Ezekiel 34: 11-12, 15-17; I Cor 15: 20-26, 28; Matthew 25: 31-46
All year we’ve heard from Matthew’s gospel and today we come to what many consider to be the culmination of what he was all about in his writing, the Judgment of Nations. Keep in mind it’s not about individual judgment as we’ve often associated. For Matthew, the other gospel writers, and Paul in today’s second reading, salvation was not an individual sport. It was about the collective salvation and their own seeking of the common good in this life. It, of course, has been overly politicized over the years and many times rightly so when we neglect people in need for one reason or another, but that’s not necessarily the context in which Matthew writes nor the lens we need to read it.
If we had to sum up Matthew’s approach to his community, as one he often struggled with, fearing division and its demise following the destruction of the Temple, it would be a journey of interior change and how we handle change in our lives and how our experience of God changes. If you know anything about Israel’s history you know the destruction of the Temple seems to almost be a regular occurrence for them. It wasn’t just the center of their faith life but was also the center of politics and economics so everything was intertwined. With that being the case, it should be no surprise that it is destroyed over time. However, just like it is today, when they all become intertwined in that way it’s without a doubt that God is going to come third in line, and so, in some sense, Matthew tries to lead the community to a much harder change, an interior change, to recognize that there’s something bigger than the Temple and that an encounter with God can happen, often times even more, beyond the temple dwellers.
From the beginning of the gospel, if we recall from Advent and Christmas last year, Mary and Joseph were on the run, refugees. The Magi come on their own journey and return differently because of the encounter with the Christ, something is changed interiorly in their lives. Throughout the gospel the disciples are being led outside of Jerusalem to experience the Christ in the acts of healing and forgiving, rather than something you go to they are being led to be an embodiment of that love that takes on flesh and they find their true strength from within. It’s what makes Jesus so dangerous to the Pharisees and other temple dwellers. As disciples, the Temple has it’s place but they aren’t meant to dwell there. Rather, they’re kingdom dwellers with the Spirit of God going with them into these encounters. This God that Matthew portrays to us and that we’re called to embrace can no longer be confined to a particular time and space. At that point it’s not God anyway. Rather this God cannot be contained and is going to lead them to the places of discomfort and uncertainty to learn to put their trust not in the Temple as has been their history, but the temple of the Holy Spirit acting within the community and each other.
It is new, of course, for the people in first century but even new for us at times. However, the message has been a part of Israel’s history, even at the burning bush when God is revealed in name and that they mustn’t get hung up on the location of these events. When they do that it begins the gradual confinement of God to a time and space and we find ourselves living in the past. It’s where the prophets have tried to lead the people, over and over again, but with great resistance even costing them their lives at times. They too get hung up on the temple dwellers and thinking that God can somehow be confined to that space. Yet, with this enmeshment of faith, politics, and economics, the question really should be, as it was in the parable of the talents as well as the wise and foolish virgins as to who is the master they’re serving.
Ezekiel, in today’s first reading was one such prophet. If you read it in its larger context you know that he’s going after them for this very thing, their own corruption. Israel once again finds itself in exile during the time of the Babylonian Exile and they’re not being cared for. The people responsible, the shepherds of the time, were not taking care of the needs of the lost, the strayed, the injured and sick. They had become their own gods in some sense, temple dwellers themselves rather than seeing beyond and being moved to the place of discomfort in their lives. When you have it all and you’re on top, even in our own time, it seems as if there really is no need for this God. I’m quite fine with the gods I can hold onto, that bring me comfort, that keep me safe, rather than leading me outward while being inwardly changed. It’s the opportunity to not only encounter God in a different way but to learn of myself in a new way and light. It’s not about changing others. It’s about allowing ourselves to be changed, our hearts to be changed by going to the very place we fear. It’s the story of Mary and Joseph. It was the Magi. It’s the embodiment of love. It’s the journey Matthew has invited us into this past year.
So it brings us to the culmination of his gospel and the judgment of nations. Needless to say we have often failed at embodying love. We have allowed ourselves to be temple dwellers while often enmeshing faith, politics, and economics, while neglecting sometime our very own rather than surrendering it all to the true God. Like Israel in all its history, when the three become enmeshed, God, without a doubt, will become confined and the other two will take their place as the gods of our time. We all fall prey to it and all find ourselves as sheep and goats. But for Matthew, it meant something more. It meant an embodiment of that love and not just loving neighbor. Rather, being one with neighbor in the sick, the poor, the refugee, the imprisoned, the stranger.
Every one of us is good at making ourselves comfortable. For Matthew, our faith is quite the opposite. We’re not called to be temple dwellers where we grow comfortable and safe, confining God to our particular time and space. There’s a place for it but it resides in something bigger than time and space. Rather, kingdom dwellers where we seek the eternal, the Christ, with prayer always on our lips for a change of heart. It’s what it’s all about. It’s messy. It’s hard. It’s frightening. Yet, with Mary and Joseph leading the way for Matthew, we’re called to go out and encounter the living God and to be that embodiment of love that we’ve witnessed through the eyes of Matthew this year.