- Ezekiel 34: 11-16, 20-24
Using familiar experiences from everyday life, the Hebrew prophets and poets describe God as a potter (Jeremiah, Isaiah), a gardener (Jeremiah), mother (Isaiah), healer (Jeremiah) and, most frequently, a shepherd. Writing in a time of complete spiritual, social, political, physical and religious crises caused by conquest and captivity by the Babylonians, Ezekiel places new hopes on God, whom he likens to an attentive and fair shepherd. Homeless in Babylon, God’s people were “scattered far and wide” and totally vulnerable. But God will gather, rescue, seek, bring back, bind-up and strengthen them. God will judge the “fat and the lean sheep” and “feed them with justice.” “I, myself, will be the shepherd of my sheep,” the Lord says. The failed leaders who abused and exploited (“butted”) the “weak animals” will be replaced with “my servant David,” and he shall feed them and be their shepherd.”
- Psalm 100
As he crosses the threshold into the court of praise, the psalmist sings, “God has made us and we are God’s/God’s people and flock.”
- Psalm 95: 1-7a
The psalmist summons praise to God who is our maker and “the Rock of our rescue.” “We are the people of God’s hand;” “the flock.”
- Ephesians 1: 15-23
Paul understands the emergence of the church as an extension and continuing demonstration of God’s power at work through Christ, whom God “raised from the dead and seated him at God’s right hand in the heavenly place.”
- Matthew 25: 31-36
In the biblical narratives, an aspect of any act of restoration and rescue by God always entails the re-establishment of justice. This ancient hope is now applied in Matthew’s narrative to Christ, when he “comes in his glory and all the angels with him….” While all three synoptic gospels conclude parallel sections with warnings about a time of reckoning linked to the coming of “the Son of Man,” only Matthew’s narrative concludes this section just before the Passion Story with such a vivid depiction of that wonderful and terrible event. Like a “shepherd” who routinely performs the necessary task of separating “the sheep from the goats,” so “the Son of Man” will separate those who fed the hungry and thirsty, welcomed the stranger, clothed the naked, cared for the sick and imprisoned from those who did not do these specific things. Because, as you did or did not do these things to the least, you did not do to me! (Serving one another is the moral equivalent of serving God; serving God is fulfilled –or not– in serving others!)
The scene in Matthew’s gospel is the inspiration for Michelangelo’s vivid depiction of “The Last Judgment” that covers the entire wall behind the altar in the Sistine Chapel.
Matthew’s narrative places a scene, unique to this gospel, at the climax of his several chapters devoted to a telling of the unforgettable words and action of Jesus just before the final chapter set in Jerusalem. He paints a stunning scene. A supreme Judge of last resort sits on a throne. This Judge’s decisions are final. There is no further appeal. Some react with joy, others are horrified with the decisions handed down. The sole criterion on which the Judge bases these final decisions is who was and who was not engaged in basic, daily habits of justice. Nothing else matters to this Judge.
A passion for justice, not as theory but as concrete, everyday actions, emerges prominently anew among some postmodern writers. Derrida and Marion place “radical hospitality” as central to their entire work. Gadamer understands the act of interpretation of texts as a communal project to judge what is “right, here and now.” Levinas argues that because the other person can never be reduced to any form of total understanding, he or she always stands in my line of sights as unavoidable responsibility. This responsibility is beyond ethics. It is a “spiritual” claim; he or she is a “trace” of infinity, i.e. of God, right before me. “The most finite creature is filled with the infinite in its own way,” he insists. (Alterity and Transcendence, p. 67)
John Caputo, reliably, captures the gist of this postmodern reverence for justice, which is the core of biblical texts:
“In the kingdom, the mark of God is on the face of the stranger, the ‘other,’ not the ‘same.’ In the biblical tradition, God is not the object of speculative mysticism that sweeps us up into an eternal now where we are one with the One, but the one who comes knocking at our door dressed in rags in search of bread and a cup of cold water.” “The one who receives the stranger receives God, ‘the God who loves the stranger’.” (The Weakness of God: A Theology of Event, pp 262-263)
Matthew is clear, vivid and unforgettable. Some are going to be shocked when final judgment is announced. Some thought the only criterion that mattered was being “religious,” (i.e. some vague, sentimental notions of serving God for the sake of serving God or developing a “personal” relationship with God for my direct benefit), when in fact it was the basic habits of daily compassion that count! When did we not serve God? The answer, When you did not respond to the needs of others as routine part of your life. This is not the kind of “king” we were expecting, but it is the ultimate authority the scripture insists will be judge and jury.