Sunday, November 20, 2011

Judging Matthew

Text: Matthew 25:31-46: the Last Judgement

This spring, a controversy broke out among conservative Christians in the United States. It is a controversy about the nature and even the existence of hell.

In March, one of the America's most popular evangelical preachers, Rob Bell, published a bestseller called "Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived." Bell is the founder and pastor of a mega church of 10,000 people in Michigan, and a popular speaker. So when he suggested in his book that all of us might be saved and that Jesus might not condemn anyone to hell, it upset other evangelical leaders. The controversy even landed Bell's book on the cover of Time magazine.

Good for Rob Bell, I say. His stand is similar to that of many of us in the United Church. But it is a stand that is opposed by the majority of Christian preachers, I believe. Hellfire and damnation are the bread and butter of sermons every Sunday from Saskatchewan to the ends of the earth.

And perhaps Bell is wrong. In our Gospel reading today, Jesus says that he will throw those of us he judges as sinners at the Last Judgement into a lake of fire for eternal punishment. Is that the truth?

Well, for me, the short answer is, "no." But for a longer answer, this sermon includes comments on today's reading as well as on such topics as judgement, hell, hope, salvation, the church year, and the Bible.

Now, it is quite possible to preach on today's reading from Matthew and not mention hell at all. There are many other exciting ideas found in the reading: that salvation comes from compassionate action in the world and not from belief; that Christ is found more clearly in the people we meet and serve than in the Bible; and that the church's mission should be focused on social justice.

And the next time we encounter this passage, I would be pleased to examine those ideas. But since today marks our farewell to Matthew for a few years; since we have heard a lot during the last few Sundays from Matthew about the wailing and gnashing of teeth in the outer darkness, and since hell and damnation are central concerns for many churches outside the United Church, I have decided to focus on the Last Judgement today and the murky light it might throw on the Gospel of Matthew.

Today is Reign of Christ or Christ the King Sunday, and it marks the end of the Church Year. Next week, we start a new church year. We leave behind Year A of the weekly Lectionary reading list. And we begin Year B of the Lectionary. I feel some relief from this latter fact because Year A has focused on the Gospel of Matthew -- and I sometimes struggle with Matthew -- while Year B focuses on the Gospel of Mark.

I struggle with Matthew because it is the only Gospel in which Jesus talks about the Last Judgement. It is the only one in which Jesus talks about lakes of fire in which there will be wailing and gnashing of teeth. And it is the only one that includes today's parable of the sheep and goats separated by the Son of Man seated on a heavenly throne.

Now, it is true that the Gospel of Mark mentions hell once (Mark 9). But in that passage, Jesus does not say that he will throw us into hell. The Gospel of Luke also mentions hell once, in the parable of the rich man and a beggar (Luke 16). But neither does Jesus say there that it was he who sent the rich man in the parable to hell.

Our reading from Matthew today is different. In it, Jesus says that he will throw those of us whom he judges to be goats into eternal punishment in hell. That seems pretty clear, does it not? As the bumper sticker says: "The Bible says it; I believe it; that settles it."

Except, not for me. Liberal Christians sometimes say that we treat the Bible seriously but not literally. To understand that position better, I now turn to some of the things we know about the Gospels.

No one knows who wrote Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. The authors do not identify themselves; the names we use for these four books are purely traditional. All four were written long after Jesus' death and resurrection. Scholars believe that Mark was the first one to be written, in the year 70, about 40 years after Jesus' death.

Matthew and Luke were written about 10 or 20 years after Mark, and both of them had Mark in front of them as they wrote. They often copy Mark word for word although both also contain a lot of additional material. Some of the additional material is found in both Matthew and Luke. An example of the latter is the list of Beatitudes. It is in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew and in the Sermon on the Plain in Luke. Some of the additional material is found in just one of them. Today's parable of the sheep and goats, for example, is found only in Matthew. And the parable of the rich man and the beggar is found only in Luke.

The last Gospel to written was John, at least 60 years after Jesus' death. And although John betrays some knowledge of Mark, the details of his story of Jesus are quite different from the first three gospels. Hell is never mentioned in John.

I do not have issues with Matthew when he copies Mark word for word. But when Matthew changes Mark, I find that he almost always detracts from the original. Take the death of Jesus. Matthew carefully follows Mark up to the point where Jesus breathes his last. But then, Matthew adds the following: "the earth shook, and the rocks were split. The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. Coming out of the tombs, they went into the holy city and appeared to many." (Matt 27:51-52) Really? Zombies were seen on the streets of Jerusalem after Jesus' death, but only Matthew saw fit to mention this event? In my opinion, this addition makes Matthew's account look ridiculous.

Matthew portrays Jesus as being much more judgemental than the other three Gospels. Only in Matthew does Jesus say that "unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven." (5:20) Only in Matthew does Jesus say that we should " practice and observe whatever the Pharisees tell you" (23:3). Only in Matthew does Jesus say "think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfil them."(5:17).

And since Matthew is in the Bible, most Christians believe that it tells the truth about what Jesus said. Perhaps. But consider that Matthew was written 50 or 60 years after Jesus' death. Then imagine remembering what someone said 50 years ago, and in a society with no recording devices and mass illiteracy.

The gospel writers were not reporters. None of them ever met Jesus. They wrote down stories of Jesus not as history, but to describe what God's Kingdom is like. And they shaped the stories to fit the needs of their different audiences.

According to Matthew, Jesus says that he will separate good people from bad on the Day of Judgement and throw the bad people -- the so-called goats -- into a lake a fire to burn in eternal punishment. But I don't believe this for a second. Jesus did not say it. It is not true. And further, if I could be convinced that it were true, I would no longer follow Jesus.

A God who magically perpetuated a person's consciousness for all eternity only to torture that person with fire would be a demon, in my opinion. And if the universe were run by a demon, then I could see no hope for any of us, regardless of whether we fed the hungry, welcomed the stranger, believed in the Bible, or attended church every Sunday.

On the other hand, I do not believe that Matthew always accurately recorded the details of life of Jesus. There are many reasons for this opinion, not least of which are the contradictions between the books of the Bible.

Take, for instance, the Christmas stories in the Gospels. Two of the four Gospels, Matthew and Luke, contain stories about the birth of Jesus. The problem is this: Matthew's account does not match the one in Luke. Matthew says that Jesus was born in his parents' bed in their house in their hometown, Bethlehem. Luke says that Jesus was born in a manger in a stable far from the hometown of Mary and Joseph, which he said was Nazareth.

Matthew says that Jesus grew up in Egypt, where he and his parents fled immediately after his birth to avoid the campaign of King Herod to murder all the babies born in and around Bethlehem. Luke says that Jesus grew up in Nazareth, where his parents leisurely returned after his birth.

The two birth accounts contradict each other. Logic dictates that if one is literally true, the other must be false. More reasonable, I believe, is to assume that these Christmas stories are not history. Instead, they express in their own different ways the power and beauty of God appearing human form.

We have equally good reasons not to believe in the literal truth of stories that say zombies came out of the graves of Jerusalem on Good Friday or that Jesus said he would condemn some of us to eternal torment in hell. True, these stories are in Matthew. But to believe them just because of that fact runs the risk of idolatry.

The bumper sticker slogan, "The Bible says it; I believe it; that settles it," is idolatrous, in my opinion. God does not call us to worship the Bible. God calls us worship the God who is Love.

The Gospels contain contradictions not just between supposed historical facts, but also in their image of God. Is God loving, merciful, and kind? Is God judgemental and cruel? Or both perhaps?

Personally, I am called by the God of Love who reveals himself in Jesus of Nazareth, the Prince of Peace. In spite of the contradictions in the Gospels, much of what we know about Jesus comes from them. But we also know of God in Christ through the divine light that shines within each of us. We meet Christ not just by reading the Bible, but more directly by welcoming and loving our neighbours, as today's reading from Matthew also suggests.

Matthew's story that Jesus will throw people into hell contradicts what we know about the God of Love revealed in the Risen Christ in each of us. This is not to say that there is no judgement in life or in the Bible. We will return to that topic next Sunday since the reading from Mark next week begins the new church year on the same apocalyptic note note we heard in today's reading from Matthew.

Matthew's Jesus might make us afraid of hell. But such fear is not why we try to love each other. We try to live lives of love because love -- buried though it might under the rubble of our earthly kingdoms of greed, competition and war -- is our deepest calling.

Today we celebrate Christ the King. He is not a King who lords it over the poor and humble or punishes and tortures those he judges as sinful. He is a democratic King who lives in the heart of all the poor and humble and whom we encounter every day in each other. And as Rob Bell suggests, he is a king who judges us in order to save.

On Good Friday, we say "The King is dead." And on Easter Sunday, as on any day, we say "Long live the King." He does not live on a distant throne, nor does he threaten us with hellfire and damnation. Our King is the Christ who lives in our hearts and who calls to us with love and hope.

Thanks be to God.


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