Christianity in Australia 2003

Column by Bishop John Shelby Spong on 19 November 2003 0 Comments
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What do you make of St. Matthew 25?


Since the dominant narrative in the 25th Chapter of Mathew is the parable of The Judgment in which Jesus is purported to tell of that final moment when the Son of Man comes to separate the sheep from the goats, I assume that this is the content to which you are referring.

The standard of judgment that is used as the basis of judgment comes as a surprise to both groups. Neither the sheep that were to be rewarded nor the goats that were to be punished seemed to know when it was they had done or not done the determinative deeds of feeding, clothing and visiting the Son of Man. The powerful conclusion was that "in as much as ye have done" (or not done) these acts of kindness "to the least of these" who are our brothers and sisters, you have done them to the Son of Man.

It is a provocative parable. It suggests that the only way you can love God is to love your fellow human beings. The only way you can serve God is to serve the people of God's world. It points to the reality, recognized so powerfully by the prophet Amos, that the worship of God is nothing but human justice offered to God and that human justice is nothing but the worship of God being acted out. This means that a religious system treating any human being out of a prejudiced definition, and thereby diminishing that person's humanity, cannot possibly be of God.
It means that no one can rejoice in another's misfortune. It means that in the sight of God Iraqi casualties of war are as precious in the eyes of God as American casualties of war.

This parable makes contact with that essential definition of God found in the first Epistle of John. "God is love and whoever abides in love abides in God."

I am not impressed with the reward and punishment aspects of this parable. I think they reflect a rather outdated idea of God who is involved in behavior control. I do not think people mature if they do anything for either reward or punishment. The call of God in Christ is in my mind a call to step into a new humanity beyond tribe and prejudice and all human definition of worth and status, so that each of us might be enabled to give away our love to others without stopping to evaluate whether our love is deserved. That is the meaning of Matthew 25 to me.

-- John Shelby Spong




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