Pentecost 21 Matthew 25:1-13
Over the last few weeks we have listened to parables of Matthew. Invariably there is one group doing the right thing – using their talents, hoarding their oil, or sitting in the correct place. And there’s been another group that not doing the right thing. The former get applauded. The latter get punished. And we, trying to avoid a rebuke from the disciplinarian God, are meant to do the right thing.
Now scholars have dug beneath the surface of some of these parables trying to mine something, anything, that an intelligent modern seeker could appropriate. Maybe the King figure in these stories isn’t God? Maybe talents aren’t money but wisdom? With great mental agility we try to reconcile the unpalatable punishing God to the love praxis of Jesus and to our spiritual sensibilities informed by that praxis.
Some old stories, like some customs from cultures of the past, need to be boxed up and left high up in a closet to gather dust. As St Paul once wrote to the Philippians: “Whatever is true, noble, right, pure, lovely … if there be any virtue… think on these things” [4:8]. So using love as a guide let’s file away all that is false, ignoble, and frankly wrong. And let us write new stories, just as the first Christian writers did, but this time to move us beyond the reward-punishment God of old.
Consider the following story by Fr Anthony De Mello SJ: [i]
God walked into heaven one day and found, to his surprise, that everyone was there. Not a single soul had been sent to hell. This disturbed God, for was not it Divine nature to be just? And what was hell created for anyway if the place was not going to be used? [Is that a line straight out of the Act Party handbook?].
So God said to the Angel Gabriel, “Summon everyone before my throne and read the ten Commandments.”
Everyone was summoned. Gabriel read the first of the Commandments. Then God said, “All those who have sinned against this commandment will betake themselves to hell immediately.” A number of persons detached themselves from the crowd and went off sadly to hell.
A similar thing was done after the second Commandment was read… and the third… and the fourth… and the fifth… By now the population of heaven had decreased considerably. After the sixth Commandment was read everyone had gone to hell, except an old grumpy recluse.
God looked up and said to Gabriel, “Are we the only ones left?”
“Yes,” said Gabriel.
“Well,” said God, “It’s rather lonesome here, isn’t it? Tell them all to come back!”
When the recluse heard that everyone was invited back he was indignant. And he yelled at God, “This is unjust! Why didn’t you tell me this before?”
This story underlines the following:
Firstly, that the nature of God is compassion. Period. God has no other nature. Any beliefs or actions of God arise from compassion. The contrary also holds: any dogma or practice carried out by religious people that is not steeped in or arises from compassion is not of God. So, to be clear, a compassionate God doesn’t do punishment, doesn’t do devil and demons, and doesn’t do hell.
Compassion needs though to be understood as broader than caring. It involves mutuality in relationships, restoration not just of individuals but of groups and cultures within a society who are limited in their access to resources and choices, and it ultimately involves a vision of where all are nourished, nurtured, and empowered.
Secondly, there are two understandings of judgement – one based on fear and one based on love.
Religious people have too often transferred onto God their wish to see ‘naughty’ people cajoled into ‘nice’ behaviour by the threat of condemnation and punishment. They have written stories [like the Matthean parables] to scare people into acting in such a way to avoid punishment. They have used fear as a tool, and justified its use. Hell has been invented for the purpose of instilling fear.
The ‘love’ understanding of justice sees people as bike riders who might have fallen off. The obvious thing to do is therefore sympathize and encourage them to get back on the bike. It is restorative. The ‘fear’ understanding of justice admonishes the hapless rider and punishes them by taking the bike away. It is retributive.
Stories, like that of De Mello, seek to pull the rug out from under the fear version of judgement, and instead encourage us to emulate the God character in De Mello’s parable who wants to forgive, enjoys people despite their failings, and annoys the pious self-righteous ones.
Thirdly, the God character has a funny bone. God deliberately breaks the rules we expect and welcomes all shades of so-called ‘sinners’. The one[s] who think they are ‘deserving’ while others aren’t, get very upset. God is deliberately annoying. Yet the character God doesn’t exclude. If people walk off in a huff, or care not to associate with others, that’s their decision. In De Mello’s story the grumpy recluse is not expelled. He stays and grumps.
Unlike most Christians I don’t think of God as a being or a character, rather a life-giving force or energy between and among people and then some. Humour is interwoven into this energy. It is iconoclastic: pulling down the pious and powerful, lifting up the lowly and a vision of inclusion. Laughter is not extraneous to divinity but part of its core.
Stories like De Mello’s therefore speak to me of the nature of that God energy or spirit. It is a force of compassion, not punishment. It is of love, not fear. It is of fun, not pious pride. This spirit is annoying to those who want strict rules about who is in and who is out. This spirit bends and breaks every rule to bring about restorative and compassionate love, and has a good laugh along the way.
[i] Song of the Bird, p.153.