Reflection – Sunday 22nd November

Christ the Good Shepherd 6th century Basilica di Sant’Apollinare Nuovo Ravenna (Province of Ravenna. Emilia-Romagna Region) ITALY

Sunday, November 22nd 2020

Reflection 22

Lectionary Passage – Matthew 25 vv 31 – 46
A Parable of Jesus – Sheep and Goats; The Final Judgement
Stir-up Sunday!

 In some parts of the Christian Church this, the Sunday before the season of Advent, is still referred to as ‘Stir-up Sunday’.  The Collects are collections of one-liners, short ascriptions of Praise to God coupled with single theme prayers.  One of the shortest of all,  the Collect for this Sunday begins ‘Stir up, O Lord, the wills of your faithful people,’  and it goes on to mention ‘the fruit of good works.’  Apparently, with just over a month to go, people took it as a reminder to make their Christmas puddings and cake in good time – stirring in good fruits.   If anything is going to stir up God’s faithful people, it is this awesome parable.

In fact, although referred to as such, it is not so much a parable as a simile, used by Jesus as a starting point in his teaching about God’s final Judgement.  In another one- liner ‘just as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats’ Jesus draws on the commonplace picture.  Mixed flocks of sheep and goats were gathered and separated at nightfall, the goats requiring to be kept warm while sheep could be left outside.   Although Jesus again is speaking and teaching privately to his close disciples during that last week in Jerusalem, the gathering he speaks of is a gathering of ‘the people of all the nations.’  There is here an inescapable warning of Judgement!  That Judgement is for everyone – the people of all the nations will be gathered before the throne of the King.

So, as ever in our Reflections, the questions – What does this passage mean?  What does it have to say to us today?

I find in this passage something about the compassion of Jesus.  Sometimes it seems that the picture that Matthew paints of Jesus is that of a straight-talking, uncompromising teacher who, at times, doesn’t mince his words or pussyfoot around.  The Beatitudes of Chapter 5 – ‘How Blessed (or Happy) are you…’  are counterbalanced by the Woes of Chapter 23 – ‘How terrible for you…’  We heard last Sunday of the place of ‘wailing and gnashing of teeth’, this week it is ‘the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.’   However, in addition to stark warnings and graphic scenes, Matthew makes sure that we see that there is great tenderness and concern in the ministry of our Lord.  In Chapter 9, stories of healing exclusive to this Gospel -two blind men and a dumb man – are followed by the account of Jesus travelling round ‘all the towns and villages, healing people with every kind of disease and sickness’ and are linked to the explanation ‘As he saw the crowds, his heart was filled with pity for them, because they were worried and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.’  Matthew 9 vv 27 – 36.  In today’s passage that compassion is expressed in the list of six groups of people and their very real distress and need.

In today’s world – especially at the moment with all the situations thrown up by the Coronavirus, I hear the clear call of Jesus to his people to be stirred up to compassionate action to those in need.

I find in this passage something about unconscious goodness and charity in lives that are shot through with those qualities.  Again, there is that emphasis on people of all the nations with no distinctions merely down to race, colour, gender, age or even systems of faith.  There is no mention here of allegiance to a particular creed or conformity to one set of religious regulations. Christians do not have a monopoly on high standards, on compassionate living or on sheer goodness.    In the account the King first addresses the people on his right – in Biblical terms the place of honour – and declares them blessed. They are surprised.  They are unaware. They have acted, in purity of motive, to answer the practical needs of people that they have seen around them.  In contrast, the people of the left side group have been oblivious to the plight of others and, in total disbelief and denial, find themselves on the wrong side of the judgement of the King.

In today’s world of the self-centred social media of some people, coupled with fake news and the denial of the harsh reality of the way so many are forced to live is in complete contrast to the self-giving love that is demonstrated in the life of Jesus himself.  This stirs us towards the motivation of love for others that is the bedrock of Christian living.

Perhaps at this point, the Prayer of St Ignatius Loyola speaks to us.

Teach us, good Lord, to serve you as you deserve;
to give and not to count the cost;
to fight and not to heed the wounds;
to toil and not to seek for rest;
to labour and not to ask for any reward,
save that of knowing that we do your will.  Amen

I find in this passage something tremendously important about our understanding of the Incarnation – Emmanuel – God with us.  The phrase that echoes and shocks from the passage is ‘ Whenever you did this for one of the least important brothers of mine, you did it for me’ or the negative to the others –  ‘you refused to help me.’  The emphasis, of course, is on the ‘me’.  Jesus not only identifies himself with the poor, the disadvantaged and the suffering but is at one with them and in them.  This is not new. In taking a child and putting that child in the centre of the group of disciples who had just been squabbling about their importance, Jesus tells them ‘Whoever welcomes in my name one of these children; welcomes me,’ Matthew 18 v 5.  The God we worship in Jesus is not remote, uncaring, unmoved by the suffering of the lives of people, but rather one who is present in all that we all go through.

Stir-up Sunday is the very last Sunday of the Church’s liturgical calendar.  For a whole year we have worked through Matthew’s Gospel.  Next Sunday is Advent Sunday – a faith filled Sunday of the Christian year. Not only do we begin again and look forward to lessons from Mark’s Gospel for the next twelve months, but we begin to anticipate the coming of Jesus.   Perhaps it is entirely appropriate that in this final passage from Matthew we consider the presence of the Incarnate Christ with and in those most in need in our world.

Stir up, O Lord, the wills of your faithful people,
that they, bringing forth the fruit of good works,
may by you be richly rewarded;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen

Bryan Coates

November 2020