I knew I would struggle a bit reading Matthew’s gospel. It is my least favourite of the 4 gospels and it’s mainly because of some of the really hard things Jesus says. There is a great film by Pasolini called ‘The Gospel of Matthew‘ (1964) – my mother doesn’t like the ‘Jesus’ in it, he’s very angry and stomps around a lot (the actor had though, quite obviously read the gospel quite closely!) I don’t really ‘like’ this Jesus much in places either!
However, I feel it is increasingly important to allow ourselves to be surprised by God. We’re not that different from the Jews of his time as Jesus was not the messiah they were expecting. Often, I think, the Jesus we encounter in the gospels doesn’t match the image of him we have in our minds. This reminds me of the excellent poster campaign of 1999 portraying Jesus thus:
The bit I’ve been finding hard as I’ve been reading Matthew is this constant refrain from Jesus:
…and throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
– Matt 8.12, 13.42, 13.50, 24.51, 25.30
What’s important here is to work out exactly who Jesus is talking about. Who is he addressing? Well in Matthew’s gospel he reserves his strongest words for the religious leaders of his day – those who taught God’s law to the people, showing people how they should live to please God.
Whenever Jesus says ‘throw them into the darkness’ he is talking about those who are already part of God’s kingdom, his Chosen people, who have forgotten what it is to be the people of God. Those who are now oppressing the poor, the ordinary and giving them burdens they can’t carry – like totally unrealistic adherence to the law (eg. tithing your herbs and spices Matt 23.23).
Today’s reading was the one about the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25.31-46. You might remember the hymn from school ‘when I needed a neighbour’? Well it’s that one! Tom Wright in his lent book (which I’m reading) points out that those Jesus sets apart as sheep (the good & faithful) don’t actually realise why God is pleased with them. They don’t know what it is they’ve done to warrant his blessing:
Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink?
– Matt 25.37
Jesus is very cleverly pointing out the irony that the scribes & pharisees of his day ‘know how to be righteous’ – they know the right answers, but they don’t live it. Those who on the surface ‘don’t know the right answers’ – the ordinary people, actually do, because they live their lives in a way that serves God. They think nothing of putting up a lost stranger for the night, giving food to the hungry, visiting a sick friend…
Jesus’ strong words and strong warning are to all those who think they’ve got it sorted, those who feel confident of their own holiness, those who look down on the apparently ‘irreligious’.
And I have to confess, sometimes that’s me.
We none of us have got it sorted. When Jesus says these harsh things I have to remember these points:
- He is usually addressing religious leaders – not those outside the church, not unbelievers (so ‘fire & brimstone’ sermons should be for those who preach them!)
- Am I behaving in a self-righteous, superior way?
- Am I putting a ‘meek mild’ version of Jesus before the Jesus of the gospels?
Always be ready to be surprised by God!