SUNDAY NEXT BEFORE ADVENT
The Silence of the Lamb
Matthew 25.31 When the Son of Man comes as
King and all the angels with him, he will sit on his royal throne, and the
people of all the nations will be gathered before him.
The first sentence of today's
Gospel reading betrays its origin. These words do not come from the lips
of Jesus. They are the invention of the author of Matthew's Gospel.
A large majority of reputable Christian scholars will today agree that
much of Matthew's Gospel is the author's interpretation of Jesus, rather
than an account of the Jesus of history. Listening to many sermons even
today, one might think this a well-kept secret. But there is little doubt
that relatively little material in the Gospels provides good information
about the real Jesus who lived and died in this real world of ours.
So what we have here is the early Church's version of the fate of anyone
who didn't acknowledge Jesus as Messiah. However, many of us are so used
to the so-called parable of the sheep and the goats that we don't
recognise it for what it is - a striking departure from the essence of the
First, this is not a true parable but
an extended allegory - a sermon in which events and characters are meant
to convey a hidden meaning. Jesus didn't use allegories. His parables
don't have a moral, don't aim to preach a single point about "the truth".
There's a sense in which his parables have no meaning. We shouldn't be
fooled by centuries of erudite but mistaken preaching into assuming that
they do. Each parable is an account of some ordinary experience. The
genius of Jesus is that we are left to draw our own conclusions about
them. Jesus will not tell us. That's not how he does things.
When, for example, the local media tried to trap him in an interview about
the hot issue of paying taxes to the Roman oppressors, his answer is
anything but politic - "Pay the Emperor what's his, and pay God what
belongs to God". Hardly a sound exposition of the economic realities of
Second, the teaching of the "sheep and
goats" sermon (I repeat, it is not
a parable) is in stark contrast to how Jesus, as a matter of good history,
related to the world. This man hobnobbed with outcasts, rejected the very
core of all religions in all ages, set aside mechanisms of power by which
people are enslaved.
He could not have produced
this horrible vision. It is about death. Jesus is all about life.
What we so often fail to recognise is how silent Jesus is about most
things. Even his parables are, in a sense, silent. He doesn't lecture us
(if he seems to, beware the pen of the evangelist!) He avoids "telling it
like it is". He doesn't produce sermons, honest or otherwise. He trusts us
to perceive how things really are, to choose what is right and loving, to
go with the good.
Lest I seem to be exaggerating,
consider what sort of person Jesus might have been if he had operated
otherwise. He was no fool. He was able to sway a crowd. Everything we know
about the Palestine of his day indicates that the region was ripe for
subversion and holy war. Official religion of the day was hand-in-hand
with the Roman oppressor in crushing ordinary people with taxes, stealing
their land from them and imposing forced labour.
There is little doubt among those who regard Jesus with any sympathy that
he could have been the giant leader of a great social movement.
And yet he did not even produce a doctrine of God. Any such apparent
theology is the work if the Gospel authors, John in particular. His
parables are not about God but about ordinary, humdrum things. He speaks
little about God. About the burning issues of his time and place he
remains steadfastly non-committal. He gave no answer to Pilate at his
trial except (according to one version) to say, "That's what you
Jesus does not claim that he's going to give
himself for us all. That is the theology of those who came after. It is
they, not he, who proclaim him the sacrificial Lamb of God, dying to pay
for our sins. It is theologians and clerics who erect elaborate
theological castles. Jesus is understated and indirect.
I for one cannot credit that the man who told us the story of the
Forgiving Father (the Prodigal Son) - to name but one contradictory
instance - could possibly have come up with the "sheep and the goats".
A clue to Matthew's false teaching is his portrayal of Jesus as king of
heaven. This is totally incongruent with the Jesus of history. He did not
claim to be God, or God's son, or the Jewish Messiah. The tragedy is that
Matthew has given judgmental bigots ammunition with which to browbeat
ordinary, trusting people.
In contrast, the loving
silence of the Lamb speaks volumes.