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Monday, November 17, 2014

All in the Family--Part One

I recently had the chance to lead a study on Matthew 25 recently at a "Women of the ELCA" cluster event at Emanuel Lutheran Church.  The focus was the Parable of the Great Judgment in Matthew 25:31-46.  So I will share here what I shared with the participants that day.  We will hear this text read in worship on Christ the King Sunday.

The first thing to notice is that this text is not a parable.  Instead, it is a vision.  It doesn’t begin like a parable.  There is no “The Kingdom of Heaven may be compared to” a man or a seed or a treasure.  This is the climax of Jesus’ discourse on the fate and future of Jerusalem and the Temple.

In this vision, “all the nations” stand in judgment before the Son of Man on his throne.  In New Testament Greek, the same word is used for “nations” and “Gentiles.”  Immediately we may notice that at least some of these outsiders are going to end up inheriting “the kingdom prepared for [them] from the foundation of the world.”  But we will leave aside this assertion of a measure of universalism within on the lips of Jesus.
Many Old Testament texts imagine that the Gentiles will come to be judged when God sets all things right.  Here is an example from Psalm 9.  Notice the connection between the judgment of the nations and the protection of the needy and the poor.

16 The Lord has made himself known, he has executed judgment;
   the wicked are snared in the work of their own hands.
17 The wicked shall depart to Sheol,
   all the nations that forget God.
18 For the needy shall not always be forgotten,
   nor the hope of the poor perish for ever.

Or again in Psalm 66:4-5:

4 Let the nations be glad and sing for joy,
   for you judge the peoples with equity
   and guide the nations upon earth.
5 Let the peoples praise you, O God;
   let all the peoples praise you.

Or again in Psalm 96:10-13

10 Say among the nations, ‘The Lord is king!... for he is coming,
   for he is coming to judge the earth.
He will judge the world with righteousness,
   and the peoples with his truth.

This image of judging the Gentiles is emphasized in some passages associated with the coming of God’s Messiah.  For example, we can read in Isaiah 2:2-4:

2 In days to come
   the mountain of the Lord’s house
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
   and shall be raised above the hills;
all the nations shall stream to it. …
4 He shall judge between the nations,
   and shall arbitrate for many peoples;
they shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
   and their spears into pruning-hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
   neither shall they learn war any more.

The “son of man” passage in Daniel 7 also mentions the judgment of the nations.

13As I watched in the night visions,
I saw one like a human being
   coming with the clouds of heaven….
14 To him was given dominion
   and glory and kingship,
that all peoples, nations, and languages
   should serve him.


So there was an expectation during Jesus’ earthly life and ministry that the nations would be called to account by God at the end of all things. 

Please be clear, however that this vision is not primarily about the end of history.  This vision is about God’s victory that begins in the cross and resurrection of Jesus.  Jesus describes the coming of the Son of Man in Matthew 16:24-28.

“Then Jesus told his disciples, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?  For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done. 28Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”

In Matthew 24:34, Jesus again makes it clear that the judgment begins with his cross and resurrection.  “Truly I tell you,” he says there, “this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.”

So this scene in Matthew 25 is a vision of that calling to account.  In Ezekiel 34:17, this judgment is connected to the image of a Shepherd who will save and lead Israel: “As for you, my flock, thus says the Lord God: I shall judge between sheep and sheep, between rams and goats…”  So the image is familiar to Jesus’ listeners.  They know precisely what Jesus is describing.  This is what happens to the nations after God’s people have served faithfully.

More tomorrow...