Scots Church Adelaide
Live Life Well

The Sunday of Christ's Reign

The Lectionary: Matthew 25:31-46

‘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, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, "Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for 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." Then the righteous will answer him, "Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?" And the king will answer them, "Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family,you did it to me." Then he will say to those at his left hand, "You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me." Then they also will answer, "Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?" Then he will answer them, "Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me." And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.'

26:1 When Jesus had finished saying all these things, he said to his disciples, 2‘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, 4and they conspired to arrest Jesus by stealth and kill him.

In Matthew 25 we are approaching the gospel's finale. At the end of Chapter 25 there is an abrupt change, as the passion narrative begins. All until now has been introducing this moment, and preparing us to understand the significance of Jesus' death.

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.

The finale is is purely about end times. The end has come, and Jesus, the Son of Man, will be seen by all for whom he is. There will be no escape and no excuse. It is obvious why this reading is chosen for the Sunday of Christ's Rule.

"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." This is not a case of glimpses of the kingdom now but not yet. This is the kingdom in full; the fulfillment of time.

I find two key messages in this last chapter. It says, as you read and remember the passion, know this: Jesus is the Lord, and what we do matters. Live life well. In a sense, that's all there is to say! The things which follow in this reflection are side points of interest. As we read on the story of Jesus' death will show us what letting Jesus be Lord, and what living well will cost us.

Some who argue in support of Christianity being the only true religion find support as they see Jesus' Lordship in this story. It is clear that if we claim to follow him we place this upon ourselves. We place our judgement in his hands. The argument cannot be made from this story that Christianity is right and Islam, for example, is wrong. The story makes it clear that whatever we ascribe to, it is what we live which is important. There is no question of right doctrine, or right belief in Matthew's picture. He does not mention being a member of the Christian community; the story is for all people. It is inclusive.

It is a huge reprimand to those who use doctrine as a way to exclude people. The only question- the question on which salvation depends is, "Have you lived well? Did you give the Christ a glass of water?" I am reluctant to say that a Hindu follower, who has indeed lived selflessly, and would be numbered among the sheep, as it were, would necessarily recognize the Son of Man as Jesus. Divinity and Ultimacy is surely mediated by our own cultural milieu. To think that the Divine Son of Man really is Jesus is to reify the Divine within the straightjacket of our own cultural limitations. Jesus may perfectly reflect the Divine, but I doubt our understanding of him limits him; indeed to claim otherwise is making an idol of our perceptions!

But as for me and my house... Jesus is Lord. Even if he is in some sense "a skillful means," that skillfull means is what provides my compass and bearing. I have found none better.

End Times is not a comfortable idea for many of us. It is closely linked to a pre-scientific world view many can barely comprehend. It seems fundamental to the worst expressions of Christianity today. Can this concept say anything to us? Does it have any reality?

We need to understand that just as consumerism, internet, cars and The United States of America are part of the air we breathe in this age, apocalyptic thinking was the air people breathed in Jesus' time. It was, for many, the only conceivable way to make sense of the grinding poverty and oppression and uncertainty under which most people lived. Our idea that things are progressing and will get better as a matter of course, is both very recent and extraordinarily privileged. It is not a universal expectation based on good experience even today; not even in western democracies. For some people even today, such an idea remains a profound symbol of hope.

At the very least we need to see that the hope of divine intervention was the only hope many people had in Jesus' time. It was a cosmology which made sense. We need to see it first of all in that light, and be careful in our skepticism and criticism. Few of us have any real conception of the insecurity of life at the time.

Most of all, we need to avoid using this last story in Matthew 25 to justify pain. It does not. It is not a theodicy. It may have seemed for Matthew's people that they would receive recompense, but it is not for us in our security, to take the story and make it a general or systematic answer to "Why pain and evil?" God would be a monster, if able to do otherwise, God allowed rape and murder with the excuse that "It will be made up to you in the end."

What then does the story imply? Again, obviously, Jesus is Lord. It also implies some kind of "existence" after death.

Existence after death is another uncomfortable idea in our time. The ruling idea today is that ultimate reality is based in matter, which somehow has developed or evolved something we call consciousness or sentience. This proves a great problem for "life after death" speculation. How can a matter dependent consciousness survive the destruction of its foundations? In this view, when we die, the material that holds and nurtures our consciousness decays. I cannot imagine how the consciousness would survive.

It is worth noting that how this consciousness would have evolved is a very difficult and unsolved question. Scientific pronouncements in this area seem often be heading more into the realm of metaphysics, if not religious faith, unless there is a fair degree of humility and agnosticism.

If we accept the other, most out of fashion view in the West, that consciousness, or at least sentience is the ultimate reality, which matter has been accreted around, then the notion of some kind of existence after death is not such a problem. In this case, sentience is not dependent on matter. Equally with the other view, the evidence and arguments for all of this world view are highly speculative. We are moving into an area where repeatable objective observation, the basis of the scientific method, becomes difficult and even impossible.

You can find introductions to this way of thinking (re-introductiions, in one sense) in these places on the web (among many others.)

A Purpose for Everything. Blurb: Charles Birch is a biologist specializing in genetics, and resides in Australia. He is joint winner of the 1990 International Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion.. His teaching career includes Oxford, Columbia and the Universities of Chicago and Minnesota, as well as visiting professor of genetics at the University of California at Berkeley and professor of biology at the University of Sydney. The book is fully available on line. Birch comes from a Christian perspective.

Toward the First Revolution in the Mind Sciences, Allan Wallace. Wallace is a Buddhist monk and physicist. This is a Google Tech Talk, and very clear and "listenable."

Also from a Buddhist perspective, Peter Russell's work is freely available online., Russell comes to religion from science, and via Christianity to Buddhism. His own journey is definitely not anti-science, or fundamentalist.

Does existence after the death of the body matter? To put it another way, is there any value in this story if in fact there is no resurrection in the way Matthew assumes?

If we read the story as a literal account, then of course we need it to happen. If that's where you are, you've probably stopped reading before now anyway!

If we need this story of Matthew to be literally true so that we survive after death, then I think we have missed the point. Following Jesus so that we will not die is sub-Christian. Ask a question of ourselves! If we knew for a certainty there is no life after death, would Jesus' teaching about love, compassion, justice, peace and so on be invalid? Would not the life he shows us still be worth living?

Or would we turn to "eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die," and not in the restrained way of the Epicureans, but in a kind of hopeless, selfish hedonism?

From what I know of the worth of life and humanity, I would want to live the same Jesus ethic. It would still give the best result for all people. It would still transform me. It would still hallows human worth and dignity.

If we need Matthew to be true so that we can survive death, we are still caught in the worship of the Self. Beware of the self! The judgement in Matthew was about love of Jesus and love of others, not self. Ultimately this is not a story about survival of death. It is about the worth of living, and how we live.

A final note here: Paul makes states the obvious in 1 Corinthians 15:35-41 Bodily death is a major interruption of our reality. What we are talking about is symbols and hints (through a glass darkly) rather than literalities. The seed that has died, Paul says, rises as a new plant that bears no resemblance to the original seed. So to concentrate too much on what may follow is really to be chasing glimpses of shadow in a mirror.

So I am for living, whatever follows my bodily death. Whatever the end time reality is, this story asks a question of the worth of how I have lived. Will the answer be good, or will it, as we say in Australia, show I have been a real goat?

We began our exploration of Matthew 25 saying "Beware of the Self." In this article we have said "To live well, live life for Jesus and live for others." Now, in the story of his passion, we learn what that will cost us.

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.

Andrew Prior 
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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