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The “God is with us” Judgment

 

I’ve always been puzzled and somewhat amused by the choice of readings on this Meatfare Sunday. And by the way, that is a terrible English version of the Greek name for this Sunday: Κυριακή της Απόκρεω. Apokreo means “from meat”; in other words, leave-taking of meat, saying goodbye to meat! “Meatfare Sunday” almost sounds like a Sunday dedicated to celebrating meat!

The Epistle reading for this Sunday was presumably chosen by monks because of Paul’s line about not eating meat. But Paul’s statement has nothing to do with Lenten fasting! As always, it’s the context that we fail to recognize. It was customary in Corinth at that time to sell meat in the marketplace that had been offered in the pagan temples. So many Christians in Corinth were offended to see a fellow Christian eating such meat. Paul had no qualms about eating such meat, but if it meant that weak Christians would be offended (scandalized), he would give up meat. “Therefore, if food would cause my brother or sister to fall, I will never eat meat, lest I cause my brother or sister to fall.” Paul’s concern is for the other, for the brother or sister, and this text is the opposite of the usual Lenten focus on my own spiritual condition. The Epistle and Gospel today tell us that the focus is the other, the brother and sister. And that is the real meaning of Lent. The message is the exact opposite of the self-righteous, self-absorbed, finger-pointing Christianity that comes so easily to us.

Matthew’s Gospel is the “God with us” Gospel… Emmanuel

Michelangelo’s famous rendition of the Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel. (click to enlarge)

If God is with us, how can life go on as usual? This is Matthew’s overall message. God is with us and nothing can be the same again. And yet Jesus near the end of his earthly ministry told his disciples, “the poor you will always have with you.” The poor will always be among us as a challenge, as the fulcrum for judgment. The Parable of the Sheep and Goats is the “God is with us” judgment.

Poverty is unacceptable to God. It is unacceptable because God created everything to be good. God created a world, a universe, that is abundant in all the necessities of life. I believe that before long, life will be discovered in other parts of the universe. I believe I will live to see proof that there is other life in the universe. And that will only show yet again that God is the God of abundance – not only here on our earth, but throughout the universe.

God’s purpose for us is to have life and have it abundantly. Those were Jesus’ words. So when people, God’s children, are denied the necessities of life, it is tragedy and sin beyond measure.

The parable about the hungry and thirsty, the naked, the stranger, the sick and the prisoner, is Jesus’ final teaching! It was his final parable. The very next words Matthew wrote after this parable are these:

When Jesus had finished saying all these things, he said to his disciples, “You know that after two days the Passover is coming, and the Son of Man will be handed over to be crucified.”

Then the chief priests and the elders of the people gathered in the palace of the high priest, who was called Caiaphas, and they conspired to arrest Jesus by stealth and kill him. But they said, “Not during the festival, or there may be a riot among the people.” (Matthew 26:1-5)

The parable was indeed the beginning of the end for Jesus. But did you notice the beginning of the parable?

“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. 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…..

The parable is aimed at nations, entire societies. In chapter 16 of Ezekiel, God accuses Israel of “pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but [you] did not aid the poor and needy.”

Does that mean we are not judged individually? No, we are judged as individuals, but also as members of a nation, a society. What are the nation’s priorities? How do our personal priorities fit in? Is it hard to clothe the naked, to welcome a stranger, a homeless person into your home? Is it hard to visit a prison? And by the way, all English translations say “stranger” in this parable. But the Greek word is ξένος, which more accurately means foreigner, alien. All the things Jesus lists in this parable are difficult for most of us. But are they too difficult for a society, a nation? God says, No – there is no excuse for a nation to neglect the poor, the hungry, the homeless, the sick, the foreigner! No excuse.

But wait, what about the church? We are a society. Jesus placed the church in the world not to massage our egos, but to enable us as a group, as a community, to do what we can’t do as individuals or as a nation. Can’t we as a church do the things Jesus speaks in this parable? Can’t we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, give shelter to the homeless, visit the sick and the prisoner?

Why are we not more involved in soup kitchens? Why are we not out there advocating for the homeless and the refugees? Why do we call the poor lazy? Surely we can find ways to fulfill Jesus’ commands? Surely he is not asking us to do the impossible. Take something like ministry to prisoners. While it may be much harder to visit prisoners now than it was centuries, or perhaps even decades, ago, a ministry to prisoners is within the ability of every church. I remember many years ago Eula Chrissikos, despite her severe physical disability, used to visit regularly a prisoner at the state penitentiary, a man who was serving a life sentence for murder. I went along with her on one or two of her visits.

The church is capable of many things, but not so that we leave a calling card behind everything we do, so we receive thanks. Not to us, Lord, not to us the glory or the thanks. When, Lord, when did we see you naked or in prison? This is not a parable to depress us, but to challenge us to new faith. Every year we read this a week before Lent begins to remind us that Lent is not about our needs, but the needs of people around us. We are on a journey to Easter, but on this journey we encounter the other – whoever the other happens to be.

 


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Who am I? Who are you?

 

A Nasruddin story

A neighbour came to the gate of Mulla Nasreddin’s yard. The Mulla went to meet him outside.

“Would you mind, Mulla,” the neighbour asked, “can you lend me your donkey today? I have some goods to transport to the next town.”

The Mulla didn’t feel inclined to lend out the animal to that particular man, however. So, not to seem rude, he answered:

“I’m sorry, but I’ve already lent him to somebody else.”

All of a sudden the donkey could be heard braying loudly behind the wall of the yard.

“But Mulla,” the neighbour exclaimed. “I can hear it behind that wall!”

“Whom do you believe,” the Mulla replied indignantly, “the donkey or your Mulla?”

I can’t help but think of this Nasruddin story when I think on today’s Gospel Parable of the Sheep and Goats. It’s so easy to say, Whom are you going to believe, Jesus, or what I tell you he meant? There are millions of Christians – whom I call “Rapture Christians” – who simply ignore the plain teaching of what Jesus says. How do they do this? They simply say it doesn’t apply to them. It applies to other people, or to another time and place! Nice and quick way to avoid the plain meaning. You can’t argue with people who simply refuse to accept what’s in front of them.

But it’s much worse than that. Most Christians in one way or another have substituted their own beliefs for what Jesus says. Most Christians – including Orthodox, Catholics and most Protestants – think the most important thing is what we say about Christ, rather than what he said!

But pay attention. The Lord will gather THE NATIONS! He says nothing about what they believe, what the religions of the nations might be. He will gather the nations and will separate them according to what they have done. Deeds – not creeds!

Look what Paul wrote in Romans ch. 2:

For he will render to every man according to his works… There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, but glory and honor and peace for every one who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek. For God shows no partiality.

All who have sinned without the law will also perish without the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law. For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified. When Gentiles who have not the law do by nature what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness and their conflicting thoughts accuse or perhaps excuse them on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.

“The Jew and the Greek” was just shorthand for saying everyone. If Paul were writing today, he might have said, the Jew and the Muslim, the Jew and the Buddhist…

The judgment is universal. Jews, Christians, Muslims, have similar ideas about God’s judgment. They might not agree on many things – but they do agree about judgment. And the bottom line is how we practice our faith! That is why Jesus said “the nations”.

41t4vjn9hzlI’ve been reading a book about Thomas Merton’s relationship to Judaism.

Merton: If I affirm myself as a Catholic merely by denying all that is Muslim, Jewish, Protestant, Hindu, Buddhist, etc., in the end I will find that there is not much left for me to affirm as a Catholic: and certainly no breath of the Spirit with which to affirm it.

Martin Buber: I have “felt Jesus from my youth onwards as my great brother.” … “we Jews knew him from within, in the impulses and stirrings of his Jewish being, in a way that remains inaccessible to the peoples submissive to him.”

This is a provocative statement, even arrogant on the part of Buber, and it took a while for it to sink in. But when it did, I had no disagreement with it. And the Jesus who spoke to us today is Buber’s brother!

Buber quotes a tale told by Rabbi Hanokh:

There was once a man who was very forgetful. When he got up in the morning it was so hard for him to find his clothes that at night he almost hesitated to go to bed for thinking of the trouble he would have on waking. One evening he took paper and pencil and as he undressed noted down exactly where he put everything he had on. The next morning, he took the slip of paper in his hand and read: cap – there it was, he set it on his head; pants – there they lay, he got into them… and so on until he was fully dressed. “That’s all very well, but now where am I myself?” he asked in great agitation. “Where in the world am I?” He looked and looked, but it was in vain that he searched; he could not find himself. “And that is how it is with us,” said the rabbi.

Where am I? I might have all my beliefs in place. I might think of myself as alright with God. I’m Orthodox, after all, I’m not a heretic. But where am I? Am I missing the most important thing? Jesus’ parable today tells me that I am where he is! I will find myself where I will find him: In you, in my neighbor, in the homeless, in the stranger, in the refugee.

That’s the true power of Jesus’ words – and his words shatter all our conceptions of what religion is. And that’s why he says, “the nations” – because our beliefs are not our own, they are the beliefs of our tribes and national/ethnic identifies. But Jesus shows us a higher identity – an identity of truly transforming power.

But I will give the final word to Thomas Merton:

The message of the Bible is that into the confusion of man’s world, with its divisions and hatred, has come a message of transforming power, and those who believe it will experience in themselves the love that makes for reconciliation and peace on earth.