First Thoughts on Passages from Matthew in the Lectionary

Christ the King

William Loader

Christ the King: 26 November Matthew 25:31-46

This is the climax of the Church's year. It is also the climax of Jesus' teaching ministry in Matthew. Ancient writers were very conscious of the importance of such a position within a narrative. Here we can expect matters of central significance for Matthew and this is what we find. It is the judgement day. Jesus is present in a semi-parable as the Son of Man. It is still a parable of sorts as the animal images suggest, but it is just as much a vision of the judgement day. In that sense it is fairly close to the kind of visions we hear described in Daniel, 1 Enoch and Revelation.

'His glorious throne' (literally, 'the throne of his glory') is language which also occurs in the Enoch literature in 1 Enoch 37-71, the central section which, though absent from the fragments of 1 Enoch found in the caves of the Dead Sea, nevertheless probably stems from early times, many would suggest at least the time of Matthew.

It is a vision of the judgement of all the nations. This is important since it makes it clear that this is universal judgement. It is not just a judgement of Israel or of the church. Ultimately such status, one way or other, counts for nothing. What counts is attitude and performance. 'The least of these' to whom caring is shown or not shown could refer to Christians, since Matthew's community appears to have called itself the community of the little ones and they are Jesus' family. A large number of manuscripts add the words, 'my brothers', which would strengthen the reference to believers.

It would be striking to find that the criterion on the judgement day will be how people have treated Christians. Reinforcing such an interpretation is the fact that Jesus identifies himself with these least ones. They are his church. The same thought would be operating here as in Acts where the risen Jesus on the Damascus Road confronts Paul with why he was persecuting him (Jesus), because to persecute Christians is to persecute Jesus. An interpretation like this might be seen to introduce a new element, not foreshadowed elsewhere. This would be unusual in such a closing piece. On the other hand, the whole chapter is focusing on believers and is addressed to disciples. Certainly it at least includes response to Christians, but the focus of the response is less their status and more their need.

There is a logic in Matthew's thinking which makes us think more universally, especially Matthew's denial of privilege both to children of Abraham, and to the church. Just as there is no distinction when it comes to the criterion of caring, whether one is a child of Abraham, a Christian or nothing, so there is no distinction to be made among who should be the recipient of love. Seen in that light, the vision is highlighting typically Matthean themes and echoes the Sermon on the Mount. Judgement will be by our fruit. What matters is not our status or achievements, but our continuing willingness to let the life of God be lived through us, concretely: our love for people.

Matthew is not saying: pretend Jesus is in people and that will enable you to love them. Rather the sheep loved people because of who they were as people. The notion that in doing so they were also loving Jesus came to them as a surprise. The loving was real, not a means to enhance their relationship with Jesus. Please love me because I am me, not because you imagine I am someone I am not. Seeing Christ in others and in the needy, especially, need not, of course, be as abusive as that. It has been for many a helpful notion which has in no way diminished their love for the person in question. But that kind of piety easily lends itself to a distraction from person centred care.

Ultimately only love matters and Matthew's faith says love is never anonymous. Love is always a participation in Christ's love whether we label it so or not. Again Matthew is down to earth. This simple insight cuts across claims to privilege and all the religious disqualifications which accompany them. It even invites us to identify the love of God when it is active beyond our territory, to use last week's imagery, to see the harvest where Christian hands have not sown. Matthew levels all religious privilege in the name of loving and understanding God as loving.

It is remarkable that such insight can also stand beside Matthew's constant strategy of motivation by threat of punishment. The persistence with this strategy always threatens to uproot the seed being sown. It breeds fear and fear tends to bury love in the ground. This is the phenomenon of the Scriptures which offer us old and new, life and sometimes death. Engaging it confronts us nevertheless with God's word. On this day of 'Christ, the king,' we might see in this the different models of Christ's kingship which persist. The image which strives against the norms of all societies is not the imperial lord but the broken servant bearing a crown of thorns.

It has been very hard trying to resist the tendency to treat Easter as a reversal of all that Jesus was instead of an affirmation of all that he was. Jesus was not an exception in the life of God, but the rule. His subversive summons to a new understanding of human greatness is not to be abandoned after Easter by projecting our imperious will to power into an image of Christ enthroned in military splendour. What we do to him we do to ourselves; little wonder we have sanctioned such power in church and society. The will to destroy our enemies finds its ultimate sanction in a theology that has God do the same; the one sanctions the other. We should not then be surprised to find Christians advocating capital punishment and handling conflicts in ways that abandon the path of reconciliation. Yet Matthew's parable also offers an alternative vision: of one who is ever to be found in loving and being loved, in change and confrontation and hope.

Epistle:  Christ the King: 26 November  Ephesians 1:15-23

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