So here it is, the last Sunday of the church calendar. What better way to spend it than to talk about the Final Judgment (I feel like there should be some terrifying organ riff played every time I write that).
Matthew 25—The Sheep and the Goats, is the only place in The New Testament where there is a description of the so called, “Final Judgment.” And it creates all kinds of theological problems—where is the Grace of God if we are all sorted into eternal pens of punishment and life depending on how we treated “the least of these?”
Theologians have tried to sneak around this passage in all sorts of ways. Notably a Greek phrase is played with to try to work grace back into the picture—panta ta eqnh which can be translated in several ways. Part of the problem, is that all of those translations are fairly faithful to scripture and tradition.
First, we could take that phrase to mean “ALL the nations.” As in every individual goes before God for this judgment and sorting. The problem is, that this flies in the face of Christian traditions around grace and appears to support a kind of “Works Righteousness.”
Second, we could take that phrase to mean “all the gentiles.” eqnh means both gentiles and nations so this too is a fair translation. In this case, the theological move is to say that this is for all the outsiders—those who are not Jews or disciples of Christ. The nice part of this translation is that it allows for grace for God’s “chosen,” and still allows for a means for those outside the traditions to be granted eternal life. Many progressive theologians like this move. However, it sounds rather elitist to me—we get to skip the sorting line because God loves us more than them. Sounds like exactly what this passage speaks against—its not what you do for the people you like, but “the least of these.” So how come the liked people get to skip the line?
The other way to look at all of this is to say that God has extended grace, and acceptance of that grace looks like living a life that takes care of the least of these. This seems a bit more reasonable, but you still have the problem that this is not ultimately about what God does, but about what we do—do we choose to accept the Grace or not? In my mind, that is taking too much out of God’s hands and putting it in our own hands. Not to mention, this passage is pretty explicit about who is doing the sorting—THE SON OF MAN.
But that may be just it—maybe it has nothing to do with divine sorting of people, but has everything to do with “The Son of Man.” Ever notice that is kind of a peculiar title—Son of Man. In particular, it is only really used in the gospels and in the Hebrew Bible books of Ezekiel and Daniel. In Ezekiel, the term is often used to emphasize the role of human beings in relation to God. God is in charge! In Daniel it seems to play a slightly different role. “The Son of Man” in Daniel 7 is an apocalyptic figure that ties into Daniel’s vision of the final judgment. Sounds appropriate, right? Daniel’s vision is all about politics—go read the story it is wild and crazy with bizarre beasts and battles. In this case, the beasts are the symbols of various empires that have dealt with Israel in the past (Lion=Babylon, Bear=Medes, Leopard=Persians, Dragon=Greeks). Then we have the entrance of the “Ancient of Days” and “One Like the Son of Man.” Daniel 7:13-14: “13 As I watched in the night visions, I saw one like the Son of Man coming with the clouds of heaven. And he came to the Ancient One and was presented before him. 14 To him was given dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed.” Sound a little like our passage in Matthew 25? It should. Jesus is retelling a political vision from Daniel that confirms that those imperial powers—those beasts—will fall. God is ultimately in charge, not powerful empires. Daniel is all about nations, politics and systemic sin. Trying to read this as being about individuals or being a “literal depiction” of the last judgment will just give you a headache.
If we understand these ancient politics, we understand that Jesus is taking Daniel’s vision to the next level. Not only is this about the powers of this world being brought low, but they don’t even get to maintain the image of beasts anymore. They are nothing more than sheep for the slaughter (Another Hebrew Bible Reference, Psalm 44). In this case the political message is clear—the way the empire and the religious elite of Jerusalem act in the very next chapter of Matthew will determine their fate. Since chapter 26 includes the betrayal and arrest of Jesus, it is fairly easy to conclude that those powerful beasts have just locked themselves in the goat pen.
Here is the important part of all this—not every part of scripture is about us as individuals. Sometimes, God has bigger goats to fry. Sometimes, it is about the larger political realities of empires, and not about whether we, individually, are destined for eternal punishment or eternal life. It is about the ultimate demise of nations before the sovereignty of God.
This is, however, a reminder for us who live in a nation that is governed “by the people.” We have a responsibility as a nation to care for the “least of these.” How are we doing on that one? In which pen are we setting up camp?
So often, the Hebrew Bible speaks about the realities of corporate and systemic sin—were the Israelites as a people being faithful? And if we extend this to ourselves, the results may very well be troubling. If we take Christ’s vision seriously, the question isn’t whether we are a “Christian Nation,” that is whether there are a lot of people that believe in Christ. The question is, how are we treating as a nation treating “the least of these?”