I belong to a small group which meets once a week in the morning for Eucharist and a shared homily (the best time of my week). The opening question after the readings is always, “What did you hear?” Today’s Eucharistic readings are abundant with reflections to that question. They are Psalm 19:7-14, Leviticus 19:1-2, 11-18 and Matthew 25:31-46.
The reading in Matthew is the parable of the sheep and the goats. It summarizes Jesus’ ethical teachings regarding the care for the poor, hungry, victimized. Observing these commandments, or not, is the cut which separates this mixed flock. First off, I like goats. I like goat cheese and goat milk and goat yoghurt. And it took a lot of prayer to like sheep. Sheep are dumb. But I love the Shepherd, so I grew to love sheep. That is the trouble with symbols from else-time. I like wolves, too, a lot. But my questions are, is this like the Wise and Foolish Virgins, those who cry “Lord, Lord,” but have not acted in faith, but only in kind, are told, “I never knew you,” and rejected? And all the parables about being ready at all times for when the Master comes, or else? What happened to the teaching to love your enemies? How do these relate?
Jesus warns that those who hurt Jesus’ own, the little ones are irredeemable. So to the pit with them. Some commentators feel that the “little ones,” may not only be the weak and powerless, a more liberation theological point of view, but the first Christians in Matthew’s community primarily made up of Jews, who were under attack. There was strife between Jews who adhered to the old Law, and those who adhered to Jesus. And into that mix come converted Gentiles, who had joined both groups. So here, as in all places, as I say, where two or three are gathered there will be politics. But let’s put that aside.
Both sheep and goats ask how they failed to fulfill the basic set of tenets of charity. I think it telling that sheep who did good works didn’t have a laundry list of their good deeds. They just did them, from the heart, without thinking about it, and certainly did not do them for brownie points. Those goats who failed either had no compassion or did good works for their own self-gratification. They have had their reward. So to the pit with them.
The Hebrew Testament reading for this day is from Leviticus. Verse 1b reads, “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.” The people God called, the tribes of Israel, are sanctified in a way unique to them. When we say in the Lord’s Prayer “Hallowed be your name,” the word “hallowed” is a synonym for “sanctified.” Through Jesus Christ those of us who were not born Jews (I was) are adopted into the realm of the sanctified. But the issue of who was sanctified was a hot button issue in the First Century. And certainly after the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE and the Diaspora of the people of Israel it became more of an issue to the Gospel writers. Who was “us” and who was “them”? A problem we still have today on all kinds of grounds.
The reading in Leviticus basically recapitulated the ten ethical commandments given to Moses. Then, the end of this reading, v. 17-18 NRSV, says, “You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin; you shall reprove your neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.” It is not clear who “neighbor” refers to, but a good guess would be the people, Jewish people, who lived next door. Reprove your neighbor is a curious injunction. Correct your Jewish neighbors on their observance of the Law. A rather draconian suggestion. Couldn’t have made for a harmonious neighborhood. The RSV gives a different translation, “You shall not hate your brother in your heart, but you shall reason with your neighbor, lest you bear sin because of him. You shall not take vengeance or bear any grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Keep the community in line. Love and protect your own. Verse 19 NRSV, goes on, “You shall not let your animals breed with a different kind; you shall not sow your field with two kinds of seed; nor shall you put on a garment made of two different materials.” Presumably flax, wool, or silk. The Israelites were not big on diversity or inclusion. One thing is clear. Don’t mix things up. You are to love your own. And for the rest? To the pit with them.
That is the trouble with fundamentalism. It is all or nothing. My way or the highway. That is the world where Jesus was born, where God first came to a desert people, and where he chose to incarnate himself to fix things for the people of Judah and for the whole world. Kind of embarrassing for us, sometimes, that we come from so narrow an interpretation of God the Creator, God the Lover of Souls, but there it is. And we must never forget we are not them. God doesn’t want us to be. That’s why Jesus came.
Then why the pit for breaking rules? There is a fine line between boundaries of behavior and rules to keep the powerful in power. The first keeps us from social chaos, and is a moving target. The second is inflexible and keeps us in slavery to each other. Is nothing forgivable? I thought that was what Jesus brought – mercy and life eternal. Not the pit. Above my pay grade, Lord. But perhaps we can find some enlightenment in Psalm 19, which begins a hymn of praise for Creation, and moves on with a paean to the Law. The Law is perfect and revives the soul, gives wisdom. The statues of the Lord are just, the commandments clear, and fear of the Lord is clean and enduring. And then it shifts. “Who can tell how often he offends? Cleanse me from my secret faults. Above all, keep your servant from presumptuous sins; let them not get dominion over me.” Just addressed to breakers of the 400+ laws in Leviticus? Or the commandments of Jesus to feed, clothe, comfort? I doubt it. We are tested every day, in our hearts and souls, for our thoughts and actions. And that would be terrible, as terrible as it was for the ancient Israelites, who had to take breaks and worship visible idols and subscribe to religions that made fewer demands. With Jesus’ kenosis to become one of us, and the anticipation of the parousia (Christ will come again) we live as a people in hope. Who will go down into the pit, or if there is a pit, is up to God, as all things are. But we are given the tools, the technology, if you will, to open our hearts beyond the strictures of the Law, of rules and boundaries, to share in the Heart of Love of God in Christ for all.
“Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my strength and my redeemer.” (Ps 19:14)
Dr. Dana Kramer-Rolls is a parishioner at All Souls Parish, Episcopal, Berkeley, California and earned her master’s degree and PhD from the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, California.