Monday, August 31, 2009

Matthew 25: Of Sheep, Goats, and Liberal Lions (A Brief Reflection on Senator Kennedy's Passing)

Saturday morning, I checked in on Senator Edward Kennedy's funeral mass, televised on nearly a dozen channels in the New England area. Overall, I was unexpectedly moved at the very classy send-off—the heartfelt family tributes, the rush of Congressional colleagues, and President Obama’s somber, pitch-perfect eulogy.

Of course, there were some surreal moments. One of the local stations enlisted a priest to provide play-by-play, and his commentary was by turns unnecessary and hilarious. A brief excerpt:

Anchor: As the family walks in, I hear some ominous music that seems to be emanating from a bank of metal tubes in the rear. Father, is there any danger of those tubes falling to the ground and crushing the visitors below in a bloody melee?

Priest: No. And Matt, that's called a pipe organ.

Anchor: Fascinating stuff, Father. Fascinating.

The color commentary from the Vatican rep was odd, but one of the Bible readings struck me as similarly strange: for the gospel passage, the family—with Ted's involvement—had picked the closing movement of Matthew 25, a bleak, apocalyptic piece often referred to as the parable of the sheep and the goats. (The two others were from Romans 8 and the Catholic Book of Wisdom 3, if I recall correctly.)

Initially, this selection, with its odd-ball pastoral imagery and its promises of fiery punishment, made little sense to me. But after a little thought, I started to get the joke …

This passage from Matthew sketches out an end-times scenario in which the risen Christ will return in glory to establish the Kingdom of God. According to its unique narrative, Jesus’s first task will involve separating the faithful—envisioned as sheep—from the unrighteous—the goats.

The first half of Jesus’s tale of judgment makes perfect sense in the context of an ongoing celebration of Kennedy’s accomplishments. Christ’s characterization of the sheep runs as follows: “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”

Briefly put, the blessed are those who practice social justice ... which is logical, given the fact that both the funeral service and the media coverage surrounding it correctly emphasized the senator’s lifelong devotion to such causes. Especially in the years following his failed presidential bid, the senator worked tirelessly for a bevy of noble projects: increased minimum wage, paid family leave, the Americans with Disabilities Act, civil rights, and—pertinent to contemporary debates—universal health care.

However, what of the goats? Why darken our collective doorstep with talk of the unelect—those scabrous beasts who ignore the plight of the downtrodden? For Jesus continues, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink” (25:41-42), etc. etc.

However, even this fits. I think the senator’s inclusion of the grimmer half of Matthew’s parable is a not-so-subtle finger-jab at those who would give up Kennedy's dream of a more just world. And the implication is clear: if you do not feed the hungry, if you do not care for the sick, and if you do not continue campaigning for, well, something so basic as universal health coverage, you—fellow senators—are goats. Thus the Bible message is not only for the Kennedys and those who got invitations to his wake--it's for Congress, and for all of us.

And so I smile at the pluck of the liberal lion from Massachusetts ... still twisting arms from beyond the grave.

No comments:

Post a Comment

We here at "Eat the Bible" love your comments--please share.