Last Sunday after Pentecost; Christ the King; 22 November 2020; Proper 29A (RCL); Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24; Psalm 100; Ephesians 1:15-23; Matthew 25:31-46.
Matthew has this thing about judgment as separation: separating wheat from weeds, good fish from bad fish, sheep from goats. And always someone is thrown into the outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. I would love to know what was going on in his community that required such a final separation
This “parable” is the last piece of the last public address of Jesus, so Matthew wants us to pay close attention to it. There are five big blocks of public teaching in Matthew’s Gospel, corresponding to the five books of Moses. This is the last bit of the last one, maybe corresponding to Moses’ last speech in Deuteronomy (I set before you today life and death, blessings and curses; choose life). So, perhaps Matthew’s separation is as much about what we choose as it is about who gets into heaven.
This “parable” also seems to me to be the conclusion of the set of three: the wise and foolish virgins, the parable of the talents, and then the sheep and the goats. In the parable of the wise and foolish virgins, the wise virgins bring enough oil to keep their lamps burning, so that they can see by their light (no one lights and lamp and hides it under a basket, but sets it on a stand so that it shines on all in the household). The parable of the talents is about putting grace out there into the human economy.
This parable helps us understand the oil and the talents. Neither group, sheep nor goats, recognized Jesus in what they did or failed to do for him. Both say, “When did we see you hungry, etc.?” We tend to read this parable to give ourselves points for our charitable works. When we feed the hungry, we are feeding Christ. The parable seems to prohibit that interpretation. If we recognize the Christ, we’ve missed the point. Perhaps we become like the goats: we are looking for the Christ in order to do good deeds and earn points. Wrong.
The virgins with oil in their lamps are able to shine their light on everyone in the household. They are able to see people for who they really are. And do good things for them anyway! No need to earn points by doing good things in order to do them for Christ.
And the talents are the good will we put out there into the communal economy. This is how we return ten talents when were given five. There is a wonderful story of Saint Lawrence the archdeacon of Rome in the third century. The Emperor Valerian issued an edict that all Christians should be executed. The prefect of Rome demanded that Lawrence turn over the wealth of the church. Lawrence asked for three days to gather wealth. During those three days, he distributed it all to the indigent of Rome. When the prefect demanded the wealth, Lawrence presented him the poor of Rome, saying there were the Church’s true wealth.
Ezekiel also speaks about separating the fat sheep from the lean sheep, and punishing the fat for eating the lean. What if, instead of judgment, we took these readings to mean we should learn discernment? And not necessarily how to discern the Christ in everyone, but how to discern each person for who they really are, to see the glory God created them to be. And then offering that glorious creature to God, and offering God praise for that glory. That is perhaps the way we enter the kingdom. And if we fail that, we live in the outer darkness whether we recognize it as such or not.
In the passage from Ephesians, Paul prays that the eyes of our hearts may be enlightened so that we may know the hope we are called to, and our glorious inheritance among the saints in light. This is the discernment we are called to.