Thursday, October 13, 2011

Proper 29 Year A

Proper 29 A "Christ the King"
(Revised Common Lectionary)

Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24; Psalm 100 OR Psalm 95: 1-7a; Ephesians 1:15-23, Matthew 25: 31-36

Using daily, familiar experiences, the Hebrew prophets describe God as a potter (Jeremiah, Isaiah), a gardener (Jeremiah), mother (Isaiah), healer (Jeremiah) and, most frequently, a shepherd (Jeremiah, psalms and this passage from Ezekiel). Given the complete spiritual, social, political, physical and religious crises caused by the conquest and captivity by the Babylonian empire, new hopes were placed on God by the chosen as articulated by Ezekiel. Homeless in Babylon, they were "scattered far and wide" and totally vulnerable. But God will gather, rescue, seek, bring back, bind-up and strengthen. God will judge between the "fat and the lean sheep" and "feed the lean with justice." "I, myself, will be the shepherd of my sheep...."  The failed leaders who "butted" the "weak animals" will be replaced with "my servant David, and he shall feed them and be their shepherd."  

As he crosses the threshold into the court of praise, the psalmist sings "God has made us and we are God's/ God's people and flock"


The psalmist summons praise to God who is our maker and "the Rock of our rescue." "We are the people of God's hand."  We are God's people, "the flock."

Paul understands the emergence of the church as an extension and continuing demonstration of God's power at work through Christ, whom God "raised from the dead and seated him at God's right hand in the heavenly place."

In the biblical narratives, restoration and rescue always entail the re-establishment of justice by God. This ancient hope is now applied in Matthew's narrative to Christ when he "comes in his glory and all the angels with him...." While all three synoptic gospels conclude parallel sections with warnings about a time of reckoning linked to the coming of "the Son of man," only Matthew's narrative concludes this section just before the Passion Story with a vivid depiction of the wonderful and terrible event. Like a "shepherd" who routinely performs the necessary task of separating "the sheep from the goats," so "the Son of man" will separate those who fed the hungry and thirsty, welcomed the stranger, clothed the naked, cared for the sick and imprisoned from those who did not do these things.  Because: as you did or did not do to the least.. you did or did not do to me!

Matthew's narrative places a scene, unique to this gospel, at the climax of his several chapters devoted to a telling of the unforgettable words and actions of Jesus and just before the final chapter set in Jerusalem.

He paints a stunning picture. A supreme Judge of last resort sits on a throne. This Judge's decisions are final. Some react with joy, others are horrified with the decisions. The sole criterion on which the Judge is basing these final decisions is who was and who was not engaged in basic, daily habits of justice. Nothing else matters.

  (This image in Matthew's gospel is the inspiration for Michelangelo's vivid depiction of "The Last Judgement" that covers the entire wall behind the altar in the Sistine Chapel. )

A passion for justice, not as theory but as concrete, everyday actions, emerges also among some postmodern writers. Derrida and Marion articulate powerful arguments for "radical hospitality" as central to their entire work. Gadamer understands the act of interpretation of texts as a communal quest to judge what is "right, here and now." Levinas argues that because the other person can never be reduced to any form of total understanding, he or she always stands in my line of sight as unavoidable responsibility. This responsibility is beyond ethics. It is a "spiritual" claim; he or she is a "trace" of infinity, of God. "The most finite creature is filled with the infinite in its own way," he insists. (Alterity and Transcendence, p. 67)  

John Caputo, reliably, captures the gist of this postmodern reverence for biblical justice: "In the kingdom, the mark of God is on the face of the stranger, the 'other,' not the 'same.'  In the biblical tradition. God is not the object of speculative mysticism that sweeps us up into an eternal now where we are one with the One, but the one who comes knocking  at our door dressed in rages in search of bread and a cup of cold water."  "The one who receives the stranger receives God, 'the God who loves the stranger'." (The Weakness of God: A Theology of Event, pp 262-263)

Matthew is clear. Some are going to be shocked when the final judgment is announced. Some thought the only criterion that mattered was being "religious" (some vague impression about serving God only for the sake of serving God or developing a 'personal' relationship with God for my personal benefit) when in fact it was the basic habits of daily compassion that count! "
When did we not serve God?" The answer "When you did not respond to the needs of others as a part your daily routine." It should be so natural to one's everyday habits, that it does not seem special or not even necessarily "religious." But for those who thought they had figured out and were doing "religious" things but were oblivious to the needs of other people of all sorts and conditions, there is a rude awakening coming, so biblical texts want to make clearly and as vividly because this is the core of their witness!