For a good part of her career, my mother was a bookkeeper at the local bank. Running a posting machine the size of a small truck, she and her colleagues were meticulously intent on getting the accounts to balance by the end of each day. No balance meant more hours crunching the numbers until things finally did add up. That’s the way banks work. That’s the way accountants work. Some expend the same blood, sweat, and tears to get their own checkbooks to balance. Highly likely, that’s the way the Gospel writer Matthew worked, too. Matthew was a tax collector, and that profession influenced how he presented the Good News of God in Christ.
Matthew, as we know, liked to retell the parables of Jesus, but his tidy mind didn’t let the punchlines stand on their own. Matthew, a number cruncher, felt compelled to explain every point. Helpful on a certain level, maybe, but it is a dangerous thing to assume ALL the puzzles and challenges of life can be neatly and succinctly solved. At parties, Matthew probably killed the jokes he told by explaining those punchlines, too. Such behavior, such compulsion, can be vexing to the hearer.
Sunday’s parable [Mt 25:31-46] about the sheep and goats with Matthew’s gloss on good guys and bad guys getting their just rewards is very tidy, the numbers all balanced and accounted for. The rest of the readings line up like good little soldiers, with Ezekiel 35 echoing the Gospel. Ephesians 1 and Psalm 95 sound like happy tidings of the honorable, glad that they’re not numbered with the shameful goats.
Matthew’s world – in fact, the whole Mediterranean region where the Bible was formed – lives [and often dies!] trying to keep SHAME and HONOR in balance. Those cultures believe there is a set amount of each in this world. If one is shamed by failing to do something or being wronged, it is necessary to reclaim honor including revenge on another by force if necessary. We see this played out in psalms which ask God to destroy our enemies while keeping them from destroying us. We also remember the infamous feud of the Hatfields and the McCoys, a regional example of shame and honor in the hills of Kentucky and West Virginia. That’s the way a shame and honor world works, folks giving as good as they get, tit for tat, balancing the slate with an equal and opposite force. Our own desire to “make ourselves right with God” is shaped by such logic, too. We assume that if we do the right stuff with the right thoughts for the right people, we balance out at the end of the day and find our easy chair in heaven. “SHAME on those folks who don’t do the same!!! Let them suffer the consequences,” we intone in our most honorable fashion.
Listening to these snippets from Matthew and Ezekiel, it would be easy to assume that God’s justice is a ruthless culling of the goats from the sheep. Which are we? There is great danger in merely dipping our toe into the deep pools of scripture because it takes a whole Bible to tell about God. As God’s saintly sinners, we are a melding of sheep and goathood. Since God’s work is not wrathful but saving [I Thess 5], God is busy curing us of goatishness. God’s ways, we learn, are decidedly NOT our ways [Isaiah 55:8-9]. God strikes an everlasting covenant with Abraham and the rest of us. Indeed, God is continually recalling us wayward, stiff-necked, vengeance-seeking, scared-to-death beloved children back to God’s presence and protection. When he’s not stumping us with a parable Jesus spends a good deal of time explaining that our harsh thoughts about law and order are not God’s idea of the blessed life – “You have heard it said…” [Matthew 5]. Certainly, there are consequences for straying from the gentle path where God leads us: isolation and danger because we absent ourselves from a supportive community, going “where angels fear to tread…” Reckless behavior and unconsidered opinions bandied about do serious harm to us as well as those about us. God, in fact, has been mortally grieved by our foolishness since the time Cain turned on Abel [Genesis 4]. God’s resolve has ranged from a protective mark on Cain’s forehead, a rainbow, an everlasting covenant, a prophecy about a mountain top banquet celebrating God’s triumph over sin and evil [Isaiah 25:6-9], to God’s ultimate act of cosmic love in the person and mission of Jesus Christ [John 3].
Theologian Terrance Fretheim discusses the interpretive lenses in scripture which keep us on track when we study the rocky, winding journey of faith in those pages. They steer us away from the futile give and take of shame / honor, the black & white thinking which blinds us to God’s constant choosing to do the unexpected, to bring good from evil, to be God who is forever “…merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.” For the ways of the world, it just doesn’t add up, but that’s the way God works.