The judgement of Matthew 25 is not about individuals, hell or the afterlife; but nations, consequences and this life now. (Listen.)
Are you afraid of God’s judgement? Jesus says he will send some into eternal fire and punishment, and others into eternal life; and so this story has often been used to create fear in people. Fear of being rejected by God. Fear of never-ending punishment. Fear of a fiery hell. But I’m here to unpack Jesus’ teaching, because this interpretation is highly problematic. So still your anxious heart as we look at who or what is being judged and what the judgement looks like, for we will discover a different reading which takes away fear and beckons us into life.
To the first question, then: Who or what is being judged?
In most English translations, we hear that Jesus is judging ‘people.’ Because we live in a highly atomised culture, we hear this as ‘individuals.’ However, when we go back to the Greek we find that Jesus is talking about ‘ethne.’ It’s the plural of ‘ethnos,’ which can be translated as ‘nation’; it can also refer to any group of people who share a common culture and tradition.
So Jesus is *not* talking about the judgement of individuals. Instead, he’s talking about people-groups: nations, for the most part, but also cities, towns, schools, sports clubs, even churches: that is, any people-group with a shared culture and tradition.
Does a people-group value wealth, power, and insider status? Does it tolerate, even encourage, violence? Does it ignore, oppress, or exploit its most vulnerable members? Does it enforce strong group boundaries? Does it scapegoat people and blame others for its troubles? Does it alienate or reject Jesus’ ‘little ones’: women, LGBTI+ people, people with autism, and others?
If the answer to questions like these is ‘yes,’ then that people-group—that ethnos—will face the fire. At one extreme, it may face the blazing fires of riots or mass shootings or police violence; more moderately, it may know a series of scandals, feuds and splits; or it may simply erupt in violent arguments about the colour of the new church carpet. One way or another, the consequences of its culture and tradition will be devastating.
Another people-group, another ethnos, might have a different culture: a culture shaped by Christ. This ethnos would value non-violence and compassion. It would serve its most vulnerable members. It would reach beyond porous and ever-expanding boundaries to others in need of what it can offer. It would feed the hungry, visit the sick, care for the prisoner and welcome the stranger; and it would seek to love every person who comes into its orbit as one of its own.
Such an ethnos would also face consequences, including, quite possibly, persecution by the wider culture. But it would inherit the kingdom, says Jesus. That is, it would inherit a compassionate community, life in abundance, a culture of love; it would be a place where every person can flourish and there is enough for all.
This brings me to the second question: When does judgement happen?
Some of us have been taught that we will be judged after death, and then either rewarded with everlasting life or punished with everlasting fire. But this is a Greek way of thinking, not a Jewish way of thinking: and Jesus was Jewish.
The Jewish concept of eternal life is not about living forever, but about living in God’s age. The word often translated as ‘eternal’ just means ‘era’ or ‘age,’ and when Jesus talks about eternal life, he’s not talking about immortality. Instead, he’s talking about living deeply and authentically in this life, now. What Jesus calls eternal life is life marked by fullness and flourishing. It’s about integrating all the broken bits of our lives, and integrating our lives with others. It’s about embodying compassion, justice, and self-giving love; it’s about being knit into a wider body where we are known and cherished. This is life healed and made whole.
Conversely, the ‘fiery era’ or ‘era of punishment’ is not about torture in the afterlife. Instead, it’s describing the way we shrivel up when we reject life, disrupt shalom, and defy God at every step; and it’s about the meltdown which happens when too many people in an ethnos choose this way of death.
We can see this happening all around us. Jesus says that when the New Human comes, he will sit on the throne of his glory and sort the people-groups; then, just a few days later, he tells the high priest Caiaphus that, “From now on, you will see the New Human seated at the right hand of power and coming on the clouds of heaven” (Mt 26:64).
Mark those words: “From now on.” It means the New Human is already arriving, judgement is already happening, and all we need to do is look at the news to see how true this is.
What happens when a nation extols violence, corrupts justice and mocks the poor? What happens when it incarcerates people at horrifying rates, privatizes medical care, undermines epidemiologists, and leaves the sick to die alone? Answer: It burns up. Fear is a constant companion; justice is perverted; truth flees the land. There are riots in the streets; wildfires in the hills; and narcotics in the blood to blot the pain away. Manufactured outrage flares up everywhere, and ordinary people buy assault rifles.
Conversely, what happens when a nation seeks justice, feeds the hungry, tends to the sick, welcomes the stranger, visits the prisoner, and ensures that no one is imprisoned unjustly? Answer: It flourishes. People go for evening strolls; elders sit on park benches and watch the children play. The air is filled with music and laughter; the land is fertile; and the rivers teem with life. Looking around, we can see both these eras currently unfolding. The fiery era tends to dominate our attention, but flourishing life is popping up everywhere, too, in cities, neighbourhoods and other people-groups.
So, what does this all mean for us?
Well, Sanctuary is an ethnos: a people-group united by our shared commitment to Jesus Christ and his culture. This commitment is why, one way or another, many of us work for system change. We seek justice for vulnerable people. We educate others about autism, and LGBTI+ issues, and domestic abuse. We work for and support development agencies. We ask our employers to use ethical super. We unpick violent theologies and point to Jesus’ way. And we do all this and many other things knowing that the forces of the wider ethnos are ranged against us—and within us.
We persist because the work is incredibly important. Even so, our most powerful witness will always be in how we embody Christ’s ethnos together. We can seek justice until the cows come home: but it’s just as important to eat together, and to invite strangers to the table. We need to go beyond charity and into relationship; beyond activism and beyond professionalism, and into love. For our ultimate call is to be a loving and interconnected group of people, with Christ our head and king.
For when Christ the king unites us, and shapes us, and fills us with his spirit, justice cannot help but flow. The vulnerable will be cared for; strangers will be made welcome; the sick will know healing; prisoners will lose their chains. Together we will experience full and flourishing life: God’s life in abundance. And because we are animated by the Christ-king, and the king does not judge himself, we have nothing, absolutely nothing, to fear.
So let us allow Christ to keep forming us into his ethnos. Let us be known as citizens of the kingdom, a sign of God’s new age. And let us keep embodying God’s new creation, that joyful reality in which Christ’s love and compassion and shalom flow through and to everyone. Amen. Ω
Reflection on Matthew 25:31-46 given to Sanctuary on 22 November (Year A Proper 20 (Reign of Christ)) © Alison Sampson, 2020. Image credit: Andrey Mironov (2013) (Wikimedia).
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