We just moved- most of you know that.. I am not new to this- I have done it many times and I have learned more than a few tricks to make it easier. And still it happens- someone takes apart an item in our house, doesn’t write down the steps or take pictures, doesn’t put the parts in a bag or doesn’t label the bag and then, of course, the bag may not even be taped to the item- getting dumped either in the garbage or into a pile of chaos that we have to sort out on the other end.
Inevitably, I find myself with parts and no idea how they function or what they even go to. My mind ends up with all kinds of possibilities as I set it aside until we end up needing the missing piece when voila- it suddenly makes sense. The intent becomes clear with the need to understand and the right context. I spoke last week about the importance of context- well Matthew sure drives this lesson home for us once again.
This year I have felt pretty beaten up by the Matthew gospel. I don’t know if it is me, current events application or just that Matthew really likes to use the threat of punishment as motivation. Regardless, as we stand here on this final Sunday of the Church year, imagining what it will be like with Christ as King, I am really just hoping Matthew got it all wrong- because I don’t want a King who threatens me to make me behave. I keep hoping, like with my furniture, that a little context and instruction might help me with how this scripture reveals God.
Yet it seems, for too long of a time, Christianity has taught and relied upon that angry God- one very different than the one Jesus speaks of. Jesus tells us to love our enemies, but the Angry God smites them. Jesus tells us to forgive our enemies seventy time seven, but the Angry God smashes them. Jesus speaks of a loving father, but the Angry God throws people into a burning pit for eternity for failing to care for one homeless person.
This angry God seems to have become the one most of us were exposed to and raised to believe in; To our own spiritual detriment. It isn’t anything new of course, Martin Luther was taught the Angry God mythology, too and yet even after the Reformation, the myth remains, larger than life- in fact, seeming to rule our lives. We hear of the new generations of “nones” those who fill in the religion blank with the response, “none.” and wonder what happened- but we seem unwilling to recognize that this may be a huge culprit. It is unthinkable to imagine wanting to spend eternity with a big mean jerk who is vindictive and cruel. Why would you want to spend even an hour in silence, solitude, or intimacy with such a god, let alone eternity?
We’ve developed an unworkable and toxic image of God that a healthy person would never trust and faith and toxicity are bad dance partners. Faith is a mystical unexplainable dance and the mystical, transformative journey cannot take place until that image of an angry God is dismantled.
It is easy to see how this passage from Matthew immediately feels like a bludgeon wielded by this angry God. The historical idea and use places a higher value on Christian performance over attitude or faith. And this passage becomes the goad once again to keep us in line. But what good is a Reformation anniversary if it doesn’t cause us to examine our roots? As Lutherans this angry God doesn’t fit when we read this and there is no room for faith in the passage. Since we rarely question scripture and whether it is missing something important, it leaves us questioning ourselves. Well folks, if we just read this passage, then yes, something is missing something. The rest of the book has to be read in context with this passage. The parable discourse of Matthew closes out the book of Matthew and scholars argue the parables of Matthew are Jesus’ verbal punishment of Israel for their rejection. He tried to share the truth gently and they ignored him. It feels harsh and it is. But it does not represent Christ or God alone anymore than a mother’s scolding an errant child in the grocery store is representative of how she always interacts with her child.
And just like needing a label for the random parts of my household, we need clarity at times from Christ. He has spent several years sharing stories of God and trying to let people see the truth gently but so many ignore him or only take him in as a spectacle. Finally, fed up, Jesus is making his points absolutely clear in the parables- stories that will illustrate how serious this is. He breaks it down and labels it all using the language of the people and streets in stories that they can relate to. It is very harsh, but if he didn’t make it absolutely clear, someone would inevitably come along argue that he wasn’t clear about the rules of the game and would avoid the reality. He is really bringing home the whole point of his life and death for them before he goes. Jesus is making powerful contrasting statements when he describes the separation of sheep and goats, but he does explain them with compassion when he reminds them “whatever you did for the least of these you did for me.”
Christ in Matthew’s gospel is showing how Love is the answer and sometimes love means confrontation. In this harsh parable, Jesus is demanding social justice in the most traditional of ways, steeped in Jewish law of economic justice that favors the poor and needy. He is reminding us that God’s preference is and always has been for the needy and poor. We need that confrontation- that reminder that the love of God happens beyond our reach and even beyond our labels and it is more expansive than we can ever imagine, including the ones we often even fail to see. We need reminded that we do not have favor and a free pass just because we know Christ, rather, we are instead called to more because of it. When you come to my home as a guest, you are welcomed and I have few expectations of you. But when you are part of the family, close friends who are chosen family of the heart, there are additional expectations- as part of the family you help clear the table and wash dishes, you may even take out the trash or vacuum up. We are the children of God through Christ now. We are no longer the guests, instead we are the family and we are called to the deep love of Christ our King here and now- to participate relationally with God’s creation, as children of that King- heirs of the throne and thus responsible for the care and nurture of the kingdom alongside our Savior.
He is reminding us there is no wealth or religious preference. We all participate and we all stand equal at the judgment . And we also stand equally loved. That can be easy to miss. Love can get buried in fear if we let it. The good news is that Matthew’s reading isn’t actually about fear and punishment, it clearly points back to a loving Christ who is saying as plainly as possible that the pain of being judged and separated like goats is not necessary- that Love can heal; and love can provide; and love can save. Only Love matters- and faith exists because of that love- Christ’s great love. Matthew is declaring for us that Love is never anonymous- it is always wrapped up in the participation of Christ’s love for the world- whether we call it that or not. Every time a hungry mouth is fed, every time a shivering or sunburnt body is covered, we are participating in Christ’s love and in turn, his kingdom.
Our God could be that angry God. Yes. But I don’t think so. This parable is not one of fear- but of desperate, deep, and abiding love. Christ has come and given us the instruction manual and reminded us that our God is a God of love- who desperately wants us and wants to be in deep and intimate relationship with us- risking everything to achieve that. Only in desperation will there be the end with separation- and Christ has clearly shown us that this is not necessary. It is hard to care for the other- the unknown is always hard. But our faith that is fed in relationship with Christ through the Holy Spirit gives us strength and even the desire to do the things that seem scary and against the pull of the world. And we do not do it alone. Christ remains with us, prodding and loving, a good king, a kind king, a forgiving king, already involved in the kingdom to come by already coming to us here and now.