Frances writes on next Sunday’s readings :- We live in a time when the world seems to be in chaos, with vicious wars being fought in Syria, led by its own ruler; and equally in Iraq and the Ukraine. Many of us are facing serious personal crises with illness and death, and in all these situations where we have no control over events it is very helpful to be reminded that God is in control and that our ultimate fate rests secure in him. This was the situation faced by the great prophets of Israel during the Babylonian exile, among them Ezekiel (Ez 34:11-12. 15-17). These men were surrounded by fools; powerful men, kings of Israel who lacked judgment, and their sycophant courtiers. Judah was by the early 6th century a vassal of the Babylonians but had rebelled, seduced by the vain promises of Egyptian help, and as a consequence Nebuchadnezzar had invaded, sacked Jerusalem and its temple, and deported its elite to Babylon. Clear sighted men like Ezekiel and Jeremiah must have despaired, certainly of any human intervention which could make sense of such monumental folly. We may frequently feel the same about our politicians. From within this despair the prophet had a series of visions, moments of clarity from God, in which he could see that despite all the disaster the God of Israel was actually in control and working for the good of his people. “I am going to look after my flock myself…I shall be a true shepherd to them.”
Ezekiel was uncompromisingly convinced of God’s power, and equally contemptuous of any human intervention. This is not however the view of Jesus, as reported by Matthew. (Matt 25:31-46). I am increasingly convinced that Matthew’s gospel is a very ‘dark’ piece of writing, and it is significant that this parable has no parallels in other gospels but stands out as the last parable of Jesus, given immediately before the Last Supper, the Passover and Jesus Passion. Over the last weeks we have explored parable after parable and incident after incident, in which the conflict between Jesus and the Jewish authorities and the Pharisees and scribes would mount to a crescendo, and end in his passion and death. Other Gospels share some of these incidents but in vastly different contexts and with different emphases.
We have to remember that Jesus was a Jew and had originally intended his saving mission exclusively for his own people whose intelligentsia totally rejected him. By the time Matthew wrote his Gospel in the 80’s, Christianity was rapidly becoming a faith of the Gentiles, pagan converts. The Jews had rebelled against the Romans and their city and temple was a heap of ruins, never to be rebuilt. The apparent failure of Jesus’ mission can be closely linked to Jewish expectations of a ‘saviour’ whom they understood in militaristic terms; a messiah who would lead a huge Jewish army and wipe Israel’s enemies off the map. Matthew’s agony is etched out on every page.
All the way through all of the Gospels, Jesus’ ministry has been especially marked by his concern for those traditionally called ‘sinners’. This included the sick, for illness was deemed due to personal transgression. It encompassed many whose occupations: shepherds; undertakers; dyers of cloth and so on, rendered them ‘unclean’ through their contact with animal excrement and birth materials, the dead, or urine, used in laundering and dying. Then of course there were the tax gatherers, Roman collaborators and prostitutes. All these were people who were never going to become ‘clean’, acceptable to the temple authorities or the religious purists. It was to them that Jesus spoke and ministered with such effectiveness, assuring them of God’s love and care and, above all, he did it away from Jerusalem and its all controlling Temple – no wonder they wanted him dead.
Matthew’s Gospel could well be read as his lament for his rejected people, in which those who cared for the thirsty, the poor and ill, the imprisoned; naked and outcast, refer to the mission to the pagan world – our world. No doubt there were Jews to whom Jesus ministered, but remarkably quickly Christianity became a Gentile affair, as we witness in the work of St Paul. What we get here, unlike Ezekiel’s picture, is the clear confirmation that our response to God’s grace matters. Salvation in God is wholly due to the death and resurrection of Christ, but our willing response through our care of others, modelled on Jesus, is central to our relationship with God.
It is unfortunate that so much of our Christian heritage has misconstrued passages like these, and turned them solely into moral imperatives. All those magnificent medieval ‘Doom’s’ have a lot to answer for. I say this because if we are not careful we can assume that our contribution to our salvation is of overriding importance. By way of contrast, St Thomas Aquinas gives the impression that our contribution is equivalent to a single grain of sand on the sea shore in comparison to God’s overwhelming grace – but it matters. God, we must remember, is all in all and can do with us what he wills, and what he wills amazingly is that we share his life!
St Paul put this beautifully to the Corinthians. (1 Cor 15:20-26.28). Corinth was a ‘new town’ full of arriviste men and women; self-made men and women, with a firm belief in making their own destinies. Try telling them that their salvation lay entirely in Christ! Yet his letters are full of his endeavours to do precisely this inspite of the difficulties he experienced with their appalling morals and behaviour. So Paul wrote these words of explanation and encouragement to the Christians of Corinth, insisting that it is solely through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ that anyone can find their eternal destiny in God. We have to remember just what a colossal mind-shift this was to pagans, for whom death was the end; one was literally blotted out – unless of course you were the emperors who became gods. Christianity promised a new and astounding future in God beyond the uncertainties of this life through Christ, real life, godlike association with the One God for everyone. “Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of all who have fallen asleep. Death came through one man and in the same way the resurrection of the dead has come through one man…all men will be brought to life in Christ”. He speaks of an entire universe ‘handed over’ to the Father, a picture of eternal peace and concord. Truly, this Feast proclaims great things for the believer and gives us great hope even in our darkest hours.