The Far Near Country
Gospel: Matthew 25:31-46
‘When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. 32All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people them [Greek: autous = them. It refers to nations, not just individual people] one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 34Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” 37Then the righteous [‘oi dikaioi: the sense is as much the just nations as it is individuals] will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” 40And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family,* you did it to me.” 41Then he will say to those at his left hand, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal [What does eternal (aionios ) mean? Is there a relationship to eon?] fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.” 44Then they also will answer, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?” 45Then he will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” 46And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.’ [Nuechterlein: 46 And these will go away into a time of punishment, but the just nations into life in God’s new age.”]
A Far Near Country
Chapter 25 continues Matthew's tantalising and breathtaking invitation to a new way of being. I sense we are being invited to a radically different vision of reality, but I struggle to construct for myself a neat summation of what this chapter, and especially what the vision of the nations as sheep, or as horrified and confounded goats, may say to us. This does not surprise me, for in these stories we are not dealing with intellectual ideas which can be discussed dispassionately. These stories are portals—doors for entering into rather than for grasping the significance of Jesus’ crucifixion, resurrection and ascension—portals to which the whole gospel so far, has been leading us. We are not being invited to see things differently so much as we are being invited into a new reality.
This post explores the entering of this new reality, and why it sometimes seems so hard and counter intuitive. In many ways this post is more about a way of reading the text than a detailed exploration of the text itself.
I am reminded of a bible study where I had commented how us whitefellas tend to see only desert up north, whereas anangu, the people of that country, see life-nourishing land. Lucy, who has lived much more deeply across both worlds than me, spoke of her childhood. “There was food everywhere. There was always food, lots of it.” As a little girl on foot, she knew the same land in which Europeans travel with caution, and in which we can so easily perish, as a place of bounty.
Understand what I am saying. I am not saying, “You just have to know where to look,” as though we can see the bounty of the Pitjantjatjara lands if we would only open our eyes and learn a bit of botany. Everything is different in this world: not only what can be food, but what food is— what it is for; how long you live in a place— even what ‘place’ is; what you “own” and carry; how and why you remember things (Lynne Kelly); what life—what anything… means. We can’t have “food is everywhere” without all these other things. A culture is not the same set of building blocks some people took and put together differently to the way we did, as though we can pick and choose. Lucy's people had blocks we can’t see; some things can’t be built, or maintained— or even apprehended, without certain ways of being.
To enter into another reality which sometimes we call a culture, or a worldview, or a paradigm— and I emphasise to enter, rather than to observe with the always somewhat skewed and blinkered view of the outsider— means to journey to a far country where, one day, we will look behind us and see there is no way back to the old land. If we will not risk this being unable to go back, we will never enter in. I suspect this unwillingness to embrace something we intuit as likely to be "costing not less than everything," (TS Eliot) is why we sometimes find our faith so unsatisfying: We barely enter.
This is what I take conversion and discipleship to be about: We are being led into a new land. Not some place where we have shuffled a few doctrines, or assented to some propositions someone once claimed to be important, but into a new reality which we will only have properly entered when we discover there is no way back because we can no longer see our old world. Or even remember how it all worked.
But the new reality must be lived in the old world. God has declared that this life is good for us. The culture in which I live, despite all its corruption and violence, and which so alienates me, even as it creates so much of beauty, is the place of my becoming human and entering into God's desire for me.
It is a hard journey which I struggle not to resent, because I am doing the always difficult work of letting go of what has seemed real in order to enter into something else. I know my humanity lies in my ability to feel, and specifically in my ability to feel for others, which is the mercy we call compassion. (Matthew 25:40) But to live this new reality, to enter into it, costs everything. I have to let go of myself, and let go of much that I have learned to hold dear, not to mention much that seems necessary and sensible to survive in my current comfort, or even to survive at all.
Yet to trust that God has created something good, and to seek to live in some small obedience, is to follow the path towards becoming human. It is to step into the way of the Spirit, it is to allow myself to discover I have been given new patience and kindness and love, despite myself. All these things make me.
To walk away from them would be to seek fulfilment in something else, to seek a kind of blindness and oblivion to the pain and violence and sheer absurdity of life, by making a small cocoon of safety for myself. The thought of going back to that blindness fills me with horror. But the leaving behind of the familiar and the safe— safe because I know a little of how it works, and because I am a person of privilege— is sometimes as distressing as it is exciting. It is entering new and unknown territory where I am called to trust in a promise, and to trust in witnesses long dead, and where I cannot yet properly read the landscape. I am not yet at home.
Rather, I am old enough to know how little I have allowed myself to be changed. I am enough converted to see how deeply complicit I am in the injustice of my country. And I am filled with grief at the mess we are in—so grief filled that I struggle to keep going. (And I am among the most privileged!)
There is no other way to live but the way of Christ, yet it seems sometimes, too often, that I see only moments of glory in barren desert, rather than that I am entering a land of bounty. I am insignificant, hopelessly compromised, drained of will and energy by the distance between the vision and the reality of life. I do not want to be in this place, but, already, I have lost the way back.
The New Landscape
In this new world I can see the outlines of the ranges. It's easy to describe these, and I will do that in the next couple of paragraphs. But in the close reading of the landscape I begin to understand how much everything has changed—how that insignificant bush is actually life giving, and how dangerous another once prized possession, or idea, really is.
Nuechterlein gives a broad interpretive outline of the parable: The story of the sheep and the goats is “a revelation of God’s judgment on human violence” in which the new landscape shows us that “first of all, … the violence is never God’s. The revelation is about God helping us to see and understand the consequences of our human violence.”
He is following the work of Brian Zahnd. In this reality
Creation has been structured “since the foundation of the world” to yield blessing when all the least are cared for. When the least are sacrificed instead of cared for, the result is a violence that envelopes even those in power — human beings who mistakenly see power as manipulating violence toward others and away from themselves. Human brokers of power are playing with fire in doing so. Creation has been structured by God to work best for everyone when the most vulnerable are attended to instead of the least vulnerable … Human beings can continue to behave otherwise. We can continue to operate with a power that favors the center rather than the margins. But it will prove to be as futile as spitting into the wind. (Ibid)
Normal human politics should alert us to just how radical an idea this is! It is part of a profound paradigm shift or, thoroughgoing conversion. The reader, and the disciple, is being equipped by the gospel to shift from seeing an obvious and familiar act of terror against Jesus, which resulted in his ignominious and pointless death, to seeing in the same events of the passion a triumph that is pivotal in all of history. We meet the Messiah among the victims, not in the palaces and the parliaments.
Like any paradigm shift, this rebuilding of reality involves simple differences of interpretation which are obvious, and even welcome. But it also involves the reframing of deep, foundational ideas. Such reframing requires great trust of us. It often seems to fly in the face of reason, and it often requires us to live periods of uncomfortable agnosticism, until the new landscape comes into focus at last, and gains reality. We see then that it is a much better approximation of All That Is, than our previous vision of life, but the journey can be long.
I experience a new reality of profound richness far deeper than the oversold glitz and performance of much modern church life. But it has meant to give up the safety of affluence, and to give up the privilege and security of being aligned with the political and cultural elite. And I've barely started.
The best metaphor I can provide for this uncomfortable process, is the experience of becoming disoriented in bush land, or even in the streets of a city at night. We suddenly discover we are facing in entirely the wrong direction, and even though street signs, or the rising moon, are incontrovertible evidence of our being turned around, our whole mind rebels and insists the signs are wrong, and seeks to turn us in another direction.
Contexts for seeing a new landscape
We know Jesus is the Son of Man. But I've always read the words "When the Son of Man comes in his glory…" with imagery of thrones flying down from the clouds, pomp and ceremony, and the getting of revenge against the wicked, although this was called "judgement and justice."
I never read it in the context of Daniel 7, where in his night visions he sees not only one like a son of man— a human being, (Dan 7:13) but also "four great beasts [that] came up out of the sea." (Dan 7:3) The empires of Daniel's time are beasts, inhuman. The sea is the place where evil has a freer rein. (cf. the stories of Jesus power over the storms on the lake of Galilee.)
The Son of Man represents how human beings are truly meant to live, a kingdom according to the original design of the Creator, the Ancient One. Daniel 7 is the quintessential biblical vision of oppressive human reigns giving way to a truly human way to reign. (Nuechterlein)
In the new reality, the nation-beasts are replaced by the human one, by a new way of being human.
We read this text as individuals. We rightly fear our own personal judgement: Then he will say to those at his left hand… (25:40) However, the text implies something more. The text speaks of nations.
Nuechterlein translates it like this:
31 [Jesus continued,] “When the New Human Being comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats…
He will separate the nations. We are not separated individuals. We are nations— ethnicities. There are all sorts of alliances around culture and identity which are often at odds with other groupings. Nations are judged. This says to me that, as Christians, community and politics are not optional extras. They are a source of blessing, or not. The nation is judged. To pray for the welfare of our city (Jeremiah) is truly an enlightened self-interest. The nation—our city—is the place of blessing for “the least of these" and, therefore, for all of us, or not.
In Australia it is possible to see the neo-liberal "Americanisation" of our social policy; for example, the lowering of taxes for the wealthy, government pressure to decrease working conditions, the legislated lowering of wages, the deliberate pruning of the health system, and the distractive ploy of the elites encouraging the scapegoating of those who are already marginalised. Parallel to that we can see the growth of the wealth of the elites, of poverty, of dissatisfaction, of disillusionment and of rage, as we move from a nation more like the Nordic countries to one like America, where judgement is already plain to see as the nation falls apart.
The rage and untruths which came from elites threatened by the recent SSM plebiscite are the descent into the bestiality which Corey Bernadi so feared.
What snarls us up in Matthew 25 are the images of judgement and hellfire. There is something un-Christlike about endless punishment. But we also know the danger of simply ignoring texts by calling them wrong or outdated. Although we do sometimes grow beyond a text's insights and situation, we need to be able to show very clearly where and how we have grown, otherwise we risk simply discounting the uncomfortable for the sake of our own personal comfort. Indeed, if we do not see that we are deeply complicit in the sins of our nation— we vassal Australians benefit richly from the English and American colonialisation of other cultures and the rape of their resources— then we have barely begun our journey from the old country of myopic self interest into the kingdom of heaven. We are under judgement. The only question is how this works out.
It is here that I am often still "spun around" in the new landscape, finding that north is not where I thought it should be. A new understanding of judgement, forgiveness, eternal life, and the coming of Christ has not yet come into manageable focus for me.
Earlier modern scholarship tended to view “Son of Man” as expressing a hope for the “parousia,” the so-called Second Coming of Jesus. Jesus, or the early church putting these views in Jesus’s mouth, was looking ahead to a time of return, when the reign of God would be fully established. Hope for a Second Coming is certainly part of Christian hope, but scholars are increasingly saying that that’s not what Jesus is referring to with the designation of Son of Man. Yes, many of the Son of Man sayings are in the future tense, looking ahead to when the Son of Man comes. But this is Jesus looking ahead to the moment in his life that inaugurates the coming of God’s reign of peace. It is Jesus looking ahead to his Passion and Resurrection. In short, it has everything to do with the significance of his First Coming, not a Second Coming.
There is a climactic moment in the Synoptic Gospels when “Son of Man” becomes emphatically in the present, not just the future. It is the moment that Jesus is judged by the Sanhedrin. Matthew’s version, the final and truly climactic instance of “Son of Man” in his Gospel, is:
Jesus said to him, “You have said so. But I tell you, From now on you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven.” (Matt. 26:64)
“From now on,” ap’ arti, is an emphatic way to say, “right now,” “immediately at this moment.” So the use of the future tense with it, “you will see,” conveys continuing action that begins immediately and continues on into the future. In short, the future is beginning now. And what will they see? Precisely the vision of Daniel 7 coming true: a truly human reign of peace coming from God, pictured in the present tense as seated next to God, coming on clouds. (Nuechterlein)
I'm quoting Paul's work for this week at length because it illustrates so well the struggle to enter into the new reality. What I have quoted above is anathema to many of us. It is outside anything we have heard. It appears utterly wrong. But if we will not risk the error, we will never enter the reality.
It's not just the new ideas that are a struggle for us. When we are truly shifting paradigms, it is often difficult to even hold all the bits in our heads in some sort of coherent order! Indeed, when things are clear and make obvious sense, and fit neatly, it may be an indication that we are confirming our position on something, rather than being changed!
The position Paul has outlined is called preterism. Contrary to the received reality in which many of us live, it is an ancient understanding. (Richard Beck has a couple of succinct outlines of preterism here and here, and the number of comments he received shows what a live issue it is for us.)
A preterist accent on things suggests that the judgement of Matthew 25 is largely being experienced now. We are living in it now.
Of course this runs head on into our received ideas of eternal life and "the end." Nuechterlein suggests a different translation from the Greek to that we expect. He says the words translated as
Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels…
might more accurately be translated as
Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the time of fire prepared for the devil and his angels… (Matthew 25:41)
He bases this on the work of NT Wright.
At issue here is reading this passage as a Platonist Greek (which is the way of reading throughout much of Christian history) or as a Jew. The centerpiece of Plato’s [Greek] worldview is the eternal ‘heavenly’ realm of ideas that we are destined for when freed from our bodies through death, a realm outside space, time, and matter. It is a “dualist” worldview (matter vs. ideas) extremely foreign to the worldview of a Creation-centered Jew steeped in the prophetic tradition of interpreting history. Plato’s view of eternity ultimately takes one outside history. The Hebrew prophets remained firmly rooted in history, where one may speak in terms of long periods of time as “ages” or “eons,” but never in the sense of the Platonic “eternity.”
Again we see how our presuppositions so profoundly shape the reality in which we seem to live. Jesus' world was not thinking of eternal in the way we do with our Greek heritage. Paul continues by asking
Can one legitimately translate the New Testament aiōnios as “eternal”? Yes, in terms of its setting in the language connected to the Greek worldview. But if one strives to be more faithful to the Jewish way of thinking of Jesus and the Apostles, then aiōnios is more accurately translated with the sense of its English derivative, “eon” — a period of time in history, an “age” or “era.”
And he continues by quoting Wright at some length.
Wright believes, for example, that the phrase zoe aionios (“eternal life”) is a rendering of the Aramaic for “age to come,” ha-olam ha-ba. Here is Wright’s best explanation of translating the Greek phrase zoe aionias in How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels.:
“God so loved the world,” reads the famous text in the King James Version of John 3:16, “that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish but have everlasting life.” There we are, think average Christian readers. This is the biblical promise of a timeless heavenly bliss.
But it isn't. In the many places where the phrase zoe aionios appears in the gospels, and in Paul's letters for that matter, it refers to one aspect of an ancient Jewish belief about how time was divided up. In this viewpoint, there were two “aions” (we sometimes use the word “eon” in that sense): the “Present age,” ha-olam hazeh in Hebrew, and the “age to come,” ha-olam ha-ba. The “age to come,” many ancient Jews believed, would arrive one day to bring God’s justice, peace, and healing to the world as it groaned and toiled within the “present age.” You can see Paul, for instance, referring to this idea in Galatians 1:4, where he speaks of Jesus giving himself for our sins “to rescue us from the present evil age.” In other words, Jesus has inaugurated, ushered in, the “age to come.”” But there is no sense that this “age to come” is “eternal” in the sense of being outside space, time, and matter. Far from it. The ancient Jews were creational monotheists. For them, God’s great future purpose was not to rescue people out of the world, but to rescue the world itself, people included, from its present state of corruption and decay. (pp. 44-45)
This brings us back to the broad outlines of the parable as a "revelation of God's judgement on human violence."
My rendering in this passage, then, seeks to be in-step with a Jewish way of thinking descended from the Hebrew prophets. It is about a judgment of nations in history. There are consequences to behaving as empires have done throughout human history. They fall, they fail, usually in a conflagration of their own ways of violence. As such, these times of fall are a “time of fire,” a “time of punishment.” Not brought on directly by God. But the consequences of how God has created the world. These times are the consequences of us not living as we are created to live. (Nuechterlein)
We are living now in the aeon of judgement. But it is us visiting violence upon us. We reap the harvest of our living outside of the compassion inclusive justice of Jesus.
Jesus speaks of those who are accursed. (Matt 25:40) Is this not the situation of much modern life where, in the USA, people regularly massacre each other? Or in Australia, where the disaffected and disenfranchised light bushfires on windy summer days, and we whose house is burned can see no connection to our privilege?
The question my mind struggles with in all this is that "it's not what the text says!" The language of the text sounds much more true to the end times prophecies of much modern preaching. This is a classic illustration of how presuppositions and familiarity shape what we see in a text.
Nuechterlein quotes James Alison's thesis from Raising Abel.
The question then, is this: when Jesus talked of his coming and of the end, was he simply enclosed within the apocalyptic imagination? That is, did he accept the dualities proper to the apocalyptic imagination as part of what he was preaching and announcing? It will come as no surprise to you if I say that, as I see it, he was not. It seems to me that what we have with Jesus is precisely and deliberately the subversion from within of the apocalyptic imagination. What I have called the eschatological imagination is nothing other than the subversion from within of the apocalyptic imagination. That is, Jesus used the language and the imagery which he found around him to say something rather different. There are various ways of glimpsing this in the Gospel, for example in the contrast which is made between the preaching of John the Baptist, which does indeed fit within the apocalyptic imagination, and that of Jesus. (I have added the emphasis. The quotation is from page 125 of Raising Abel, the most exciting book I've read in years. )
I think Alison is correct. In my own life I remember bible studies where I, and others, looked forward to the punishment of the sinners, secure in the knowledge of our salvation. Then began to see that we too did not help the sick and the hungry, and so often rejected the Christ. And then we came to a place and insight where the story itself became horrific. We see the truth that the Christ is found among the least, but are revolted by the notion that he would then reiterate the violence in even more severe form. We look for another reading because are being converted.
I began this post after reading Richard Beck's suggestions (here and in the posts following) that much of our problem as church is because "a lot of us are just drifting." Beck says it has to do with a lack of intentionality. We are adrift, and our faith lacks a certain reality because we talk and pray, but don't begin the discipline of acting— practising in every sense of that word. My own self-assessment is that I would rather stay with my present comfort, limited and dissatisfying though it may be. I am too timid or, perhaps, not desperate enough, to begin the journey to the far near country. The last parable in Matthew shows me the cost of this. Judgement, yes. But even more, the inability to read the passion narrative and enter into another life.
Andrew Prior (2017)
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!
Also on One Man's Web
Matthew 25:31-46 - The Lamb at the Stockyards (2014)
Matt 25:31-40 - Am I a Christian or a Silly Goat (2012)
Matthew 25:31-46 - Love changes everything (2011)
Matthew 25 - Funeral Homily (2011)
Matthew 25 (2 ) - Live Life Well (2008)