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Blessings and Meetings, Part Two

Based on a paper I read at the All Souls Club in London on June 5.

In part one, we considered the many blessings announced by Christ in the beatitudes. These form a counterpart with several surprising meetings with that same Christ.

This passage is sometimes headed “The Judgement of the Nations” and is known popularly as the parable of the Sheep and the Goats. “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these, you did it to me.”

How do we match verse 32, which mentions, “All the nations will be gathered before him,” with the fact that the judgment in the parable will be on particular individuals, rather than nations?

It seems to me that “all the nations” refers to the Gentiles and that these are individual Gentiles who are responding to the hidden Christ in the missionary disciples.

I agree with H. Benedict Green in his commentary, The Gospel According to Matthew, that the “least of these” referred originally to the disciples of Jesus, rather than to every poor and marginalized person in the world, which has become part of the tradition of interpretation of this passage, including the inspiration for charity work, notably of Mother Teresa.

Green commented:

In the light of [verse 32] and of 24.14 [“And this good news of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the world, as a testimony to all the nations”] and 28.19 [“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations”], the reference [to the least of these my brothers] must not be to nations as opposed to individuals, but to Gentiles as opposed to Jews (whose judgement as a people has already been pronounced at 23.38f [“See, your house is left to you desolate.”].

Gentiles who have not encountered Christ himself will be judged on the basis of their behaviour towards him in the persons of his disciples. That ‘least’ means these, and not suffering humanity in general (an edifying thought often read into the text), is borne out by the “little ones” of 18.6, 10, and 14 [“If any of you put a stumbling-block before one of these little ones who believe in me”; “take care that you do not despise one of these little ones”; “So it is not the will of your Father in heaven that one of these little ones should be lost”] … and above all by 10.42 [“and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple— truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.].

Green then developed an interesting point of ecclesiology:

‘the whole scene’ [in Matthew 25.31-46] is really an extended dramatization’ [of Matthew 10.42.] It is the nearest that Matthew, or the synoptic tradition generally, comes to the conception of the Church as the Body of Christ.

We saw earlier that Helen Vendler described Herbert’s poem “Love (III)” as being constructed on a “source” of only nine words in one verse — “He shall make them sit down to meat” (Luke 12:37): here, we see Benedict Green also imagining the parable of the sheep and goats as an extended dramatization of one verse, Matthew 10:42.

We shall be looking at the six descriptions of the king hidden incognito in his disciples and consider how they match six experiences of Christ on the cross and six events in his ministry leading up to Good Friday.

  1. Hungry

I was hungry and you gave me food.

On the cross Jesus was given no food, and in the feeding of the 5,000 he provided food for the multitudes.

  1. Thirsty

I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink.

On the cross Jesus cried out, “‘I am thirsty.’ A jar full of sour wine was standing there. So they put a sponge full of wine on a branch of hyssop and held it to his mouth” (John 19:28-29). At the wedding in Cana of Galilee, Jesus provided abundant supplies of wine.

  1. Stranger

I was a stranger and you welcomed me.

On the Cross, Jesus was an outsider in Jerusalem because he came from the north of Palestine, from Galilee. Zaccheus the Jewish tax collector, who knew what it felt like to be shunned, welcomed Jesus into his house in Jericho, en route to Jerusalem (Luke 19:1-10)

  1. Naked

I was naked and you gave me clothing.

On the cross, Jesus was naked, an awkwardness scrupulously obscured in most paintings of the cross. In Matthew 6:28-30, Jesus asks the rhetorical question,

Why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you — you of little faith?

  1. Sick

I was sick and you took care of me.

Before and after his trial, Jesus’ body was beaten and on the cross, he was in excruciating pain. The mocking irony of his previous multiple healings across Galilee and in Jerusalem was not lost on the bystanders. “He saved others. Himself he cannot save” (Matt. 27:42).

  1. Prison

I was in prison and you visited me.

Jesus was arrested and imprisoned and, after his death, he was locked in a borrowed grave. But you cannot keep a good man down.

Jesus visited the Gadarene demoniac (Mark 5:1-20).

He lived among the tombs; and no one could restrain him anymore, even with a chain; for he had often been restrained with shackles and chains, but the chains he wrenched apart, and the shackles he broke in pieces; and no one had strength to subdue him.

After exorcism and healing, the people “came to Jesus and saw the demoniac sitting there, clothed and in his right mind.”

We conclude our second part, “Meetings,” with another of my poems that references George Herbert.

Consecration” surfaced from the personal appropriation of a line in Herbert’s poem “Church-musick,” “God help poore kings’. Helen Wilcox, in her magisterial book The English Poems of George Herbert, says this line “has aroused considerable critical interest” and implies that scholars are at a loss to agree on its meaning. But I know its meaning — at least for me. For my name is Kings and, as a bishop, I need all the help God can give me.

My poem is located in three places: in a famous Oxford bookshop; in Westminster Abbey; and on my episcopal ring. I was consecrated bishop in the Church of God on June 24, 2009, in Westminster Abbey.

Consecration

In Blackwell’s, on the Broad,
Between appointment and announcement,
Contemplating coping as a bishop,
I laugh out loud,
Disturbing book-browsers.
In Herbert’s “Church Music,”
I read the enigmatic plea:
“God help poore kings.”

In Westminster Abbey,
Inundated by the Spirit,
Hilaritas mingles with gravitas.
Laying on of hands,
Anointing with oil,
Giving of the Bible
And a ring, engraved:
“God help poore Kings.”

Conclusion

Matthew’s use of chiasmus in his gospel includes its whole design. We can see how he shaped the teaching of Jesus into five sermons, which resonate deliberately with the five sermons of Moses in Deuteronomy.

Chapters 5-7 (the Sermon on the Mount), chapter 10 (on mission), chapter 13 (on the parables — and chapter 13 have a chiasmic structure, as David Wenham has outlined in a New Testament Studies article in 1979),[i] chapter 18 (on the church), and chapters 24 to 25 (on the end times).

So Matthew 5 and Matthew 25 do, in effect, mirror each other at the beginning and the end of the sermons.

Christ’s character may be seen in his Beatitudes: Christ is hidden, unseen, in his missionary disciples.

My final poem is “Concealed in a Comma.” Have you noticed that the chapters in Matthew between chapter 5 and 25 (actually between chapter 3 and chapter 25) are not mentioned at all in the Nicene Creed?

Next year will be the 1,700th anniversary of the first edition of what we call the Nicene Creed. It jumps straight from the birth of Jesus to his crucifixion, with a comma in between.

Concealed in a Comma

Where does the common-or-garden comma
Guard the life of Christ?

In the Nicene Creed,
Between “and was made man”
And “was crucified for us.”

Three-quarters of the Gospels
Hidden in a comma.

The grounded life of the Controversialist,
Three centuries later,
Was not dissected, divided, and debated
As much as his eternal life as God,
His conception by the Virgin,
And his bodily resurrection.

Our life is hid with Christ in God:
His life — concealed in a comma.

Preaching “Kingdom is now,”
Healing the sick with power,
Teaching crowds with parables,
Walking hills and valleys,
Contradicting sneers of scribes,
Abiding with sidelined:
Diminishing the lofty, raising the lowly.

Come on, theologians of Nicaea,
Seventeen hundred years ago,
Expand your comma.

Have a heart and harken.
Give space to the life on earth
Of the Life of the Universe:
Intermediate time of Intermediary,
Between eternity and eternity,
Son of Man contracted to a span.

Express the compressed:
Point to the tale of the point with a tail.


[i] Wenham, David. “The Structure of Matthew XIII.” New Testament Studies 25, no. 4 (1979), pp. 516–22.

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