Text: Matthew 25:31-46 (separating the sheep from the goats)
I hate being judged. Unfortunately, I can’t seem to shake my worst critic – myself. I often seem to fall short. I would like to make a difference in the world, but I’m not able to effect change. Sometimes, I don’t take care of myself, even though I know better. My reach often exceeds my grasp – as in that yawning gap between choosing a title for a sermon on Tuesday and actually writing one by Sunday morning! Many of the values that I hold to be sacred elude me in daily living.
So I judge myself all the time, and it hurts. My fear of judgement is probably why I don’t like the Gospel of Matthew as much as the other three gospel accounts about Jesus and why I am glad that as this church year ends, the Lectionary sets Matthew aside for the next two years.
Jesus is more judgemental in Matthew than in the other three. Only in Matthew does Jesus say that “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (5:20). Only in Matthew does Jesus talk about weeping and gnashing of teeth in the outer darkness (chapter 8, 13, 22, and 25).
Matthew is the only gospel that includes today’s reading about the Day of Judgement when Jesus will separate the sheep from the goats and punish the so-called goats in an eternal fire prepared for the Devil.
Jesus says he will separate the two groups based upon how we care for one another. Those who feed the hungry, welcome the stranger, and visit prisoners will be saved. Those who do not feed the hungry, welcome the stranger, or visit prisoners will be punished.
Getting right with God, Jesus says here, is about kindness and charity and not about beliefs or sexual behaviour. For this reason, many liberals love this passage, and I too like the idea that actions speak louder than words. But I don’t like the passage when it says that Jesus sends the so-called goats to eternal punishment.
This passage reminds me of Allan Hunsperger. He was the unsuccessful Wildrose candidate for Edmonton South-West whose words about eternal punishment in a lake of fire derailed the party’s campaign in the 2012 provincial election. But if you wonder where he got his notorious idea of “the lake of fire,” one could point to today’s Gospel reading.
Of course Hunsperger believed hellfire was for gays and lesbians and not for those who don’t visit prisoners. But whether one believes that God’s judgement is directed at so-called sexual deviants or at people who aren’t kind, do we really believe in hell? I don’t. So why does Jesus seem to believe in it?
Well, we can’t be sure what Jesus said about hell. The gospel writers were not eye-witnesses. They didn’t write history. They told stories about Jesus to describe God’s Love as revealed by Christ.
The earliest gospel, Mark, was written 40 years after Jesus’ death. Matthew and Luke both copy Mark 10 to 20 years later. They also add material from sources other than Mark.
The stories of Jesus’ birth are examples of the latter. Mark says nothing about the birth of Jesus, while both Matthew and Luke have an account of his birth. But the two stories don’t match. Matthew says that Jesus was born in the house of Mary and Joseph in their hometown of Bethlehem. Luke says that Jesus was born in a stable in Bethlehem far from the hometown of Mary and Joseph, which he said was Nazareth, not Bethlehem.
Matthew says that Jesus grew up in Egypt, where he and his parents fled immediately after his birth to avoid a campaign of King Herod to murder all the babies born in Bethlehem. Luke says that Jesus grew up in Nazareth where his parents returned after his birth.
The two accounts contradict each other. Logic dictates that if one is literally true, the other must be false. More reasonable, I believe, is to assume that these Christmas stories are not history. Instead, they express in different ways the power and beauty of God appearing human form.
Jesus mentions hell once in the Gospel of Mark (Mark 9), but does not say there that he is the one who throws us into hell. Jesus also mentions hell once in the Gospel of Luke, in the parable of the rich man and a beggar (Luke 16). But neither does Jesus say there that it was he who sent the rich man to hell. Jesus makes no mention of hell in the Gospel of John. Only in Matthew does Jesus say that he is the one who casts sinners into hell.
But the contradictions in the four gospels are not the reasons that I don’t believe in hell. I don’t believe in hell because it violates the idea that God is Love.
Most of what we know about Jesus comes from the four Gospels. But we also meet Christ by welcoming and loving our neighbours, as today’s reading from Matthew suggests. And because we value Love, we trust that hell does not exist.
But what about judgement? I am hardly the only person who doesn’t live up to my own ideals. None of us do. We all try to live good lives, but sometimes all of us act like the so-called goats.
Jesus says that we should visit prisoners. But I have never visited anyone in prison, and so I fall into the camp of goats in this regard.
Caring for prisoners would be one thing in a small village that was cut off from the world and had one prison cell attached to the police station.
But we now live in a global village. We not only know about prisons around the corner but about prisons throughout the world. This includes prisons in Syria, which have featured in many Canadian news reports since 2002.
In that year, Maher Arar, a Canadian citizen of Syrian descent, was illegally flown from New York to a prison in Syria by the U.S. Dept. of Homeland Security. Arar was tortured in a Syrian prison for a year before being returned to his home and family in Ottawa. At the time, Syria was still an ally of the United States and Canada, and the U.S. sent many suspected terrorists there to be tortured.
After a lengthy investigation, Prime Minister Stephen Harper apologized to Arar in 2007 for the RCMP’s role in his detention and rendition to Syria and he was awarded a settlement of $10 million.
Canada and the U.S. stopped supporting the Syrian dictatorship in 2011 when the civil war began, although Canada’s current bombing campaign against Syria’s enemy ISIS puts Canada back into a de facto alliance with Syria.
ISIS also has prisons, some of whose prisoners have been executed in beheadings that ISIS has videotaped and posted on the Internet.
The torture chambers and executions in Syria have become the world’s problems. We can’t visit prisoners there because both the regime and ISIS would imprison us if we tried. But we can protest Canadian and U.S. support for torture-states like the one in Syria. We can also work with our Muslim brothers and sisters here in Edmonton to confront the violent ideology of ISIS and try to build greater peace amid the diversity of our little corner of the world.
Still, as individuals or churches we have little power to bring justice to places like Syria. Our weakness could be seen as a moral failure. We may fear that we will be judged as goats because we cannot do much to help prisoners in Syria.
The good news, I believe, is that such moments of conviction can also be moments of healing. Accepting our powerlessness is accepting our dependence upon each other and on God. We are trapped by powerful social forces, and so sometimes we act like the so-called goats. We are also Christ’s blessed sheep, for whom he searches endlessly. We are humble sinners at one with a humble Christ in our shared dreams for peace with justice.
All of us are caught and convicted, and all of us are freed and healed. The Day of Judgement is not something that happens at the end of the age. Judgement and the healing that flows from it can happen at any moment. We struggle to love our families and often fail. We struggle to build God’s realm on earth as it is in heaven and often fail. When we accept judgement for these failures, we also accept the Grace offered to us by our companion Jesus.
In the words of our closing hymn, Jesus is both lamb and shepherd, both prince and slave. In his dying and rising, Jesus leads us to his everlasting instant. This eternal life is the joyous healing that is always given to us in moments of judgement.
We proclaim Jesus as our Hope precisely because he is our Judge. He does not judge from a heavenly throne, but from the cross in pain, and from an empty tomb in joy.
As our judge and hope, Jesus ushers us into the eternal Love that is the birthright of everyone. We may often fail in our attempts to build God’s realm or to live up to our own values. But all of us are blessed and saved in the light of Easter.
Thanks and praise be to God.