Sunday, 29 October 2017

Judgement & Exclusion

There's rather a lot about judgement in Matthew's account of Jesus' life. In part this makes sense as the people he was writing to were attempting to come to terms with the destruction of their Temple in Jerusalem and the suffering which accompanied it.

So this is introduced in a series of stories and parables highlighting the faithlessness of the religious leaders in Jesus' day and the judgement which would surely follow after they persecuted first Jesus and then his followers for so many years.

Finally, the end of chapter 23 and the bulk of 24 addresses the consequence of this, bringing together the terrible suffering during the siege of Jerusalem, the destruction of the Temple, and the hope of Jesus' eventual return into one terrible apocalyptic warning. We're bad at apocalyptic today so we tend to get lost in this passage but it most likely made sense, even brought a sense of comfort and meaning, to its early readers.

Then in chapter 25 the scope widens and we get three quick parables about judgement more generally, which are potentially easier to follow and apply today. These parables, known traditionally as The Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins, The Parable of the Talents and The Parable of the Sheep and the Goats are all parables of judgement.

Interestingly, given the traditional  Protestant religious focus on 'Salvation by faith not works', all three parables are most immediately about actions. Equally interestingly, given the traditional religious focus on avoiding 'sin' - refraining from doing forbidden things - all three are about people's failure (or not) to do what they should have done; no-one is criticised for doing something wrong, just for failing to do something right.

In the first, ten young women are chosen to accompany a bridegroom to his wedding feast. Five of the ten are prepared and ready when he comes, so they are welcomed into the feast in places of honour. The other five were not ready when he came and they are excluded: the bridegroom says he does not know them.

In the second parable a wealthy man goes on a journey so he gives his servants portions of his immense wealth to use while he is away. This is a tremendous opportunity which two of the servants use, whilst the third buries the wealth away and tries to go on with his life. When their master returns those who used the opportunity are praised and "given charge of many things"; the servant who deliberately failed to use the opportunity, however, is sharply criticised and thrown outside "into the darkness".

The final parable has Jesus returning in glory to judge people from all the nations. When he judges he does so on the basis of how they have treated those in need around them. He says the way we have treated the neediest is the way we treat him, and he separates people on this basis into those facing eternal life and those facing punishment.

Literally the word translated 'punishment' in that final parable means 'pruning' or cutting away, so again the implication is that judgement is about separation: separating those included in God's Kingdom from those who are excluded from it.

The basis for that separation is either what we do or, maybe more likely, on the underlying attitude: an attitude of expectancy which leads us to make sure we are ready and prepared; an attitude of trust which leads us to make use of opportunities God gives us; and especially an attitude of compassion for those we see in need.

And, in the end, inclusion means life and exclusion means death. How we live matters.

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