The end is near! It’s not what you’re thinking. Jesus is coming back but he’s in the loveable baby form. The waning weeks of ordinary time are coming to a close. Those green paraments, dutifully hanging through the dog days of summer, will finally be removed. The Christian liturgical year is at an end. This coming Sunday many churches will celebrate “Christ the King Sunday”. In the blink of an eye, we’re on to Advent (or generic church Christmas, as most of us experience it).
Christ the King Sunday serves as a pivot point between the old and the new. It’s our launch pad into the season of Advent. Originally an idea of Pope Pius XI, Christ the King Sunday was set aside to remind the faithful that despite the growing tide of secularism, Christ (and his Vicar) was still the “king”. In the post-war era, Protestants adopted the day as one of our own. Methodists, Lutherans, Anglicans, and others added this celebration to their church calendars.
To me, it’s always seemed appropriate to talk about Christ as “king” before going into the season of Advent. We use kingly language all year long, sing “king” hymns, and read text after text where Jesus talks about the kingdom of God. This “king”, who we worship and adore, is about to remembered as an infant. We are blessed to be able to hold more than one thought in our minds. So it’s nice to ground ourselves in the image of the kingdom preaching parable teacher at the same time we remember how Jesus came into the world.
The gospel readings for Christ the King Sunday are usually big ticket, Hollywood blockbuster texts. In John’s gospel, Pilate confronts Jesus for an epic questioning on the nature of truth the night before Jesus is executed. In the second, Luke paints a picture of the last supper where Jesus reveals that he will be betrayed and denied. Jesus is beaten, flogged, and the king is crowned with thorns.
Matthew’s gospel is different. He doesn’t recount the events of the last supper, trial, or Jesus’ execution. Instead, Matthew’s Jesus gives us a parable; one of several we’ve heard throughout his final journey to Jerusalem. This story is known by many names. It’s a parable of the last judgment. Others call it the parable of the sheep and goats. I call it trouble.
The human one is coming in majesty with angels and going to be sitting on a throne. You can see from the beginning, this is a very “kingly” parable. Upon the king’s arrival, the world is divided into two groups, sheep and goats. Our world is incredibly divided. The United States is as polarized as it has been at any time since the end of the Civil War. We preach unity and togetherness from our pulpits but in this parable we’re forced to confront a call to divine call to division. It’s hard to find any redeeming quality in preaching tribalism in late 2017. Separating the sheep from goats doesn’t cause the cream to rise to the top. If anything, the goats get together and reinforce how great it is to be a goat. They talk about how much they hate the sheep. The sheep are no better. In the “baa-baa” echo chamber, the sheep are also convinced of their moral superiority.
The goats go to Hell. For not going to visit the sick, seeing the imprisoned, clothing the naked, feeding the hungry, or giving water to the thirsty; they are sent to eternal punishment. They claim they weren’t aware of the needs that surrounded them. It doesn’t matter. They are toast. The righteous do-gooder sheep are offered one way tickets to an eternal reward.
This passage is troubling. I don’t want to tell anyone they’re going to Hell. “So you better do this or else,” preaching turns me off from organized religion. Hell doesn’t comport with my understanding of a loving God. I object to a literal reading of texts in Leviticus (and Paul epistle’s) which condemn gay and lesbian people. I find those literal readings of the text abhorrent. If I’m going to remain intellectually and morally consistent, it’s wrong to cherry pick the texts I decide to read literally because they agree with my theology. People who ignore the needs of those in their community aren’t going to hell and neither are my gay, lesbian, and transgender sisters and brothers.
For social holiness Wesleyans like me, it’s a passage I love to cite and use against those who hold more narrow interpretations of scripture. I want to confess and say I’m sorry for doing this. As someone who has spoken out against the weaponization of scripture, I shouldn’t do the same thing. We shouldn’t be beating each other over the head with the Bible. I cannot take Jesus’ words literally about the world being divided into sheep and goats and the goats going to Hell for not being socially conscious if I’m also going to reject literal interpretations that condemn homosexuality.
The threat of eternal punishment shouldn’t be the thing that motivates people to care about the hungry, sick, imprisoned, naked and thirsty. If we love our neighbor as we love ourselves, then love pushes us to look beyond our own creature comforts to those who are less fortunate. Jesus clearly places a value on caring for those who have nothing. Loving people into the kingdom is Jesus’ priority.
I refuse to believe, that with Jesus, failure is final. There are people around us who languish in living Hells. Let’s get them out. Not because we’re scared of the consequences but because love is always the right thing to do.
Richard Lowell Bryant