One of the gifts the Jewish tradition offers is the practice of midrash, a way of reading a biblical text with a question mark instead of a period. The practice of midrash grapples and wrestles with what the text lays forth and helps us understand the story beyond the story, the meaning beyond the meaning.
When presented with the troubling realities of Jesus’ teachings in today's reading, midrash can be a helpful guide. Upon first reading, Jesus is the ultimate judge, who condemns those who do not feed, satiate, care for, clothe, or visit those who are in need. The chapter ends saying that “these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
Are we to understand this passage to mean there is, indeed, a hell; that God’s punishment is certain for those who do not follow the way of Jesus; that fire and brimstone await the unrighteous? Furthermore, how do we read this harsh judgment in conversation with God’s mercy found elsewhere in scripture?
Remembering the context in which Jesus proclaims his message is vital. Often preaching in opposition to the Roman empire, offering an alternative to power, corruption, greed, and violence, Jesus turns everything on its head. Thus, a dramatic message helps his disciples and other followers truly understand how radically different his way is.
As followers of Jesus today, we might have to sit with our discomfort regarding hell and trust that unresolved questions are the gift of midrash and part of the call of being followers of Jesus. Reading in this way keeps us from jumping to conclusions; rather we can let the text sink deep into us and form us in our faith. It was countercultural then. It is countercultural now.
With our questions, wonders, doubts, and fears, we come, O God. We trust you hear us, hold us, guide us, and form us in Christ. We give thanks for the path of formation in you. Amen.
The Bible uses metaphors meaningful in its time, and the image of a shepherd and sheep evokes protection, care, and safety. Through the prophet Ezekiel, God declares that all the scattered sheep will be joined together again. The weak and oppressed will receive special protection and justice from God. The psalmist says that the Israelites are the sheep of God’s pasture. In the Gospel reading, Jesus describes the final judgment as separating the sheep (those who are his) from the goats (those who are not). The distinction is made in part based upon how they treated the weakest among them. Although the epistle does not use the imagery of sheep, it describes the promises of a glorious inheritance reserved for those in God’s flock.
Read Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24. What does it mean for you that God seeks you as an individual and as part of your faith community?
Read Psalm 100. In times of trial or pain, how do you gather with others to praise God?
Read Ephesians 1:15-23. How do you express gratitude to God and for your faith community?
Read Matthew 25:31-46. How do you sit with unresolved questions of faith? How does asking questions of the Bible strengthen your faith or your comfort in not having answers to your questions?
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