaven chooses to suffer violence rather than inflict it (11:12).
The two Revelation texts raise the issue about the notion of the Lamb slain since the foundation of the world. The NRSV has chosen in 13:8 to make “since the foundation of the world” modify the writing in the Book of Life, not the Lamb slain, making it consistent with 17:8. But the word order in the original Greek is not consistent between the two verses. In 17:8 “since the foundation of the world” follows “the Book of Life,” while in 13:8 it does immediately follow the words for “Lamb slain.” In fact, 13:8 ends with the words in the Greek for “Lamb slain since the foundation of the world.” So that’s how the King James translates it. With the Girardian anthropology this option for translation is quite meaningful. It expresses Jesus in solidarity with all the victims of collective violence since the evolution of our species.
8. V. 37, 46, “the righteous,” hoi dikaioi. I find it preferable to translate this word group in terms of justice, rather than righteousness. (For more see the exegetical comments on Romans 3 for Reformation Day.) In this context, and our reading of it, Jesus is defining what it means for nations to be just, or justice-oriented, not for individuals to be righteous — though “justice” is arguably apt for individuals, too. Because our modern context so regularly reads this passage in terms of individuals, I’d even recommend translating this word as “just nations,” recalling the primary subject of the sorting in verse 32.
9. V. 40, “members of my family” (NRSV), “my brothers” (most other translations). The issues here are similar to those in Exegetical Note #2 above. Many commentators see adelphos mou as pointing to members of the early Christian community, turning this passage into an us-them reading that I believe the Gospel as a whole to be subverting. Rather, the Gospel is about the new way of being human in which not only all people are brothers and sisters in God’s family, but also on the level of all nations. Our nation, the United States, is being judged by the New Human Being — who has already come into his glory through the cross and resurrection — by the measure of how we care for the poor, the sick, the immigrant, and the prisoner — the least in our nation. Moreover, this works on a global scale, too. Our wealthy, powerful nation is being judged on whether we care for the lesser nations.
10. Vs. 41, 46, aiōnios, “eternal” — or “age,” “eon,” “period of time.” Influenced again by N.T. Wright‘s work on the translation of this word, I would translate the three occurrences of this word as: “time of fire,” “time of punishment,” and “life in God’s new age” (Wright’s most frequent translation of “eternal life”). At issue here is reading this passage as a Platonist Greek (which is the way of reading throughout much of Christian history) or as a Jew. The centerpiece of Plato’s worldview is the eternal ‘heavenly’ realm of ideas that we are destined for when freed from our bodies through death, a realm outside space, time, and matter. It is a “dualist” worldview (matter vs. ideas) extremely foreign to the worldview of a Creation-centered Jew steeped in the prophetic tradition of interpreting history. Plato’s view of eternity ultimately takes one outside history. The Hebrew prophets remained firmly rooted in history, where one may speak in terms of long periods of time as “ages” or “eons,” but never in the sense of the Platonic “eternity.”
Can one legitimately translate the New Testament aiōnios as “eternal”? Yes, in terms of its setting in the language connected to the Greek worldview. But if one strives to be more faithful to the Jewish way of thinking of Jesus and the Apostles, then aiōnios is more accurately translated with the sense of its English derivative, “eon” — a period of time in history, an “age” or “era.”
Wright believes, for example, that the phrase zoe aionios (“eternal life”) is a rendering of the Aramaic phrase ”age to come,” ha-olam ha-ba. Here is Wright’s best explanation of translating the Greek phrase zoe aionias in How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels (which we also diagramed above under exegetical note 2):
God so loved the world, reads the famous text in the King James Version of John 3:16, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish but have everlasting life. There we are, think average Christian readers. This is the biblical promise of a timeless heavenly bliss.
But it isn’t. In the many places where the phrase zoe aionios appears in the gospels, and in Paul’s letters for that matter, it refers to one aspect of an ancient Jewish belief about how time was divided up. In this viewpoint, there were two aions (we sometimes use the word eon in that sense): the Present age, ha-olam hazeh in Hebrew, and the age to come, ha-olam ha-ba. The age to come, many ancient Jews believed, would arrive one day to bring God’s justice, peace, and healing to the world as it groaned and toiled within the present age. You can see Paul, for instance, referring to this idea in Galatians 1:4, where he speaks of Jesus giving himself for our sins to rescue us from the present evil age. In other words, Jesus has inaugurated, ushered in, the “age to come.” But there is no sense that this age to come is eternal in the sense of being outside space, time, and matter. Far from it. The ancient Jews were creational monotheists. For them, God’s great future purpose was not to rescue people out of the world, but to rescue the world itself, people included, from its present state of corruption and decay. (pp. 44-45)
My rendering in this passage, then, seeks to be in-step with a Jewish way of thinking descended from the Hebrew prophets. It is about a judgment of nations in history. There are consequences to behaving as empires have done throughout human history. They fall, they fail, usually in a conflagration of their own ways of sacralized collective violence. As such, these times of fall are a “time of fire,” a “time of punishment.” Not brought on directly by God. But the consequences of how God has created the world. These times are the consequences of us not living as we are created to live. How are we created to live? To live as a harmonious family by making sure we take care of the least among us, the most vulnerable. To not live in this way is to fail our own humanity.
This incredible passage from Jesus which concludes his teaching in Matthew’s Gospel portrays our true human community as sheep and our failed human community as goats. And it’s not something stamped in an eternity of essences, but something worked out in the ebb and flow of history. When we form community according to ways founded in sacred violence, we suffer times of tasting our own medicine, the fire of sacred violence. (“Those who live by the sword die by the sword”; Matt. 26:52, Luke 22:49-51, Rev. 13:10.) With the advent of the true king in history, there is now the promise that we are entering into zoe aionios, ha-olam ha-ba, life in God’s new age.
1. Brian Zahnd, A Farewell to Mars: An Evangelical Pastor’s Journey Toward the Biblical Gospel of Peace (a book with a significant Girardian influence), Chapter 7, “Clouds, Christ, and Kingdom Come,” offers a reading of this passage that has rocked my world. Building on the exegetical concepts behind “Son of Man” (above), Zahnd takes seriously the “judgment of nations” more poignantly than any other commentator on this passage that I’ve ever come across. Here is the core of Zahnd’s sizzling reading of this passage:
As Christians we confess that Jesus has ascended to the right hand of the throne of God in the heavens. This was a theme the apostles emphasized repeatedly. But what is Jesus doing at the right hand of God? Twiddling his thumbs? Biding his time? Idly waiting? No. He is ruling and judging the nations. Of course this is a mystery; I don’t pretend that I am able to explain it all, but there is a sense in which the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ has inaugurated a new justice in the earth, and nations that run headlong against the righteousness of God eventually fall into fiery judgment . . . now! Whether it’s Imperial Rome or Nazi Germany, nations cannot forever oppose the righteousness of God without falling into a fiery hell prepared for the devil and his angels. The American colonies and nation practiced, for over two centuries, the most brutal form of slavery the world has ever known — until it was thrown into the hell of a civil war that claimed the lives of three quarters of a million people.
Yes, I believe in a personal judgment…. But I don’t think this is what Jesus was particularly talking about in his parable of the sheep and goats. Jesus spoke of nations judged, not individuals. And the criterion for judgment has nothing to do with receiving Jesus as Savior but with the treatment of the underclass with whom Jesus claimed a particular solidarity.
When the Son of Man judges the nations, he divides them into sheep and goats. Interestingly, this division is not based on praying a sinner’s prayer or getting saved or saying one is a Christian, but on the treatment of certain people. If you want to say this parable is not really about the judgment of nations but about the judgment of individuals, you are left with the problem that the criterion for judgment has nothing to do with getting saved or receiving Jesus as your personal Savior. In other words, you are going to have a really hard time getting Jesus’s parable of the sheep and goats to line up with a four-spiritual-laws view of personal salvation. It seems clear that the easiest way to make sense of this parable is to view it as the establishment of the new criterion for judgment for the nations that begins with the coming of the Son of Man — the thing that Jesus told Caiaphas he would see from now on.
So how does Jesus judge or evaluate nations? What criteria does he use? When we evaluate nations, we tend to do so on the basis of wealth and power — Gross Domestic Product, standard of living, strength of the economy, strength of the military. But this is not the criterion Jesus uses to judge the nations as he sits upon his glorious throne. Jesus judges nations on how well they care for four kinds of people:
The Poor. I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink . . . I was naked and you gave me clothing.
The Sick. I was sick and you took care of me.
The Immigrant. I was a stranger and you welcomed me.
The Prisoner. I was in prison and you visited me. (Matt. 25:35-36) (pp. 163-65)
Zahnd’s reading speaks critically of the traditional reading from his own evangelical background, but that reading is familiar in outline to the Mainline readings, too, where the emphasis has been on how Christians are to live on their way to judgment in the afterlife — merciful judgment based on “justification by grace through faith.” This reading does an end-run around the familiar reading. It is about God’s criteria, revealed through King Jesus, of judging nations in history. What is revealed in the Christ event are the rules to being truly human all along. The way in which we human beings have evolved has led into the sinful way that climaxes in the power of beastly empires which rule with sacred violence, a way that always leads to devastation of lands and peoples — a fiery judgment, if you will. In King Jesus we finally see what it takes to be truly human: ways of ordering ourselves which focus on caring for those usually considered the least in the human family — the poor, the sick, the immigrant, the prisoner. I highly recommend reading Zahnd’s Chapter 7 of A Farewell to Mars before preaching this text.
2. René Girard, The Scapegoat, p. 202-3. Girard quotes the passage in its entirety to make two basic points within the context of discussing “History and the Paraclete”:
- “In order to speak to violent people who are unaware of their own violence, it resorts to the language of violence, but the real meaning is completely clear.”
I take it that this is the point we have been making about the violent language of some of the parables. Alison compares it to Girard’s reading of Shakespeare (see, for example, the following comment in Proper 23A), i.e., that Shakespeare used the language of mimetic desire that everyone might be able to hear it, but only some listeners would really be able to ‘hear’ what Shakespeare was saying about it. Likewise, Jesus’ parables use violent language that all expect to hear, but only disciples will be able to truly ‘hear’ what Jesus is saying about it. In this case, it is the familiar setting of a division between sheep and goats, good and bad, a setting that Jesus exploits to make his own surprising point about in whom we can find him in the world, i.e., among the victims of our sacrificially structured societies that leave some to hunger, thirst, etc.
- “Henceforth, it is not the explicit reference to Jesus that counts. Only our actual attitude when confronted with the victims determines our relationship with the exigencies brought about by the revelation which can become effective without any mention of Christ himself.”
Later in the chapter Girard will talk about the ‘silent’ work of the Paraclete through history to bring to light the plight of victims. Those who align themselves with the Paraclete’s work to make us sensitive to victims will find themselves aligned with Christ, whether they have mentioned Christ or not. Conversely, those who continue to create or ignore victims will find themselves estranged from Christ, even if they have named themselves “Christian.”
3. James Williams, The Bible, Violence & the Sacred. This ‘parable’ is the featured text in Williams’ discussion of the Gospel of Matthew, p. 194-99. Williams portrays Matthew as bringing together two major roles of Jesus: the Teacher of Wisdom and the Apocalyptic Judge. These roles are combined in a startling manner in Matthew 25:31-46 in an apocalyptic picture of the Day of Judgment which climaxes Jesus’ teachings in Matthew. And it is all “centered in the revelation of the innocent victim,” which is about to be further revealed in the Passion.
4. James Alison, Raising Abel, p. 126 & 157. These are the same passages we have looked at in recent weeks with the parables of Matthew 25. He has a very nice summary:
So, with Matthew, apocalyptic language and all, we see that his three final parables have to do strictly with how to live in the time of Abel: first, being alert means preparing yourself patiently for the duration; secondly, the patient construction of the kingdom means having your imagination fixed on the abundant generosity of the One Who empowers and gives growth; and thirdly, what is demanded is a non-scandalized living out which is flexible enough to be able to recognize those whom the world is throwing out, and then a stretching out of the hand so as to create with them the kingdom of heaven. All of this is a making explicit of the eschatological imagination through the subversion from within of the apocalyptic imagination. (p. 158)
The key feature of blessedness is that it involves living a deliberately chosen and cultivated sort of life which is not involved in the power and violence of the world, and which because of this fact, makes the ones living it immensely vulnerable to being turned into victims. That is the center of the ethic as taught by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. If we then turn to the end of Jesus’ last discourse before his passion [Matt. 25:31-46] — the mirror image of this, the first of his discourses — we find the same intelligence at work. In the famous passage of the last judgement, the judgement is defined not in terms of belonging to this or that group, or believing this or that dogma. The judgement is presented in terms of the human relationships towards victims. Those who hunger, thirst, are naked, sick, or imprisoned. Those who have understood, whether or not they know anything about Jesus, are those who have seen their way out of the self-deception of the world which is blind to its victims, and have reached out to help them. Again, the intelligence of the victim [link to webpage on Alison’s use of this phrase “the intelligence of the victim“]: it is the crucified and risen victim who is the judge of the world, and the world is judged in the light of its relationship to the crucified and risen victim.
6. Brian McLaren, We Make the Road By Walking, ch. 8, “Rivalry or Reconciliation?”, and ch. 24, “Jesus and Hell.” In Ch. 8, McLaren cites this passage to read as background to a conversation of the Genesis stories of sibling rivalries — Esau and Jacob, Joseph and his brothers. In Chapter 24, this passage is also listed as background for an excellent teaching about hell. It goes well with the view of this passage here that it is not about individuals being condemned to hell as a place of eternal torture. Rather, it is about judgment of nations, the consequences of not caring for the least in Jesus’s family — those consequences being a failure of those nations in history that leads to an age of fiery self-inflicted violence. McLaren writes,
Jesus used fire-and-brimstone language in another way, as well. He used it to warn his countrymen about the catastrophe of following their current road a wide and smooth highway leading to another violent uprising against the Romans. Violence won’t produce peace, he warned; it will produce only more violence. If his countrymen persisted in their current path, Jesus warned, the Romans would get revenge on them by taking their greatest pride — the Temple — and reducing it to ashes and rubble. The Babylonians had done it once, and the Romans could do it again. That was why he advocated a different path a rough and narrow path of nonviolent social change instead of the familiar broad highway of hate and violence.
Belief in the afterlife, it turned out provided a benefit for those who wanted to recruit people for violent revolution. They would promise heaven to those who died as martyrs in a holy war. That connection between death in battle and reward in heaven helps explain why the Pharisees joined with the Zealots and became leaders in a rebellion against the Roman empire in AD 67. Their grand scheme succeeded for a time, but three years later, the Romans marched in and crushed the rebellion. Jerusalem was devastated. The temple was reduced to ash and rubble.
After that failed revolution, the Pharisees charted a nonviolent path of teaching and community building. They paved the way for the development of Rabbinic Judaism, which undergirds the various traditions of Judaism today. Their story demonstrates that neither groups nor individuals should ever be stereotyped or considered incapable of learning, growth, and change.
That’s the real purpose of Jesus fire-and-brimstone language. Its purpose was not to predict the destruction of the universe or to make absolute for all eternity the insider-outsider categories of us and them. Its purpose was to wake up complacent people, to warn them of the danger of their current path, and to challenge them to change — using the strongest language and imagery available. As in the ancient story of Jonah, God’s intent was not to destroy but to save. Neither a great big fish nor a great big fire gets the last word, but rather God’s great big love and grace. (pp. 113-14)
7. Andrew Marr, Moving and Resting in God’s Desire, pp. 61, 229. Commenting on the Emmaus story in Luke 24, Marr comments,
In reading scripture through the eyes of Jesus, we realize that his story is the story of countless victims before and after him. Conversely, we can say that the story of all victims is Jesus’ story. As Jesus said that those who did acts of mercy to the least of his little ones had done them to him, (Mt. 25: 40) so those who persecute his little ones have persecuted him, as Paul found out on the road to Damascus. … Remember, it is the story of victims as victims whose story is Jesus’s story. This gives us a firm anchor for hearing what God would have us hear as our hearts burn when we read and listen to scripture. (61)
In commenting on respect as a virtue in the context of St. Benedict’s Rule, Marr writes,
St. Benedict famously insists that “all guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ.” (RB 53:1) Benedict goes on to quote Matthew 25 to emphasize the point. Likewise, the cellarer, when attending to fellow monastics and guests should do the same. Benedict also says that “care of the sick must rank above and before all else, so that they may truly be served as Christ.” (RB 36:1) Once again, Benedict quotes Matthew 25. Benedict may refer to God as “The Lord God of all things,” (RB 20:2) who is greater than “a powerful man” from whom we might ask a favor, but Benedict is clear that this Lordly God identifies with all humans in need. That means that anyone entrusted with care of others should share the same solicitude.
We all have a hard time respecting people in positions subordinate to us, especially if they are needy. We instinctively look down on them because we think we are the ones with something to give or withhold. In other words, we are in the winning position and we like it that way. However, if Christ assumes the “losing” position, and Christ is the king whom we should obey, then we should be respectfully obedient to the needs of others. We might say that Christ makes other people respectable even if they have no respectability within themselves. The implication of this, of course, is that we also lack respectability within ourselves and it is Christ who gives us respectability.
The theological principle for saying that a person is entitled to respect just for being a human being is that we are each made in the image of God. That is true, but Christ intensified his identification with each person in need by dying for us. Since Christ died for everybody, Christ identifies with everybody. By identifying with each of us, Christ takes the rivalry out of our relationships. The way we relate to one another has nothing to do with winning or having the upper hand in some way. Christ has leveled the playing field. Christ is focused on the needs of each one of us. That means Christ is focused on our own needs and also the needs of the people we encounter. This means doing what we can for another’s needs and having a kind word when we can’t. In all this, we participate in Christ’s respect for us, which makes us more respectable than we were. (229-30)
8. Andrew Marr, Abbot of St. Gregory’s Abbey (Three Rivers, MI) is a long-time reader and writer on Mimetic Theory and in his blog, “Imaginary Visions of True Peace,” wrote a brief essay in 2017 on this passage, “On Serving the Goats.”
9. Richard Beck, Stranger God: Meeting Jesus in Disguise. In 2017 I was not yet aware of this book until reading Andrew Marr’s blog above. Released November 1, 2017, it appears to be a book-length meditation on this text. As a presenter at a Theology & Peace conference, I anticipate Stranger God to resonate with Girardian readings. I’m anxious to read it!
10. Frederick Niedner, “The Searching Judge (excerpt),” from Proclaiming a Cruciform Eschaton, a small booklet published for the 1998 Institute of Liturgical Studies at Valparaiso University, pages 5-8. Niedner begins with the observation that “Son of Man” in the Hebrew is ben adam, so a literal understanding of Adam’s son would be Cain or Abel. He makes use of an extending of the story of Cain and Abel by Elie Wiesel — an extension that bears some resemblance to the one Alison proposes in Raising Abel, that Abel returns to forgive his brother, not to get vengeance. From the Wiesel extension of the Cain and Abel story, Niedner proposes an extension of the story in Matthew 25:31-46, in which the sheep, who have attended to the outcasts throughout their earthly lives, now plead on behalf of the goats about to cast out in the heavenly judgment. Link here for a sermon based on Niedner’s themes, “The Searching Judge.”
11. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, sermon from November 24, 2002 (Woodside Village Church).
13. Lindsey Paris-Lopez, in 2014 posted a blog at the Raven Foundation site, weaving together thoughts from Tom Truby, this website, and responses to the events in Ferguson, MO, around the killing of Michael Brown: “On Sheep and Goats: Division and Judgment in Ferguson and Beyond.”
14. Preston Shipp, former prosecutor in the Tennessee Attorney General’s Office, and Board Member for Theology & Peace, tells his gripping story of living into, “I was in prison and you visited me,” in both this online video, “Redemption of the Prosecutor,” and the text of a presentation he made to church leaders, “Preston Shipp on Discipleship at the Cross-Section of Faith and Life, Part 1.”
15. Dennis Linn, Sheila Fabricant Linn, and Matthew Linn, Good Goats: Healing Our Image of God. This wonderful book on healing our images of a violent god has this parable as its title image.
Reflections and Questions
1. In 2014 my reading of this passage has undergone a transformation from Brian Zahnd‘s A Farewell to Mars (more above). Preaching this reading began with an experience from the previous weekend: our congregation’s youth participating in the ELCA’s Famine 2014, “Act 2 Day 4 Tomorrow,” a 30-hour fasting to raise awareness and funds for ELCA World Hunger. One of the suggested activities is to play a modified version of Monopoly, in which the players/teams start with unequal monies and properties. From this, we might see that our usual approach of Charity is to be generous within the rules of the game; and Matt. 25:31-46 is often cited as a basis for individuals to embrace charity. Justice, on the other hand, is to seek with others to change the rules of the game to be more fair and equitable; Zahnd’s reading enables us to truly this passage in that sense. Jesus in Matthew 25:31-46 is revealing to us, as he is about to inaugurate the reign of the “Son of Man,” the rules that God has intended from the beginning. To repeat what I said above: What is revealed in the Christ event are the rules to being truly human all along. The way in which we human beings have evolved has led into the sinful way that climaxes in the power of beastly empires which rule with sacred violence, a way that always leads to devastation of lands and peoples — a fiery judgment, if you will. In King Jesus we finally see what it takes to be truly human: ways of ordering ourselves which focus on caring for those usually considered the least in the human family — the poor, the sick, the immigrant, the prisoner.
This line of approach to preaching the passage first led to my December column for our parish newsletter.
2. In 2004 I read an excellent book on the Book of Revelation and the dangerous interpretations of “dispensationalism,” such as in the Left Behind series. The book is Barbara Rossing‘s The Rapture Exposed. One of the insights from this book that will stick with me forever is the understanding of Hebrew prophecy that she puts forth with a comparison to Charles Dickens‘ well-known story “A Christmas Carol.” The three ghosts show Scrooge the past that led him to his present and, most importantly, his possible future given the trajectory of his behavior. We know from the ending of the story that Scrooge changes his future through repentance. The third ghost didn’t show him a ‘prophecy’ that locked him into a certain fate. Likewise, the purpose of showing him his likely future was not to cement Scrooge into fatalism but to prompt him into exactly what he did, repent and change his ways, so that a new future could be written. I find this to be a wonderful teaching tool for understanding Hebrew prophecy along similar lines. God sent the prophets not to lock us into a certain fate but to lovingly invite us to repent.
Many of Jesus’ parables have a component of such prophecy. This parable is a prophecy lovingly offered for repentance. It’s purpose is not to give us an accurate picture of actual events as they will unfold on Judgment Day but rather to clue us in on the measure for judgment for the purpose of winning our repentance.
2. In 2005 I used multimedia for my sermon that featured a song by Brian Sirchio called “I See You” about an encounter he had in Haiti with a young street girl. He is conflicted inside about giving her money right on the spot. He knows that 32,000 children starve to death each day. Giving this one child food for today won’t solve that problem, even for her. This is how the song ends:
And as I drove away I made a promise
Little girl, I never will forget your face
And I’ll do what’s mine to do to change the world for kids like you
And when I hear 32,000, I’ll remember you and say…I see you. I see you.
Hey little girl, I won’t pretend that you’re not there
I see you. I see you.
Little girl Christ, I see you.
With the allusion to Matthew 25:31-46 in the chorus, seeing Christ in this hungry child, Sirchio does what I think this parable hopes for us to do: live in the promise of a different world such that this world begins to change. It is a loving plea for repentance not only for the sakes of the 32,000 children who starve to death each day but also for the sakes of us goats who might find ourselves in a future world cut-off from the God of Life in Jesus Christ. It also resonates with Zahnd’s reading of judgment of the nations. It pushes us beyond personal charity, not in an exclusionary way, but one that seeks to do more in terms of transforming the institutional elements that lead to poverty. In short, not just charity but also peace and justice activism.
3. The Niedner essay points to an inconsistency in this parable: the sheep have attended to the outcasts of this earthly life, and then in the heavenly judgment the Son of Man designates eternal, heavenly outcasts. Is it up to the sheep to now attend to those outcasts? This isn’t the judgment of the cross in which the Son of Man lets himself be made an outcast so that those who judge him judge themselves.
4. Does it make a difference that this parable is spoken to the disciples only? Is it given to them to encourage their taking the side of the outcasts? What is the purpose of this parable in light of the preceding parable? I believe it is the kind of prophecy outlined above, a call to repentance. The question remains, however: why does Jesus still use judgment as a means to repentance when forgiveness becomes his main vehicle toward repentance?