In the beginning was the word
John died and went to the gates of heaven where he met Saint Peter. Peter said to him, "I have looked at your life, and you are welcome into heaven under one condition only." John replied, "Yes, Saint Peter. And what is that condition?" Can you spell the word LOVE? So John spelled the word, "L - O - V - E" then Peter let him into heaven.
As John enters, St. Peter asks him for a favour. He needed him to watch the gate until he returns. Saint Peter had something to discuss with the Lord. Saint Peter reminds the man that he must ask whoever comes to the gate, to spell the word. After a short period of time, the John's wife shows up at the gate. "What are you doing here?" he demands of her.
"Well," she said, "on the way home from your funeral, there was an accident and I died." John told her, "Alright, but before you enter heaven you must be able to spell a word." "What word is that?" she asked. "Czechoslovakia," he said. (i)
Is it as simple as spelling a word to be a part of the kingdom? I doubt that.
The text in context
Matt. 25:31-46 is a difficult text to preach. It is challenging, but I need to raise a few questions about what this text might mean in our context. Matthew’s text is about God’s judgement and how we must live. The text made me contemplate what happens when we die. My mum died in 1995 and comments I can remember about her were “she is in a better place” and “she is resting in God’s arms.”
Did my mum see the glory of the Son of Man? I do not know the answer. After reading this text I am left with more questions than answers. What does it mean when we say “be a part of the kingdom?”
Son of Man and Son of God
In verse 31 Matthew uses the words “The Son of Man” will come in glory. The term “Son of Man” appears frequently in this Gospel and it signifies the humanity of Jesus. The New Testament makes it clear that Jesus was fully human in nature.”(ii)
In the book Matthew: Storyteller, Interpreter, Evangelist, the author Warren Carter suggests that this passage is often ignored or some find it very valuable. It is valuable in a sense because, “…it underlines human accountability to God, an unpopular notion in contemporary society, who often thinks it is in control…” instead of God. (iii) This vision of Matthew empowers those in daily crisis, who know the margins as home, who live in powerlessness, injustice and hopelessness.
Kingdom living or Living in the new kingdom
Jesus talks about conditions that will help us to be a part of the kingdom. What did he mean? He challenges us to clothe the naked, feed the hungry, welcome strangers, and visit those in hospital and prison. This is what the kingdom of God is about.
I must admit that the images of sheep and shepherd and the parables of judgement make me uncomfortable. It makes me uncomfortable, because I am reminded about my actions. Am I a sheep or am I a goat? Not literally. Do I or you see Jesus when I look at someone who is in need?
The Gospel reading tells us something about the nature of Christ’s rule. The challenging invitation directed at us is to see Jesus in those who are sick, those who hunger and thirst, are strangers and imprisoned.
So then the question is, how do we treat each other? This question is important for it influences the welcome we will receive in the kingdom of this Shepherd-King. One might have thought it is all about how Jesus treats us.
Do we see and acknowledge Jesus in others? Can we make a shift in our thinking and how we respond to others? If we can, we will discover that we are citizens of God’s kingdom, a reality that Jesus preached about. Since Jesus introduced us to God’s reign it has become visible everywhere and can be experienced and enjoyed in every moment, every place and every interaction. The moment we fail to see Christ in all others, we have chosen to close our eyes to the miracle of God’s reign. As a result, we find ourselves excluded from the experience of God’s reign.
We might be tempted to think of God or Jesus as our shepherd, initially that is what I have believed. This might lead us to be exclusive, and exclude those who do not “fit”. We unconsciously sort society according to our categories in our church, community and even in our families. This is a mistake, and misses the point.
Sheep and goats
We are confronted by a parable about sheep and goats that Jesus tells and may think this is a story about judgement, but it is not! In, “the Palestine of Jesus, the sheep and goats were herded together during the day”(iv)
The metaphor that Jesus used is based on the sheep and goats, which were separated at night by the shepherd. Sheep were kept inside and goats were kept outside where they huddled together to stay warm. In Jesus' time it is obvious that he addressed the authorities. The question one should ask is: should we do the same in our time?
Wee could also ask ourselves whether or not we have moved close enough to Christ, have we become intimate enough with Him? Can we recognise him even when he looks at us through the eyes of someone in distress? If we have learned to see Jesus even in the marginalised of society, we will have learned to see God’s reign in our own lives. If we have not learned to see Jesus in others who are in need, we would not know how to recognise God’s reign.
From parable to practice
Our challenge is to rid ourselves of our obsession to sort everything into categories, and to focus on seeing Christ in all people and on serving others as though they were Jesus himself.
If we succeed in this challenge, where we see God’s reign in every place and every moment, then we become part of God’s reign. It will be a hard thing for us to make the right and difficult decision to recognise Christ in all others. To do this I have to apply grace, and a willingness to let go of my pride and my natural tendency to stick with people like me. Just looking at someone, and making assumptions without applying the caring attitude of Jesus will end in us turning somebody away who needs our help. Did you feed me when I was hungry? Did you clothe me when I was naked? Did you visit me when I was sick or in prison? These questions ring in my ear, since I started to read the text.
Jesus’ message, that everybody belongs, must have been a shock to the system of the hearers. They nevertheless got the message, or did they? Some did and some did not. Those who cannot accept this message, end up excluding themselves from the Kingdom. The Shepherd really welcomes everyone with open arms, those willing to follow the Shepherd’s example.
The question that challenges me, and I hope you as well, is how can we be inclusive so that we can be part of God’s kingdom. We are called to be part of God’s reign reflecting inclusive community.
(i) Williams Kevin. “Jokes About the Afterlife” Near-death.com. Accessed Oct.6,2017. http://www.near-death.com/resources/jokes.html
(ii) Richards Lawrence O. Expository Dictionary of Bible Words. Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1985
(iii) Carter Warren. Storyteller, Interpreter, Evangelist. Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 2004, p.240
(iv) Mullins Michael. The Gospel of Matthew, A Commentary. Dublin: Columba Press, 2007, p.537