The righteous and accursed
Text study for Matthew 25:31-46 Lectionary texts for Christ the King Sunday, November 20, 2011
Sheep and goats. Righteous and accursed. Eternal life and eternal punishment. Rarely in the Bible does it get more black and white than this. Or more troubling.
This reading should trouble us. The imagery of dividing the people of the nations into distinct groups -- one blessed, one accursed -- recalls for us any number of accounts in recent history where those in power have drawn lines to separate from the whole a group for discrimination, torture or slaughter. Rwanda. Bosnia. Germany. Just to name three.
Drawing lines is something that should make us in our "All Are Welcome" churches cringe. Jesus doesn’t draw lines dividing people; he draws circles uniting people, right? I’m fond of saying that when we draw lines separating God’s people, Jesus is standing on the other side of the line with those we’ve condemned. Yet in today’s lesson, Jesus himself draws a line and condemns those on the other side. What do we do with that?
And what’s more, the sorting out that Jesus does is based on behavior, on what the people have done for "the least of these" (vs. 45). Feeding the hungry. Offering a drink to the thirsty. Welcoming the stranger. Clothing the naked. Visiting the imprisoned. These are blessed works of love and care for our neighbor in need.
By faith alone
But, undeniably, these are things that we do. And to our "sola fide" (by faith alone) Lutheran ears, the idea that our Lord would draw a line separating the damned from the saved based on works should be troubling.
The Gospel for Christ the King Sunday clearly doesn’t fit cleanly into my boxes. Not into my "Jesus doesn’t draw lines, he draws circles" box. Not into my "sola fide" box. Not into any comfortable and familiar box that I have on my shelf.
Instead, this reading stands out for its brash imagery of separating the people and promising punishment for those who fail to respond to human need as they ought. Indeed, failing to "help and support (our neighbor) in all of life’s needs," (Luther on the 5th Commandment) we all find ourselves on the damned side of the line as well.
But there are reasons to be encouraged by this reading. Jesus identifies and stands firmly with "the least of these." Evil, inequality, sin and injustice are defeated. God’s justice prevails, and this is very good news.
This reading directs us not only to our Lord and King, but it also gives us a sense of his holy, heavenly kingdom of righteousness and peace. A beautiful picture can be preached based on the glorious image of God’s kingdom glimpsed in this reading.
Nonetheless, this heartening good news certainly comes to me in a box quite unlike the one I'm used to opening. It'll behoove me to open it with care.
• When have you drawn lines that exclude another or a group of people from the grace of Jesus Christ?
• How are you drawn to recognize your sin so that justice and grace prevail beyond your own works?
• How do you recognize that God’s justice prevails beyond our human imagination? What does it take to see and rejoice in that grace?
Chris Duckworth is senior pastor at Grace Lutheran Church, St. Paul, Minn.
You might also want to read:
God doesn’t need your good works
Where hope is found: how Luther’s theology matters
A shooting gallery theology