Our Lady of Lebanon Catholic Church, Norman, Oklahoma
Hebrews 12, 18-24 + Matthew 25, 31-46
With these verses, the narrative portion of Matthew’s Gospel comes to an end. It began with chapter five. Jesus came from the desert, was baptized by John, and then went up on a mountain and began his instruction with the first of his great sermons that we call: “The Sermon on the Mount.” Through several great sermons, Jesus has put before us his instruction and vision of the Kingdom of God. The next verse after today’s passage begins the Passion. Scholars tell us that with all the Gospels, the Passion of Christ was written first, and then the earlier parts of the Gospel were written to set the scene and introduce the characters. That would suggest that we might imagine Matthew’s Gospel to be a great drama allowing us to view the Gospel this way:
There is a prelude before the curtain opens. That is the Story of the Birth and Infancy of Jesus. It is as though we are getting settled in our seats, the lights go down, the orchestra plays some of the themes that will be lead us through.
The genealogy, the annunciation to Joseph (which in Matthew gets more lines than Mary’s annunciation because of his connection to David’s lineage), a story of the visitors from the east, the reaction/introduction of Herod and his authorities. This Christmas story is all an introduction.
Then, the curtain goes up. John the Baptist walks on, baptizes Jesus, and act one begins with a trip to the desert. From then on a series of scenes unfolds one after another that some call “sermons” all leading to the final one given at the Temple in Jerusalem.
That is the scene we have just concluded, and it is now time in the Gospel for the finale – the final grand act that resolves the conflict which in Matthew’s Gospel has been a conflict of Justice and Mercy, Law and Love. Perfect timing for us in the Maronite Church as the Great Season of Lent is about to begin.
Our expectation and imagination of how everything shall be resolved at the end is shaken by this scene and the little drama within the big drama of the Gospel. The little drama is this story Jesus tells. It is a radical departure from the common idea of virtuous action or good behaving bringing a reward.
The usual understanding is that one is rewarded for good works done on earth. The idea that “Justice” will come because someone is keeping track of all things in a great “book of life” is shattered by this story. As Matthew sees it, there is no record that the righteous can point to when called before the King. Both the blessed and the condemned are unaware of what really matters. What does matters, it seems, is the stuff they never thought of. What determines their destiny and seals their fate are things to which they never assigned any significance. All that stuff they were doing to look good and win favor or get good point does not matter at all. In the end, it will be something else entirely.
This whole idea flies in the face of what we think Justice is all about. We want it to be something clear-cut. We like to be sure that we’re right. We want to be certain that we are orthodox; that we have all the answers, and possess the truth, and of course, then we can call the shots. That is why this scene is so surprising. Both sides are astonished that the Son of Man does not share their notion of “Justice” and their idea of balancing the books. In fact, the Son of Man does not make the final judgment. He confirms the depth of their actions. He ratifies their behavior. The King, not necessarily the same person, calls and sends one group one way and another group the other way. Matthew suggests here that inconsequential acts of human generosity and compassion that people do without thought of reward or of profit have profound significance for the future as well as for the present. It is not what we get out of it now or ever that matters. In fact, the things from which we get nothing seem to have the most potential. Spontaneous acts of reaching out to another human being make the most difference in this kind of justice, not those where the consequences are measured and chosen for the maximum benefit. In the world’s eyes, that kind of behavior is folly, but not so in this Gospel.
This is not a program of virtues that gains a reward. It suggests with some subtlety that the moment we decide what to do by what we get out of it, we’ve lost it. It suggests the spontaneous acts of human kindness which spring out of a great and noble heart tuned to the presence of Christ are the ones that matter. The message of this final scene is that whenever we give up our rights, our time, even our lives wasting ourselves for others, even for God, then we enter in the company of fools in the eyes of this world. Yet we know and discover perhaps only at the end that the leader of the fools is hidden among the unimportant ones of this world.