Ever since I was young, two scenes in the Gospel of Matthew have bewildered me. The first is that curious coda (Matt 22:11–14) to the story of the king who gave a wedding feast. After having been rebuffed by the invited guests, the furious king dragoons all sorts of people in from the street. The king then notices that one of those pressed into the feast is not wearing proper attire. Before the poor fellow has a chance to nibble on an hors d’oeuvre, he is tied up and tossed out of the party! I could imagine that man dumped like trash in an alley asking himself, “What was that all about?”
The second scene is the judgment of the sheep and the goats (Matt 25:31–46). Here the “Human One” accompanied by his messengers, siting upon a throne, divides all the peoples assembled before him into two groups. One group inherits the “empire prepared from the foundation of the world.” The other group is condemned to everlasting punishment. Now the judgment in itself is not terrifying. Even when I was young it made sense to talk in terms of rewards and punishments. But what was confounding was the fact that the rewards and punishments were doled out for actions that neither group was aware of having performed! This struck me as quite unfair, if not arbitrary.
By the time I was doing my graduate studies I realized that the parable of the great feast came to Matthew from one of his sources, the Q Gospel, but that Matthew himself had written the scene about the man lacking proper attire, and then tacked it on to the end of the parable. Matthew had designed this scene as a message to his own community. He was issuing an allegorical warning that they could not rest on their laurels, that simply being a member of that Jesus community was no guarantee. OK, I get that. But the scene with the sheep and goats still reeked of a gratuitous air.
The Gospel of Matthew is very much a Jewish creation. Written for a community that saw itself as the vanguard of Judaism in the aftermath of the Temple’s destruction, this gospel stood as a competitive alternative to the developing Rabbinic movement. Matthew’s Jesus is not the new Moses, but the embodiment of Wisdom (Matt 23:34; compare to Luke 11:49), who remains in the heart of the community (Matt 18:20 and 28:20). Furthermore, this gospel is saturated with the Jewish sense of justice. And that is why the scene of reward and punishment in chapter 25 appears so unbelievable. A first-century Jew would assume that keeping the covenant would merit a reward, while failing to do so would end in punishment. But in order to keep the covenant one needed to be aware that one was doing so. Otherwise, where is the justice? So, along with the ancient Jew, I continued to be puzzled by what appears to be a capricious selection.
Perhaps this puzzlement is a clue. Such a scene in Matthew is what is known in Judaism as midrash. It is a fiction composed out of traditional verses or images. In fact, this scene is a collage of apocalyptic elements. The root of the word midrash means to “chew” or “think over.” A midrash is, then, something to chew on.
But this scene still seemed rather unpalatable. Until I ruminated over what the sheep had done and the goats had not: providing those in need with something to eat or drink, offering hospitality and clothing, visiting the sick or imprisoned. Each action in itself was hardly worth mentioning. In fact, some of the actions would get you involved with
people of uncertain character. In terms of the first-century’s notion of honor and shame, these were not the kind of deeds that would get the gods’ attention. You were, in a
word, wasting your time in doing them.
And yet Matthew constructs a future scene that revolves around these unlikely deeds. What was he thinking? Was this scene not a vision held up to his community to chew on? He used their Jewish sense of justice to provoke them to think about something right in front of them. He brought this future vision into their present and asked them to discover that it was their wasted moments, where they gave themselves away to others, that counted in the long run. The tension created by this long-range vision was designed to get the community to reflect on their life together. He was asking them to chew on what really mattered in their lives.
But the more I chew on this the more it becomes unsettling. What if I were to test this out? What I cannot do is to take the various actions mentioned and simply form a checklist of what I need to do. People have done this and have given us what the Catholic tradition calls the “Corporal Works of Mercy.” But that actually deflates the tension of the scene. If I am operating by a protocol of mercy I am quite aware of what I’m doing. Ironically, I am no longer wasting my time.
If Matthew wanted his community to reflect on the depths of their life together, perhaps the way to go is likewise to consider those moments in my life that I would describe as “wasted.” It might take a while, precisely because that which we little value, we hardly remember.
But if we remember, and if we are honest, we discover something priceless. We discover that it is those “throwaway” moments, when we carelessly gave ourselves to others,
or when others wasted their time on us, that meant everything. In fact, our very lives often depend on those unsung moments. Those are the moments that are not recorded in the annual update or that make the nightly news hour. Because of what is usually valued in our consumer world, we ourselves overlook those very moments that keep the world working. We forget that those moments in which our hearts opened echo forever in the lives we touched.
—Arthur J. Dewey, Xavier University
"Chew on This," The Fourth R Issue 27-4
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