Maybe you remember from high school English class the idea of literary themes. In any story, including in the Bible, there’s always a conflict. There’s human vs. Human – maybe Jesus and the temple authorities would be an example. There’s human vs. Self such as Saul’s conversion to Paul on the road to Damascus. Then there’s human vs. nature such as the stormy seas that threatened the disciples and their little boat.
Beyond these conflicts there are the reoccurring themes of stories. If any of you have read any fantasy novels, they often involve a quest – a search to find a magic ring, sword, or land. In the Bible we have these kinds of themes as well. One common one is the theme of exile and sometimes return. Adam and Eve were exiled from the Garden. The Hebrew People were exiled from Jerusalem and had to live in the foreign land of Babylon with their foreign gods.
There’s also the stories of exodus. Obviously, this is what the book of Exodus is about – the Israelites escaping slavery and then going toward the promised land. The Gospels also follow this same theme. Jesus is portrayed as the new Moses who is charged with leading God’s people away from slavery, slavery of sin, of fear, of injustice, of isolation to liberation. For Jesus though, this wasn’t so much a matter of geography. It wasn’t an exodus from Egypt to Cana but from the current age to the age to come.
This is what we call the eschatological readings – the readings that are about the end of the current age and the emergence of the age to come, heaven, the realm, kingdom, or kin-dom of God. Many have said that this is about the end of the world but that’s not really what these readings say – the is more of a transformation, a upside downing of the world. Today’s reading from Matthew is one of those eschatological readings but in this case, it’s a declaration of who will enter this new age and who will not.
There’s a couple of ways we can look at this. For a very long time, a traditional way of reading this is to see it as a measure of whether or not you’re going to heaven when you die. It’s like the old snakes and ladders game. Be like the sheep that care for the least of these and you get to climb that ladder to heaven or be like those selfish goats and slide down the snakes back.
If this is the way we read this passage, this is a very important and clear warning and instruction. Do this and get rewarded or don’t do this and get punished. Seems a bit harsh, doesn’t it. And really, how many of us can live up to this standard. There are certainly hungry and thirsty that I haven’t fed or watered and I haven’t visited anyone imprisoned in 30 years. And yes, we do talk of God’s grace and how it’s not how deserving we are but how loving God is that saves us but that’s not what this reading says. Do this and you’re in, don’t do this and you’re out.
Of course, there’s more than one way to read stories from the Bible and this reading is no exception. As I’ve said many times before, when Jesus talks of the age to come, he might not be talking about an afterlife. Even the phrase “eternal life” is very different in the Bible’s original languages – eternal life to Jesus means to live through this age and into the next. It also might not be an all at once event where the world is upended in one cataclysm. Maybe the realm of God is more like oatmeal slowly coming to a boil. You see one pop here, then another, and eventually, the whole pot is boiling mass of yummy goo ready to spill over and make a mess of your stove.
If this is the way we imagine God’s realm, this reading can be read very differently. Imagine you live a life of fear. There are so many things we don’t understand, and surely this means that people are going to take advantage of us. We’re afraid of those people, the others, the ones they talk about in hushed tones and view with suspicion. You’re afraid of someone coming and stealing your stuff, or taking your job, or threatening your traditions. The more you have, after all, the more others can take from you. Those who Jesus mention in this reading? If they’re in prison, they probably deserve what they get. The stranger should just go back to where they came from. The hungry and thirsty should just pull up their socks and get a job. Me? I’m just looking out for number number one and if I have to live behind a wall of suspicion and fear of others, so be it.
To me, this sounds like hell. I don’t want to be afraid. I don’t what to be guarded when meeting someone new because of a general mistrust of people. I want to believe that people are generally good and kind, thoughtful and are willing, given the opportunity to stick up for people who are bullied, help people in pain. If I can’t believe this about the others I share this planet with, why am I here? This is hell, but what if the secret to hell is that the gates aren’t locked – you can leave any time.
Now if heaven isn’t limited to life after death, maybe it’s more like a parallel existence. Have you ever gone to a movie with a friend after discussing it, you wonder if you’ve seen the same movie. Maybe it’s been a book club where different readers pick out totally different ideas and themes. Maybe this world and the realm of God is like that. Some of see the hot oatmeal and others only see the empty space of the bubbles. Some of us see the world as a cruel and frightening place but some have one foot in God’s realm and see the good, the beauty, the holiness. Maybe some do more than simply see this but go about creating it.
Imagine you live in a world that sometimes seems frightening. There are so many things that we don’t understand, but this is a great opportunity to learn. Sure, we have more privilege and wealth than others but that gives us the power to speak for those without a voice. Yes, there will be those who’ll take advantage of us or try to steal from us but they’re in the vast minority. And those of whom Jesus speaks? If they’re hungry we have room at our table and we can always throw another potato and some water in the soup. Visit the imprisoned? It’s always a good time to make a new friend and who knows, maybe next time, it’ll be one of us that’s hoping someone will come and visit.
This to me, sounds like heaven. It sounds like a place where God’s love is known and all people are treated with grace. This to me also sounds like a place that we can go. Jesus said that’s it’s near and he’s the one to lead us on our own exodus from slavery to liberation, from this age into the age to come, from bondage to fear and greed and hatred, to a place of freedom.
If the gates to hell are unlocked and we can leave whenever we want, then maybe the gates to heaven are also wide open – we’re simply asked to not enter alone, but to bring with us one of the least of these, the siblings of Christ.