Saturday, June 08, 2013

Jesus, Judgement, The Nation & the Poor

The Judgment Seat of Christ
And The Poor

When you enter the great west doors of the Gothic Cathedrals of France,  and God willing, that’s exactly where some of us will be in a few short weeks, you will be greeted with a scene of the Last Judgment above those massive portals. It is a dramatic scene; with Jesus seated on the Throne of his Glory separating the sheep from the goats; the sheep rejoicing to be embraced by the love of God, the goats separated and to be in torment forever!

It is a sobering scene. As the throngs of faithful enter these great cathedrals, we cannot help but be reminded that as God is our Judge, so Christ is our Advocate. But it is that manner in which Jesus makes his judgments that makes all the difference.

This is how Jesus judges the nations of the earth.

Tell me if you will, what are these great sculptures about? On what scripture passage are they based? I was fascinated by the lectures describing the sculpture and the architecture of the cathedrals that this one critical piece of information is not mentioned.

If we remember how Jesus began his ministry in his own home town, we will remember that he said; 
“I have come to bring good news to the poor”.
~Luke 4:18
Then at the end of his ministry we hear these words; 
‘When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” Then he will say to those at his left hand, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.” Then they also will answer, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?” Then he will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.’ 
~Matthew 25:31ff

So important is this passage to our understanding of the Judgement of Christ, that it has become carved into the very entryway to the great Cathedrals of Europe.

How then does Jesus judge the nations? Obviously on the basis of how well or how badly we treat the poor. It is easy to forget this one simple fact. Somehow we got the message over the centuries that Judgment involved matters involving someone’s notion of sin. Somehow the sins became defined as mere personal habits; good ones as well as bad ones. And indeed the care and love of the self is one of the great challenges facing each and every one of us, and will continue to be up until the last day of our time on this planet.

But what I find fascinating is that this did not appear to be the primary concern of Jesus. All we have to do is look at what Jesus did. He went to all the towns and villages of Galilee and beyond. There he taught all who would listen to him. He sought out the poor, the sick, the outcast, as well as the rich and common folk like ourselves. He treated them all alike; with the abundant love of God and with the power of his healing touch. 

There is no doubt though that the biblical witness stands in clear solidarity with the poor and the sick and those who are dying or even dead. Just look at the two stories we have before us today in our lectionary cycle.

In the lesson from the First Book of Kings we have a story of the prophet Elijah, a figure in the biblical narrative that prefigures Jesus in many ways. He comes at the behest of God to Zarephath and meets a poor widow there and asks her to bring him something to eat. The poor thing was in the process of gathering a few sticks so she could go home, feed her son, and since this was to be their last morsel of food and oil, they must then prepare to die. But the prophet Elijah said, no feed me first and I promise that your jar of meal and your jug of oil will not give out. And so it was. 

Then her son died, and the widow’s lamentation would rise to God in the ears of the prophet and with exquisite pathos she says; “What have you against me you man of God that you would bring my sin to remembrance and cause the death of my son?” The prophet revives the woman’s son and then we are all left to wonder at the power and grace of God in making provision for us both in our poverty and even at the hour of our death.

Likewise in the story of Jesus with the widow of Nain; the crowd in the village; no doubt a crowd of rich and poor and just plain common folk were all in a state of agitation over the death of the widow’s son. Again how cruel! That God would take a child from his mother. Jesus cautions them all not to be afraid and armed with the power of God, revives the young man. While cautioned not to, fear seized the crowd again because it was clear to them all that a prophet had arisen among them and God’s grace and God’s power was given to the poor widow and her son.

Thus from these two stories, and much more, we learn of God’s concern for the poor. In fact the word “poor” occurs in the scriptures 213 times. The Judgment of Christ as presented in Christian Art on the great west doors of the Cathedrals of France is a reference to this great concern of God in the person of Jesus; “Insofar as you have done it to one of the least of these, you have done it to me.”

The nations are held in judgment. So are we all. But it is not about trivial matters of of sin. Everyone here is in recovery in one way or another from some kind of personal “thorn in the flesh”. And for these matters I am convinced we are forgiven particularly when we confess our sins, negligences, and offenses before God.

What causes Jesus the greater animus when it comes to our Judgment, is how we treat those who are in need; the poor, the elderly, the young, and all those vulnerable in our midst.

It is not the fashion in France, Europe or even among our own countrymen to go to church as was once a matter of course. I believe that is because we may have forgotten to “be” the church for the sake of the world. Many had forgotten what the sculpture on the great west doors of those cathedrals referred to.

It has been said that during one of the many famines in France, Marie Antoinette is reputed to have said “Qu’ils mangent le brioche”; “let them eat cake”. The callous sentiment helped to inspire the French Revolution and the rejection of the Monarchy, and the uprising of the peasants. How far France had come from the glorious times of Charlemagne when a somewhat fairer distribution of wealth assured that at least, the poor would not starve to death. The monarchy had come a very long way, from a time when the welfare of the people was paramount to a time when the people starved at the doorway to the Palace at Versailles.

Now we can read the Bible for ourselves. We can now see the biblical concern for the poverty of the widows and their children, we know of the compassion of God for the death of their children, we know of God’s abundant power to provide for us both in our poverty, in our illnesses and even in our death.

The nation and the world we live in is now is filled with poverty, injustice and warfare. It is our sacred mission to speak frankly to this nation and to this world about the suffering of God’s people. We must tend to the poor, heal the sick, bring justice to the oppressed, and peace where there is warfare and violence. Not an easy task, I’ll grant you.

It was not an easy task for Paul and the early church as they travelled the world over to bring the Gospel of Peace to a war torn world, and a world that ground up the poor at the hands of the oppressor’s rod. The church confronted Rome and all the powers and principalities of the time to speak up for “the least of these”. 

This is now the challenge facing us. When the church regains its sense of mission again, to bring Good News to the Poor as was the mission of Jesus, then we will become the salty presence we must be for the sake of the world. We must issue this challenge to the church, the nation and to the world.

I can hardly wait to see for myself the great west doors of the Cathedrals of France. There, Jesus is waiting on us, seated on the Throne of his Glory. He is our Advocate and our Judge. Time is short, lets get on with it. We’ve go work to do! 

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Fr. Paul


Anonymous said...

One thing that confuses me about this message its that it makes it sound as if we are judged as a group rather than as individuals. If we are judged as a nation, then what is the point of free will? Why should one person be judged by what another does, rather than their response to it?

Anonymous said...

If you are not part of the solution as a whole then you are part of the problem. God knows our hearts and our actions. You need to get involved with the laws that are being created in our cities, states, and country.

Anonymous said...

Also... OUR nation is on a brink... what is OUR country doing to the poor, the hungry, the sick, the elderly, & the children? Look to our national leaders... We ARE our brother's keeper... You may not have money to help... what gifts do you have to share? Petitions need to be signed... contact your representatives, find out how they vote on the above issues. There is much one can do... and one can always pray.

"Fr. Paul" Bresnahan said...

Dear Anonymous, Thank you for your thoughtful comments. Allow me to venture a response. The early Church made a distinction between personal ethical responsibility and "the powers and principalities" as Paul put it. Even then there was a systemic kind of power in the nature of evil agains which the early Christian community had to contend. Paul puts it this way in Ephesians 6; "For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places." All this was way before we had come up with all the niceties of systematic theology like "free will". But we do know that Jesus got especially excited about the "powers and the principalities"...e.g. the money changers in the Temple Precincts. It was to the poor, the sick, the lame, the outcast that Jesus came to bring the Good News of Salvation. I believe he has set us to work to witness to the "Powers and the Principalities"...that when the rich and the powerful begin to oppress the poor, God becomes especially concerned....and his anger becomes kindled. Lots of reference to that throughout scripture. My tendency is to stick with Biblical Theology. I leave systematics up to those smarter than me. As for now, it is important that we put the "Powers and the Principalities" on notice. The time is short! Thanks Fr Paul.