It’s always more than a little gratifying when I discover that I hold certain suspicions that happen to resonate with the New Testament. I’m not quite conceited enough to think that I’ve got something like a “biblical imagination”; I figure I just get lucky sometimes.
I get wary (and sometimes weary) when Christians of various ideologies minimize the Church. As best I can tell, Church is, whether the word ekklesia appears or whether the metaphors of body, temple, or nation pop up (those seem to be Paul’s favorites), something at the core of the ethics of the New Testament. As I’ve taught Paul and Mark and the apocalyptic John over the last few years to teenagers and to adults, I find myself more, not less convinced that the imagination of the New Testament is, in its plurality, still singing in some sort of harmony about a new Israel, one made up of the descendants of Ham and Japeth as well as of Shem, whose role stands to bear witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ, His victory over sin and death. I reckon in some folks’ eyes that makes me a made man in some “Hauerwasian mafia” and therefore myopic in my theology, but I do think that the Platonic conception of roles-within-the-world has in fact influenced Christianity from those first and canonical writings, giving us a conception that the Church does indeed stand as a body of people with a very particular role in the world.
Such does not mean, of course (despite some straw-man criticisms of said “mafia”), that those of us who are part of that “priestly nation” called Church have nothing to say about nations and neighbors and the folks whom we serve best when we remember our own calling. This week’s gospel reading reminds us with some clarity that in Matthew, the gospel in which Jesus uses the word ekklesia the most and the book that includes the radical Sermon on the Mount, that discourse that says “you are the light of the world,” also has Jesus making his famous pronouncement about the ethne, the nations or Gentiles. The same Jesus who imagines his own followers as those who are both salt to the earth and a city on a hill also pronounces without qualification about God’s relationships with all of the nations, seemingly irrespective of their direct treatment of the Church as Church. (One could make the case that those who hunger and thirst are synonymous with the itinerant slaves that largely constituted the early church, but I think that’s a stretch.) Instead, the Church in this passage, if one takes the gospel of Matthew as a whole, seems to stand as the herald or harbinger of divine judgment: those nations that relate to the poor and the prisoner (and, as Tony Campolo told us when he lectured at Milligan College in 1999, in Roman-occupied Palestine those were the same people) will have their faithfulness to those poor reckoned to them as righteousness, and those nations that treat the poor as enemies will in turn have the Son of Man as an enemy.
What of my suspicions, then? My hunch is often that Christians of various political persuasions, for various reasons, tend to neglect this complex set of relationships between Christ, Church, the poor, and the nations. Some will ignore the strong expectations that YHWH places on the rulers of the gentiles, expectations that at least in part animate the Exodus and get their classic articulation in the early chapters of Amos. Such expectations do not go away in the Messianic age, and Jesus does not seem to flatten “humanity” in this passage as some advocates of Realpolitik are wont to do, removing moral responsibility entirely from nations. But of course neither does the Son of Man imply, much less state, that those who are sheep in this parable are anything but ethne. They are not coextensive with Church, and where Jesus could easily have said (as do the Dead Sea Scrolls) that the true chosen will rule the good nations, he simply does not frame their relationship to the apocalyptic Son of Man in terms of their relationships with those chosen to bear witness. The Body of Christ is the source, in this passage, of the true divine oracle to the nations, but His body speaks to the nations, not as the nations.
Obviously this week’s Gospel reading does not directly, much less systematically, take on the doctrine of Church. But in its emphasis and in its placement of oracle rather than political strategy in the mouth of our Lord, the twenty-fifth chapter of Matthew does provide a moment for us to imagine anew the possibilities that arise when the body of the Messiah stands in relationship with the nations.
May our words to the nations be words of truth, words of hope, words of love for the world.