Sheep and goats, prayer and chains

February 15 — Matthew 25:31-46; February 22 — Ephesians 6:10-20

Feb 2, 2015 by

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Matthew 25 is a familiar passage to most Christians. Such familiarity can lead, I fear, to a kind of spiritual laziness. When we think a text is simple, when we think we know what it means, it’s easy to move on with our lives without paying attention to the true challenges that text makes and what we might be called to do in the present moment. If Scripture is living and active, if it continues to speak truth today — and I believe that it does — there is an unending depth to what God might want to teach us through Matthew 25.

Florian

Florian

When Jesus separates the sheep from the goats, we’d like to think we know which group we’ll belong to. Yet in this passage those on his left are confused. When did they see Jesus hungry, thirsty, in prison? Never! He replies to their confusion, “Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” It turns out that Jesus is present in the places some of us least expect to find him. It turns out that the people we want to turn our backs on are part of Jesus’ family.

This text speaks to us today, I believe, and to our desire to separate, to judge, to determine who is or is not acceptable to God, when in fact, in Matthew and throughout the Gospels, Jesus is always upending those desires and expectations. We are not to judge; we are to welcome. Feed the hungry, house the needy, clothe the naked — be a source of hope, a home, a place of safety and refuge to the marginalized.

Again and again I return to this word: family. Are we really willing to turn our backs on God’s family, on our own spiritual kin?

Eph. 6:10-20 has a different feel. Rather than instructions to care for others, we are offered a metaphorical dress code for preservation. The imagery of armor and battle might be disconcerting to those from a peace church tradition, yet it may prove useful as a contrast. Lay down your weapons and pick up instead “the sword of the spirit,” the word of God. This image is often read in such a way that the Bible becomes a weapon, a way to beat others into submission to a narrowly defined truth that doesn’t look much like the expansive, hospitable, merciful love of God in Christ Jesus that infuses the Bible as a whole. In laying down our weapons, we must be careful not to create a new one which — though it lacks sharp edges or bullets — can injure, even kill, when wielded with violence.

In the end, Ephesians 6 shifts away from soldier imagery and speaks of prayer and of chains. “Pray also for me, so that when I speak, a message may be given to me to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel,” the author says. He covets the church’s prayers more than powerful defenses. He desires boldness and, most important, he wants to share what he calls the “mystery” of the gospel.

If “family” is the word I returned to repeatedly in Matthew, “mystery” is the word that grips me here. The world turned upside down in Christ is nothing if not mysterious. It doesn’t look like people might have expected, and it continues to look different from what we might expect to see today, too.

“I am an ambassador in chains,” he writes. Rather than a soldier in a gleaming suit of honor, we’re left with the image of a prisoner, praying not for release but for the boldness to speak truth.

Meghan Florian, of Durham, N.C., works in the Center for Theological Writing at Duke Divinity School. She is a member of Chapel Hill Mennonite Fellowship.


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