Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Final Judgment?

Mt. 25:1-13[1]

I went to school with a guy named John. He was a troubled fellow—I never knew his whole story, but I know that he suffered. As a result John became fixated on the concept of God as an angry God, a God of judgment who punishes people, seemingly without mercy. Because he was always condemning people, my fellow students called him “John the Baptist.” I tried to be compassionate and respectful toward him, but John was convinced that just about everybody we knew would wind up in hell! I think that John’s obsession with an angry and violent God may in and of itself give us a clue what he suffered.

I’ve always been amazed when people speak with absolute certainty about what happens to us when we die—I wonder if most or all of them suffered a similar trauma. For whatever reason, there are people out there who seem to think they can describe the entire process in great detail. And depending on who’s sketching out this end-time scenario, our eternal destiny depends on having said the right words and done the right things with reference to faith in Jesus. Of course, these people are also supremely confident that they will be rewarded, because they have said the right words and done the right thing with reference to faith. And they are supremely confident that if you haven’t said the same words and done the same things then you will be rejected.

Our Gospel lesson for today raises these issues for us. In it, Jesus presents a parable about bridesmaids waiting for a bridegroom. Five of them are wise, and they bring enough oil to keep their lamps lit in case the bridegroom delays. Five of them are foolish, and they don’t think to bring extra oil. When the bridegroom arrives, the foolish bridesmaids are left behind and shut out because they didn’t have any oil. The story seems to conform to St. Matthew’s fondness for pointing out that there are some in the church who are wise and follow Jesus’ teachings and there are some who are foolish and don’t (cf. Matt. 7:21-23).[2]

But there are some problems with the parable. Although this is a parable about a wedding, there is no bride! And when the bridegroom does arrive—at midnight!—the wise bridesmaids tell the foolish ones to go out and buy oil for their lamps—at midnight! Furthermore, although the main point of the parable is that we are to keep awake because we don’t know the day or the hour (Matt. 25:13), all of the bridesmaids fell asleep! But perhaps the most important difficulty is the fact that when the foolish maids return, they cannot enter because the door is shut. That turns the idea of a wedding celebration, which is thoroughly joyful, into the threat of being excluded![3]

This seems to be consistent with St. Matthew’s idea that there are some in the community of Christ who really don’t belong there, and when the judgment is rendered, they will be exposed and shut out from the blessings of salvation. But I’m not so sure he got this idea from Jesus. In fact, this kind of thinking was prevalent in that day—it’s called “apocalyptic.” It originated in response to the trauma the Jewish people suffered at the hands of their Greek and Roman overlords. The main idea of apocalyptic is that at the end of time, God will come to vindicate the faithful by taking revenge on the rich and powerful oppressors who have tormented them. Ultimately, all those who do not belong to the people of God will be violently destroyed—either at the hands of God or at the hands of God’s people marching to victory in battle. That way of looking at things may sound familiar to you, because it’s still around today.

My problem with this is that there’s not much about that viewpoint that rings true to the message of Christ![4] Although the church has shut doors for centuries, God doesn’t shut doors. Although supposedly “righteous” people have been keeping people out since the beginning of our faith, Jesus doesn’t keep people out. It seems to me that contrary to shutting people out, Jesus occupied himself by breaking down the barriers that kept people out.[5]

Now, there’s no question that Jesus pointed to a future fulfillment of the strange kingdom that we can only glimpse here and now. And it’s also clear that Jesus warned that we would all be accountable for our actions in this life. But the biblical view of judgment is very different from what you find in apocalyptic. Biblical judgment always leads to restoration. Biblical judgment is about redeeming those who have gone astray, not punishing them. Biblical judgment is about God’s justice of mercy that forgives all sin and creates the possibility of new life for us all. [6]

No, the apocalyptic obsession with judgment and punishment are simply not God’s word to humankind. In God’s judgment, the only things that are destroyed are sin and death (1 Cor. 15:58). In God’s judgment, what is final is that God’s steadfast love endures forever (Ps. 106:1). In God’s judgment, what is final is that all things are restored by Jesus our Savior (Eph. 1:10). In God’s judgment, what is final is that every knee shall bow and every person who ever lived or ever will live will one day acknowledge God as their Savior (Isa. 45:22-23; Phil. 2:10-11). It seems to me that the only thing final about God’s judgment is that God has determined to “make everything new” (Rev. 21:5).[7] It is the promise of the fulfillment of God’s strange kingdom of justice and peace and mercy and joy and love and life.[8]

[1] © 2011 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 11/6/11 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.

[2] Cf. M. Eugene Boring, “The Gospel According to Matthew” New Interpreters Bible 8:449-451; cf. also U. Luz and H. Koester, Matthew 21-28, 244.

[3] Luz and Koester, Matthew 21-28, 244.

[4] Jürgen Moltmann, In the End, The Beginning, 139-151.

[5] Cf. Matt. 9:10-13 (tax collectors and sinners); Matt. 15:22-28 (gentiles and women); Matt. 18:1-5 (children); Matt:21:31-32 (tax collectors and prostitutes); and Matt. 25: 34-40 (destitute, homeless, foreigners, physically disadvantaged, prisoners). Cf. also Jürgen Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ, 112-116.

[6] See especially Jürgen Moltmann, The Coming of God, 250-55; Cf. also Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 4.4:56.

[7] Cf. Moltmann, The Coming of God, 240-46

[8] See Desmond Tutu, God Has A Dream, 122; cf. also Hans Küng, The Christian Challenge, 120; and Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 77, 190, 216.

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