Formations 11.17.2019: Crying Out for Justice

Fountain at the main entrance of the University of Southern California

Matthew 25:31-46

I’ll have to confess that the ongoing college admissions scandal hits a little close to home. My own daughter is about to finish her first semester of college, and now is as good a time as any to admit that I paid an awful lot of money to get her there: it’s called tuition!

Some of the parents accused of bribing college officials, hiring ringers to inflate standardized test scores, or doctoring applications have pled guilty—and been rewarded with what sound to me like extremely lenient sentences, ranging from probation to five months in prison. In every case, these were less than what the prosecutors had asked for.

But I’m not the only one who think that’s just a slap on the wrist. Apparently frustrated with these light sentences, prosecutors have brought new bribery charges against Lori Loughlin and her husband, Mossimo Giannulli, perhaps the biggest names in the whole affair.

I don’t think these parents were trying to get their kids into any of the schools to which my daughter applied. But I’d be lying if I said it didn’t stick in my craw that someone with a lot more power, celebrity, and privilege that I have tried to rig the system in their favor. My family wasn’t hurt directly by their illegal actions, but what about other families with different hopes and aspirations?

When we hear stories like this, I think our natural inclination is to demand justice. In Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis began his case for God with the observation that it seems humans are hard-wired with a sense of right and wrong. If you doubt that, just do someone dirty and see how long it takes before they insist, “That’s not fair!”

We may disagree about the particulars, but we all seem to understand that there are such things as “right” and “wrong” behavior. Furthermore, we expect wrong behavior to be punished. Our ethics aren’t random. They are, Lewis argued, evidence of a higher moral imperative. Even when we rationalize our own misbehavior—something we are all extremely good at—it’s because we want to convince others (or ourselves) that we are, in fact, in the right.

We see this, I think, in the protestations of the “goats” in this week’s passage. “When did we ever…?” “How can you say…?” And yet, Jesus’ parable drives home the reality of judgment for things we have done—or left undone—in this life, especially when those things perpetuate the suffering of others.

What is God’s answer when the world cries out for justice?

Dakin And one and Brian Vitagliano, “10th Parent in College Admissions Scandal Sentenced to One Month in Prison,” CNN.com, 19 Oct 2019 <https://www.cnn.com/2019/10/18/us/college-admissions-scandal/index.html>.

Kate Taylor, “Lori Loughlin Pleads Not Guilty to New College Admissions Scandal Charge,” The New York Times, 1 Nov 2019 <https://www.nytimes.com/2019/11/01/us/lori-loughlin-not-guilty.html>.

Discussion

• What injustices cause you to cry out for justice?
• How can we handle this text in a way that doesn’t elevate judgmentalism or religious conformity?
• What does it mean that Jesus, whose watchwords were grace and forgiveness, is the source of this teaching about judgment?
• How can Jesus’ standards of judgment might shape our lives today?

Reference Shelf

The Day of Judgment

The apocalyptic eschatological concept of a day of judgment, itself a development of the concept of God as judge, continued to develop in at least two ways. First, most often God…is the judge on the day of judgment, but in a few instances in the OT one finds that God’s messiah or other representative is said to be the one enacting judgment in God’s behalf (Isa 11; Jer 23; Dan 7). Second, in the earliest prophetic portraits of the day of judgment there is no concept of the judgment of each individual human, but as apocalyptic eschatological thinking evolved, the idea of the judgment of each individual in the context of a final, universal day of judgment became the norm. A striking part of this innovation was the development of the concept of the resurrection of the dead, so that not only are the living brought under God’s judgment, but also the dead who at the day of judgment are raised to life. This understanding of the day of judgment occurs in the OT in a fully explicit form for the first time in Daniel (cf. esp. chaps 7 and 12). Then, in the Jewish literature from the late pre-Christian period (1 Enoch 47; 4 Ezra 7) and in the NT (Matt 25; 1 Thess 4–5; Rev 20) one regularly finds references to the day of judgment where the event is portrayed as the universal judgment of each individual human, both the living and the resurrected dead. Examination of pertinent passages shows that the thinking about the day of judgment became increasingly elaborate.

Marion L. Soards, “Judgment, Day of,” Mercer Dictionary of the Bible, ed. Watson E. Mills et al. (Macon GA: Mercer University Press, 1990), 819.

The Shepherd King Divides the Flock

Appropriately enough, the last discourse material in Matthew is a story about final judgment. This story is unique to this Gospel and rounds out all of the Matthean Gospel on a clearly eschatological note. There can be little doubt that this Evangelist has not traded in Jesus’ future eschatology for more emphasis on the present eschatological situation, unlike what seems to be the case in Luke’s Gospel. A good case can be made that we should not see this as a parable but rather as an apocalyptic prophecy with some parabolic elements. This is only appropriate for an apocalyptic sage like Jesus.

There was already of course a Jewish tradition about future judgment and the shape it would take in the later prophetic material especially (see Isa 58:7; Ezek 18:7 and also the parables of Enoch), and there is no reason Jesus could not have contributed to this line of discussion. We have already seen ample evidence in this Gospel that Jesus viewed himself as a special Son of David, one like but greater than Solomon, and here at the end of the ministry, having ridden into town on a donkey like Zechariah’s king of peace, it would not be surprising if Jesus taught a parable about his future role as King, judging human beings. Notice that in 1 Enoch 69:27 it is the Son of Man who is portrayed as the final judge, as seems to be suggested in Daniel 7 itself. First Enoch 62–63 seem also to be standing in the background. Here, however, the judge is said to be Son of Man, shepherd, and King all rolled into one, and at least two of those images in the Old Testament refer normally to God, as does the task of being the final judge. In other words, we have Jesus portrayed as a plenipotentiary fulfilling the role of God, which comports with earlier material in this Gospel that portrays Jesus as both human and as more than human—as God’s Wisdom come in the flesh. In Jewish literature, when it came to the Gentile nations, they would be judged by how they treated Israel (4 Ezra 7:37), but here they will be judged by how they view Jesus.

Ben Witherington III, Matthew, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2006), 465–66.

Darrell Pursiful is the editor of Formations. He is an adjunct professor at Mercer University and an active member of the First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia.

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