Saturday, November 18, 2017

Members of the Family - the Final Word

In Matthew 25:31-46, the final parable in this triad of Final Judgment parables in Matthew 25, we get one last look at Matthew's piety, which was revealed early on in the Sermon on the Mount.  We recall the words of Jesus, "Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven." (7:21)  So it is.  Both the righteous and the unrighteous refer to the king as kyrios but they have starkly different ends.  The many parallels in this parable behoove us to pay attention to the details which lead to these ends.

(The following questions have been developed to answer some of the concerns of Law and Gospel preachers.  They are meant to be used in conjunction with many other fine sets of exegetical questions which attempt to get at other concerns.  For more on this genre of preaching, please see my brief guide, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted, available from wipfandstock.com or amazon.)

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  There is no doubt that the Word is functioning as Law here.  The final verse seals it:  "And these will go away into eternal punishment but the righteous into eternal life."  There is a strong sense of the Law functioning as mirror here, showing us our sin.  We have all neglected those in need, and so we all stand under judgment.  As the prophet said, "There is none righteous; not even one."  But as St. Paul reminds us, the Law is meant to drive us to repentance, and so it does, urging us to take care of our siblings in need.

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  Like the previous parables in Matthew 25, the Gospel is not immediately obvious.  One important statement gives us a hint, however:  "Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world."  Notice that this inheritance was set up long before anyone had had an opportunity to earn it.  It has been God's will since the foundation of the earth to keep in readiness an inheritance for the blessed ones.  This inheritance is evidence of God's great love for all creation.  It is equally important to note that the eternal fire is not prepared for the cursed, but for the devil and his minions.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  We are those on the right and those on the left.  We are those who both see the needy neighbor and those who are blind to them.  We are those who are called to repentance by this parable.  Again, there is none righteous; not even one.

4.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  This text, just like the previous two parables, can be understood as a call to obedience.  Here we are called to minister to those in need in no uncertain terms.  As recipients of God's grace, as joint heirs with Christ, we are compelled to reach out with compassion to our siblings in need.

5.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  There are obviously some very neat couplets present in the text:  cursed/blessed; shunned/embraced.  We might explore others.

6.  Exegetical work: Some of the details of this text appear noteworthy:  One is the obvious same wording that is used when the king speaks to the faithful and to the unfaithful.  Neither see Christ in their needy neighbor.  Both encounter the same neediness; one ministers to them, one does not. One interesting detail is that the king describes "the least of these" as those who are "members of my family" in speaking to the faithful, while the king leaves out that detail in talking to the unfaithful.  It makes me wonder if a key to a life of compassion isn't in seeing the needy as siblings of ours.  Another interesting parallel, alluded to above, is that the eternal fire and the kingdom have both been prepared beforehand.  The word could be translated "kept in readiness."  God's kingdom is kept in readiness to be inherited by the blessed.  The eternal fire is kept in readiness for the devil and his minions.  Both have been kept in readiness since the foundation of the world.  St. Chrysostom in commenting on this says, "He did not say [to the blessed] 'take' but 'inherit' as one's own, as your father's, as yours, as due to you from the first. 'For before you were,' he says, 'these things had been prepared and made ready for you, because I knew you would be such as you are.'" "But concerning the fire, he does not say [prepared for you from the foundation of the world] but 'prepared for the devil.'  I prepared the kingdom for you, he says, but the fire I did not prepare for you but 'for the devil and his angels.'  But you have cast yourselves into it.  You have imputed it to yourselves." (Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, NT, vol. 1b, p. 232-234)

7.  How does the Crossings Community model work with this text? Jerry Bruce does a nice job of reminding us of the interrelatedness of all these parables in Matthew.  He reminds us that, as I pointed out, Jesus' words in the Sermon on the Mount are echoed here.  Finally, the good news is that we are not sheep or goats, but "members of God's family."   That's the really good news.  Christ has seen us in our hunger, thirst, nakedness, poverty, and imprisonment, and ministered to us. To that we say, Thanks be to God!  See Jerry's entire analysis at crossings.org/text study.

Blessings on your proclamation!

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