Sunday, November 22, 2020

Those Not Judged | Reign of Christ 2020

In the Hebrew Scriptures, God is portrayed showing a tender heart for his own people. In places the prophets described him as the source of their punishment, due to their lack of faithfulness in the covenant he had made with their people. In any case, there's a scene where he is pictured as the shepherd, and Israel as the flock. A pastoral depiction fitting for the time and place. 

I will search for the lost and bring back the strays. I will bind up the injured and strengthen the weak, but the sleek and the strong I will destroy. I will shepherd the flock with justice. — Ezekiel 34:16

You don't have to be familiar with animal husbandry to know that destroying the strongest of the flock and investing resources in the weakest isn't the usual way to go. It's a guaranteed loss of money. The comparison has definite limits. The problem here was that some were thriving in the Babylonian captivity, away from their ancient homeland, while others knew only scarcity and want. The trouble then, and which remains until now, is the lack of concern we show for our fellow human beings.

In the so-called 'Rust Belt' there are communities left behind by the departure of manufacturing for other countries where labor is cheaper. Throughout the country every time a black person is pulled over by the police they wonder if this time their name will become another hashtag. Women are underpaid compared to men and deal with sexism, trans folks suffer violence, and desperate families crossing the southern border are torn apart by a system for which cruelty is the only point.

The most passive thing anyone can do in the face of these injustices and all the others is nothing. The second most passive is praying and saying 'God is in control.' That's just the same as giving up, and it's contrary to what the man from Nazareth is said to have taught. 

For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ — Matthew 25:35-36 

Those verses sit square in the middle of a depiction of judgement. The nations are divided between sheep and goats. In this scenario, you definitely don't want to be a goat. They're the ones who saw the deep needs around them and took the most passive routes they could. Or worse, they are the ones who caused harm to others or perpetuated systems that oppressed. The sheep, for their part, saw the immense poverty of material and spirit and did something about it. They even visited the prisoners. 

Notice two things here.

First, there's no accounting for the ones who were fed, clothed, and housed. Are they sheep or goats? Since this was not meant to be a literal depiction of a final judgment (after all, people aren't really sheep or goats, but rather humans) there are limits to what was being said. The focus is not on where they are in relation to judgment, but rather how people were behaving toward those most in need. No moral judgment is being applied to the needy, including the prisoners. We can't assume that they are all innocent, nor does that matter.

Think a little deeper about this one. The moral qualities of the hungry, thirsty, homeless, naked, and imprisoned are not a factorAll that matters for the purpose of this story of judgment is how other people respond to them. They are not held up as the mythical virtuous poor. They are not necessarily the bum with a heart of gold. All we know is that they are at the margins of society, clinging on by their fingertips.

Second, there was no waiting around for a deus ex machina turning of the tide to change things. Often when we contemplate these verses we associate it with giving a meal to a homeless person or even volunteering at the local soup kitchen or food pantry. That's all well and good. Nothing against that, so long as it's done in humanizing and not dehumanizing ways. The more difficult connection for us to make is between these verses and the systems and processes that leave people without the necessities of life or the formative experiences to participate in society in a healthy way. We often separate what we think we can do, which is volunteering, from what seems beyond us in effecting social change. 

That, however, is the point of organizing. 

While in Ezekiel we hear about a god who will shepherd his people and judge the oppressors, in Matthew we find a demand that we be the ones to enact justice. I'm not here to hold those in some sort of false tension. Time and again the prophets of Israel and Judah called on the people to turn back to doing what is right, caring for one another and especially those below the bottom rung. Not only that, they raised the alarm about corruption in high places and honored traditions that kept people in bondage. 

One last little point. In the face of all the terrible words and deeds of people who call what is factual and evidence based 'fake news' and treat conspiracy theories like the gospel, and in light of the crisis in the natural world, it can feel absolutely overwhelming. This to the point that we feel as though we might as well not try. What can one little person do? Well, one person can link up with other such people and pray with their feet, marching for change and organizing for a more just society. Also, one person can simply check in on an elderly neighbor, wear a mask responsibly during a global pandemic, give blood, donate to organizations that care for others and/or which work for positive change, or simply tip generously.

Search for the lost and bring back the strays, without judgment. 

Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.