Philippe de Vargas offers a life-giving reading of the account of the last judgement according to the Gospel of Matthew, in which it draws us away from traditional readings of it which could have been made, in order to show us at what point it isa vibrant witness, which engages each of us today, of the solidarity with Christ with all who suffer.
Philippe de Vargas
Translation Canon Tony Dickinson
The account of the last judgement in the 25th chapter of Matthew’s gospel is a problem. Indeed, the affirmation that our salvation depends solely on our acts of charity contradicts other passages in the New Testament which proclaim salvation by faith or announce the final redemption of all humanity. Another difficulty: the image of the sheep and the goats is out of them with the call to conversion which runs through the preaching of Jesus. What is born a goat cannot become a sheep, while Jesus tells us that sinners can become his disciples.
It is appropriate therefore to see this text, not as a teaching which has a bearing on the end of time, but as a parable, a story which does not necessarily have value as reality or as a norm, but which uncovers a profound truth. Then we will discover a relationship between this text and the parable of Lazarus and the rich man, which also describes the beyond in metaphorical terms.
The stupefaction which Jesus predicts becomes impossible through the very fact that he announces it. No reader of the Bible can any longer ask him: “Lord, when have we helped you?”, since he has already replied to this question. The big surprise will not take place at the end of time: it is situated in the here and now, for all those who hear Jesus expressing two renversant truths: his solidarity with the most vulnerable and salvation through works of charity.
Nowhere in the New Testament is the abasement of Christ expressed so powerfully as here. The apostle Paul puts it magnificently in chapter two of the letter to the Philippians, but only in relation to his earthly life, before which he was “in the form of God”, and after which God “highly exalted him”. Matthew goes further: the Christ is not only incarnated for a time as a “slave”; he shares the suffering of the least if his brothers and sisters even in eternity, identifying with the poor, the refugees, the sick, and the prisoners of all times. That is what ought to turn upside down the way in which we look at the person of Christ as well as at the unfortunate of whom he is the paradigm.
This change in the way we look also modifies our own relationship to those who suffer: Jesus doesn’t ask us here to work for the salvation of their souls, but for the improvement of their material life. This not very “religious” message also challenges the legalists who imagine that they will attain heaven through their scrupulous respect for rites and rules, as much as the spiritual people who believe that they will by saved by faith alone.
The framework of the parable is borrowed from the tradition of Jewish apocalyptic: the king of glory, the angels, the sheep and the goats, the judgement, the blessedness of the righteous and the punishment of the reprobate. It would be wrong to conclude from this that Jesus adheres to these clichés which are part of the cultural resources of his people. The meaning of the parable is different, in the gap between what human beings expect to hear and what is said to them. Without mentioning either law or faith, it affirms that human beings will be saved by the most prosaic of their good works.
Jesus fears neither paradox nor contradiction, for the Truth which he announces is beyond our logic. The parable of the judgement is a way of telling us powerfully a neglected truth, the primordial importance of acts of charity. Undoubtedly for the believer these actions are linked to faith, which is their source and which finds in them its demonstration. But in the passage with which we are interested it is not this link that Jesus worries about.
Let us rather see in this that affirmation, all the more striking for being placed at the end of his ministry, of the fraternity and the solidarity of Christ with all who suffer, as well as the call which he addresses to us to help them. And let us discover in what the two commandments in the summary of the law become only one: to love – in actions – one’s neighbour is to love God, in the person of his Son. In the same way that loving God is loving one’s neighbour.
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