Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
22nd of November, 2020
Here we are, finally at the end of the church year, and at the story of the Last Judgement towards which we and Matthew have been heading for the past month. Today we are told exactly what distinguished the wise from the foolish bridesmaids; the slave with five talents from the slave with one; what more the one who says, ‘Lord, Lord,’ must do to prove themselves a follower of Jesus. Today we hear one of the fundamental texts of Christianity. As we listen to it, we affirm that Christ is the ruler not just of our hearts but of the whole world, and that following the way of Jesus should determine everything we do and say.
Today we celebrate the Feast of Christ the King or the Reign of Christ. It sounds like an ancient feast; one that could go back to the first century when the Gospel of Matthew told of magi seeking ‘the child who has been born king of the Jews’ and the book of Revelation described Jesus as ‘the ruler of the kings of the earth’. But, in fact, the Reign of Christ is one of the most recent additions to the Christian liturgical calendar. It was initiated by Pope Pius IX in 1925, and then adopted quickly by those Protestant denominations with European roots that were already seeing the gathering threats of fascism and communism. Celebrating the Reign of Christ can be, in some places and at some times, a very brave and radical thing to do. Throughout the twentieth century Christians were imprisoned, tortured, and killed because their loyalty to Christ superseded their loyalty to secular rulers. Saying that Christ is our king means saying that no mere human being or political institution can demand our absolute loyalty. This was a profoundly counter-cultural thing to do in 1925. It is still a profoundly counter-cultural thing to do in our individualistic twenty-first century, but for different reasons.
Today’s reading is a prophecy, not a parable, a foretelling and forth-telling. Unlike the readings of the last two weeks, when we have had to decipher who the bridesmaids or the slaves or the master or the bridegroom might be, the identity of the character at the centre of today’s story is plain. Jesus, the one about to be betrayed and executed as a criminal, is the King, the Son of Man, the one who comes in glory to judge all the nations. Amazingly enough, given how popular ideas of the ‘Last Judgement’ became in art and literature throughout the centuries, this is the only description of the last judgement in the New Testament. And it makes the criteria of that judgement extremely clear. It is a judgement based on how well we have lived out the two commandments on which all the law and prophets hang: the commandment to love God and love our neighbour. The criterion of judgment is how well we have loved ‘the least of these who are members of my family’.
We are told four times what it is that people have done to already identify themselves as sheep or goats, long before the Son of Man divides them. Four times the criteria of judgment are given: twice by the Son of Man, once by the sheep and once by the goats: 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; 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. We have absolutely no excuse for not getting it. What God cares about most is not how we think, or what we believe, but how we live. And not just how we live with those close to us, our family and friends, but how we act towards those most in need, the last and least.
Throughout Matthew’s gospel there has been lots of ‘weeping and gnashing of teeth’: by the weeds who are the children of the evil one (Matthew 13:42); by the bad fish caught in a net with the good (Matthew 13:50); by the wedding guest without a wedding garment (Matthew 22:13); by the wicked slave who used his master’s delay as an excuse to abuse his fellow slaves (Matthew 24:51); by the slave given only one talent (Matthew 25:30). But now we see that God does not intend this to be the fate of any human being. The eternal fire was prepared for ‘the devil and his angels’, not for human beings but for the powers that tempt and oppress humanity. Whenever the stories of Matthew’s Jesus strike us as hard and frightening, we must remember that they all culminate in today’s prophecy. There is no need for anyone to be a weed or bad fish or useless slave. In fact, one does not even need to know Jesus to be wheat or good fish or a good and trustworthy slave. The sheep are surprised to find that they have been serving the king all along.
I say that today’s prophecy makes the criteria of the last judgement extremely simple, but that does not mean that living out that criteria is easy. One question that today’s reading might raise is: why, if we are judged not on the basis of our faith but on how we treat the least, does anyone need to bother about church? I think that the answer is that living as sheep rather than goats is difficult It is, to repeat one of my favourite descriptions of Christianity, counter cultural. We live in a world that encourages us to be self-centered. It might be reassuring to know that this is not a new problem. In his sermon on ‘The Use of Money’ John Wesley gave three rules for Christians: Gain all you can; Save all you can; Give all you can. That was in his sermon 50. But years’ later, in his sermon 116, on the ‘Causes of the inefficiency of Christianity’ Wesley wrote:
Is not scriptural Christianity preached and generally known among the people commonly called Methodists? Impartial persons allow it is. And have they not Christian discipline too, in all the essential branches of it, regularly and constantly exercised? Let those who think any essential part of it is wanting, point it out, and it shall not be wanting long. Why then are not these altogether Christians, who have both Christian doctrine and Christian discipline? Why is not the spiritual health of the people called Methodists recovered? … To instance only in one point: Who regards those solemn words, ‘Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth’? Of the three rules which are laid down on this head, in the sermon on ‘The Mammon of Unrighteousness,’ you may find many that observe the First rule, namely, ‘Gain all you can.’ You may find a few that observe the Second, ‘Save all you can.’ But how many have you found that observe the Third rule, ‘Give all you can’? Have you reason to believe, that five hundred of these are to be found among fifty thousand Methodists? And yet nothing can be more plain, than that all who observe the two first rules without the third, will be twofold more the children of hell than ever they were before.
Wesley’s explanation of the problem was that wherever ‘true Christianity’ spread people became diligent and frugal; this led them to becoming rich; and the riches led to them being proud and full of love for the world – and so ‘true Christianity’ bears the seeds of its own destruction unless those who become rich give away their wealth. I am not sure that Wesley was right about diligence automatically leading to wealth, British journalist and activist George Monbiot once said that ‘if wealth was the inevitable result of hard work and enterprise, every woman in Africa would be a millionaire’. But I am comforted that even in the eighteenth century, even in John Wesley’s own lifetime, the ‘people commonly called Methodist’ found it hard to live selflessly.
We human beings have a propensity for selfishness and exploitation. We naturally tend to care most about ourselves and those close to us, and least about those out of our sight. We are encouraged to do this by governments that want us to be afraid of people from other countries who might steal ‘our’ resources; by the corporations that want us to spend our money on the goods they provide; by the media which makes idols of the rich. Looking at the world around us, we are constantly exposed to humanity’s propensity for violence and hatred and indifference. Here in Australia we see it in the imprisonment of asylum seekers and refugees in immigration detention for the ‘crime’ of seeking refuge in Australia; in the punishment of the unemployed with ‘mutual obligations’ even though ACOSS has found that there are thirteen jobseekers for every job; and in the further punishment of Indigenous unemployed people with the ‘cashless welfare card’ when there is no evidence that it has any benefits. It is no wonder that it is hard for Christians to feed the hungry, give something to drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, care for sick, and visit those in prison, when the world around us explicitly tells us not to, and that they deserve their fate. This is why I believe that we need the support of other Christians and of the church as we try to live differently.
When we confess that Jesus is the Christ, we affirm that he is the ruler of our life; the only one with the right, responsibility, and power to judge us. No other leader, no government, no philosophy, no party politics, no family member, has that right. In a world where faith is seen as a personal and private choice, today’s feast of the Reign of Christ says firmly that our first allegiance as Christians is to Jesus. This means we are to live as sheep, not goats; feeding the hungry, giving something to drink to the thirsty, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, caring for sick, and visiting those in prison. We give our allegiance to the King who is seen not in a palace, not among the powerful, not with the wealthy, but among the poorest and those most in need. From before his birth, to after his death, Jesus’ life shows us that we encounter God in the ‘least’ of human beings. By loving and serving them, we love and serve God and, ultimately, we will by blessed by the Father and welcomed into eternal life. So, let us go and do that. Amen.