Two of the great discourses Matthew attributed to Jesus have defined Christianity: the first is the Sermon on the Mount, which is generally thought to go back to the historical Jesus and to reflect his authentic teachings. The second is the portion of the Last Judgment from 25:34-40:
Then the king will say to those at his right, “Come, you who have the blessing of my Father, inherit the domain prepared for you from the foundation of the world. You may remember, I was hungry and you gave me something to eat; I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink; I was a foreigner and you showed me hospitality; I was naked and you clothed me; I was ill and you visited me; I was in prison and you came to see me. . . . I swear to you, whatever you did for the most inconspicuous members of my family [KJV: one of the least of these my brethren] you did for me as well.”
Matthew crafted this out of his own genius. Jesus never said any such thing. If read to the end, this speech is an admonition that contains a threat of damnation. The “goats” know very well who was hungry, thirsty, naked, and in prison, and refused to do anything about it. Therefore, they are headed for everlasting hellfire. What is seldom noticed by traditional Christians is that consignment to hell is not the payback for “sin”; it is the consequence of not believing that Jesus was the one Anointed by God to return the world to God’s covenantal rule. If you don’t believe Jesus was the one – according to Matthew – you won’t follow Jesus’ teachings, and when the transformation comes, you will be found in the company of the goats.
Two thousand years of Western history and thought have testified to the power of this belief in musical compositions, artists’ renderings, and cautionary tales: Dies Irae from the Verdi Requiem; The Last Judgment, by Hieronymous Bosch; and James Whitcomb Riley’s Little Orphant Annie. Anyone who declines to do good works and celebrate with the returning master will be cast into the outer darkness, beyond the mountains that hold up the sky, into the abyss at the end of the flat earth. It’s a satisfying thought. Revenge is sweet – or a dish best served cold. If “God” won’t get you, “karma” will. But – so far as scholars can tell – Jesus was not warning about a violent judgment after death, but was declaring a non-violent feast on God’s holy mountain available to all here and now.
This is very different from traditional Christian insistence on belief that Jesus died to save us from our sins, and rose again to prove that there is eternal life after death. Whether the last judgment is celebrated as revenge against enemies, or claimed as pious reward, Matthew’s apocalyptic vision has been reduced to smug band-aids for the horrors of systemic injustice: soup kitchens, homeless shelters, free clinics, prison visitation – the least possible for the least possible. The same thing happened with the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King. Commemorations of his birthday and celebrations of “black history month” have become opportunities for school children and guilt-ridden adults to do “community service” – read to kids at the local school; deliver meals-on-wheels; clean up the local park; donate money to the Red Cross. This is not to imply that all those good works are in vain, but the dangers of cheap grace have been made clear over the centuries by the Apostle Paul, Martin Luther, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer – among other lesser saints. Donations of blood were liberally collected most recently in Birmingham, Selma, Memphis, and Kent State. More are being accepted today in Bahrain, Yemen, Syria, Libya, Somalia, North Carolina, Texas, and Beijing . . . just to name a few.
Matthew (and Jesus and all the other martyrs to justice) was aiming for a transformation that goes much deeper than volunteering with the Girl Scouts or donating unwanted furniture to Purple Heart. Jesus gave his life in the service of distributive justice-compassion. He actively overturned conventional responses to the petty worries and imperial oppressions of normal civilized life. The Parable of the Talants (Matthew 25:14-30) may have been the first in the genre of passive resistance stories in which the help spits in the soup pot. The slave who buried his master’s money in the kitchen garden threw the master’s gross unfairness right back in his face. The peasant who carried the centurion’s cloak for more than a mile forced the emperor’s warrior to break the emperor’s law; the merchant who turned the other side of his face to the tax collector transformed a gross insult into an encounter between equals. But the slave’s subtle act of defiance became an allegory of reward and punishment in Matthew’s hands. “Going the second mile” now means driving the neighbor’s kids to soccer practice again; “turning the other cheek” means putting up with abuse.
Matthew was writing at least 60 years after the death of Jesus. His point of view is Jewish. He bases his stories of Jesus on prophecies from Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Daniel. In his mind, the story of Jesus would replace the story of Moses for the new age. Jesus was the one Anointed by God to set to rights the entire universe. Matthew’s is an apocalyptic voice for an apocalyptic time that is coming soon, “like a thief in the night.” Anyone who rejected the message was rejecting God’s own promise of deliverance from imperial injustice. So at the end of his gospel, he has Jesus claim that “all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (NRSV). The Scholars’ Versionis more clear: “I’ll be with you day in and day out as you’ll see, so long as this world continues its course.”
In order for the world to stop its course of systemic injustice and create a world where distributive justice-compassion is the rule, those who would claim the name of Jesus have a responsibility to not only teach others Jesus’ way, but must follow it ourselves. Matthew’s challenge remains a rebuke to a so-called Christian church that makes common cause with the rich against the poor, the elderly, the sick, and the disabled; that blames victims for their plight; that seeks to punish collectively all those who qualify for social benefits, or who work for government agencies, with drug tests, literacy tests, and prerequisites for voting rights. Somehow they never think that if they deny fair and equal treatment to those who lack economic power, they deny fair and equal treatment to the very Lord they claim as their savior.
Perhaps those “Christians” so quick to impose the death penalty and deny clemency, no longer believe the second half of Matthew’s warning: “The second group [the goats] will then head for everlasting punishment, but the virtuous for everlasting life.” Maybe they think that because “Jesus died for their sins” they have nothing to worry about. But they have forgotten the parable of Lazarus and the rich man (Luke 16:20-31). The rich man begs Father Abraham to send word to his still living five brothers and warn them that if they do not share their good fortune equitably, they will end up in a “place of torture” for eternity. But Abraham said, “If they won’t listen to Moses and the prophets, they won’t be convinced even if someone were to rise from the dead.”
Jesus’ resurrection did not provide everyone with a free ticket to heaven. Jesus’ resurrection was the signal that God’s rule had arrived; the normal course of civilization with its inevitable systems of injustice had been overturned. But this is only true if people decide to live that way.