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A Day of Wrath or Blessing?
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
November 18, 2012
Zephaniah 1:7, 12-18 Matthew 25:31-45 Psalm 90
Our Bible readings this Sunday are both written in a style called “apocalyptic.” Apocalyptic writing talks about a great day when the whole earth will be renewed. Apocalyptic writing talks about the final days of the earth, or the end of times. This style of writing is scattered through the Old Testament and the New Testament. Some even interpret Jesus’ central message and coming as an apocalyptic event. Apocalypticism is also present to a great degree in the Dead Sea Scrolls.
In the prophet Zephaniah, we have one of the scarier versions of the Great Day of Yahweh. (The Day of Yahweh is an apocalyptic event.) It is a day of wrath filled with horrible events.
The great day of the Lord is near,
near and hastening fast;
the sound of the day of the Lord is bitter,
the mighty man cries aloud there.
A day of wrath is that day,
a day of distress and anguish,
a day of ruin and devastation,
a day of darkness and gloom,
a day of clouds and thick darkness . . .
In the fire of his jealous wrath,
all the earth will be consumed (Zephaniah 1:14-16, 18).
This is a day of judgement on two types of people: those who think God is entirely absent and those who try to follow God’s commands of righteousness. In a phrase that sounds like so many today, Zephaniah speaks of those who say, “The Lord will not do good, nor will he do ill” (1:12). What this means is that these people at least think God is absent from human affairs, most likely that there is no God. “The Lord will not do good, nor will he do ill.” Then there are those people who are humble, “who do his commands.” They are admonished to “seek righteousness, seek humility.” These, perhaps, “may be hidden on the day of the wrath of the Lord” (2:3).
We find a similar twofold breakdown of humanity in our reading from Matthew. There we heard the famous passage about the sheep and the goats. This, too, is an apocalyptic passage. It describes a time when the whole world, called all the nations, will be judged. It is a time when,
The Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will place the sheep at his right hand, but the goats at his left (Matthew 25:31-23).
In this final judgement, people are judged by their deeds on earth. They are judged according to how they treated their fellow humans.
This brings up a challenging remark that I heard from a Rabbi who is a friend of mine. We were talking about the two great commands, love God and love the neighbor. We both agreed that they were central to our religions–to my Christianity and to her Judaism. But then my friend said something challenging. She said that love to the neighbor ranked first in importance, and love to the Lord ranked second. She did go on to qualify her comment, and to say that other rabbis might not see things this way. She said further, that love to God meant doing the Jewish rituals such as keeping kosher.
I found her interpretation surprising because it seemed to me that God mattered most. But to her, how we relate to each other is what the law all comes down to. How does her position relate to our New Testament reading this morning? Well, it would appear to me as if Jesus’ parable is right in keeping with what she said. Jesus tells the sheep, who will go to eternal blessedness, that they gave God food when He was hungry, drink when He was thirsty, they welcomed Him when He was a stranger, they clothed Him when He was naked, they visited Him when He was sick, and when He was in prison they came to Him (25:35-36). So Jesus is saying that all these deeds of good-will were done to Him. The righteous ask Jesus when it was that they did all these things. Jesus replies, “whatsoever you did to the least of these my brethren, you did to me” (25:40). So Jesus is saying that what we do to our neighbor we are doing to God.
So my friend’s remark seems to be supported by this parable of Jesus. This parable has radical implications. It suggests that there is no real distinction between love to God and love to the neighbor. In fact, Jesus says that love to the neighbor is “like” love to God (Matthew 22:39). This parable suggests that doing good to the neighbor is love to God; it is doing good to God. It suggests a radical answer to the question, “How do I love God?” The answer appears to be, “Do good to the neighbor.” It also suggests that the measure of our love to God is how we treat our neighbor.
My friend reminded me of another truth about the neighbor. She reminded me that humanity is created in the image and likeness of God. This means that dwelling in every person is God’s image. While we would never worship humans, it can be said that we ought to treat our fellows with a holy respect. We are called to honor the image of God that is in every human being. Only if the image and likeness of God dwell in humans can it be true that doing good to people is doing good to God. And that is what Jesus seems to be saying.
This accords with Swedenborg’s theology. Swedenborg teaches that God is The Divine Human, from whom everyone receives their humanity. It is Swedenborg’s claim that the angels think of God in a Human form:
Because the angels perceive, not an invisible Divine, which they call a Divine without form, but a visible Divine in human form, it is common for them to say that the Lord alone is The Person, that they are persons from Him, and that everyone is, so far as a person receives Him (HH 80).
Furthermore, Swedenborg says that the entire heavens are in the form of a Great Human, which form it has from the Divine Human of the Lord. This means that there is a descent, to use a spatial metaphor, from the Divine Human of the Lord, through the Great Human of heaven, into each of our souls, making us human.
And yet, there is something of a paradox here. The Humanity of the Lord is infinite, our humanity is and will always be finite. For this reason we cannot say that God is our deepest soul. We can say that the Divine proceeding from God is in the deepest part of our soul. We can say that it is God’s life, love, and wisdom that give us life, love and wisdom. But we can not say that we are ultimately somehow one with God. We can say that we are one with God like the way that a husband is one with his wife, while remaining two beings. We are indeed in a love relationship with God analogous to that of husband and wife. So in Jeremiah, God says, “I was their husband” (31:32). And so in Hosea God says, “In that day you will call me, ‘my husband,’” and again,
I will betroth you to me forever; I will betroth you to me in righteousness and in justice, in steadfast love, and in mercy. I will betroth you to me in faithfulness; and you shall know the Lord (2:16, 19-20).
And even if all the goodness we have in us is from God, it is not God. Even if we merge our consciousness with God so that we feel only God in us, we will not know the infinity which God is. There will always be a difference between God, who is infinite and we who are finite.
And yet I come back to the words of Matthew, “whatever you did to the least of these, my brethren, you did to me.” These words are extremely difficult to translate. And I will leave you with a question, of sorts, today. I think the writer was trying to emphatically say how important, indeed how godly, it is to be good to our neighbor. And at the same time, the writer wants to retain a distinction between God’s Humanity and our humanity. The passage turns on two Greek words, “eph oson.” My guide to the New Testament translates these two words as, “in so far as.” This translation would read, “In so far as you have done it to the least of these my brethren you have done it to me.” I would read this to mean to the extent you have done it to my brothers you have done it to me. Translators wrestle with how to render this passage. The NIV wants to avoid language that says you are doing anything to Jesus. They say you are doing good for Jesus. But they render the Greek strongly, “whatever you do for one of the least of these brothers of mine you did for me.” The RSV hedges by translating the Greek words weakly, “as you did it to the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.” So doing good to the brethren is not doing good to God, it is as one were doing good to God. Then there is the KJV, which reads, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.” I’m not sure how to take the “inasmuch as.” So, then, are we doing good to God, or for God, or as to God? However we take the relationship between God and man, it still comes down to the fact that treating our brothers and sisters well, as if we were doing good to God, is what Jesus is telling us to do. This will make the last days a blessing.
Lord, we await the day of your coming. We await it with a feeling of awe, perhaps with some trepidation, and with joyful anticipation. We await that time when you will wipe away every tear from every eye, and when you will come to us surrounded with your holy angels. We know that you come to each of us individually. And we know that our eternal well-being will be measured by our actions, feelings, and thoughts on earth. You have said that when we do good to the least of your brothers and sisters, we do it to you. For your image dwells in each human being that is created in your image and likeness. Help us to remember that our neighbor is an image of you, and that when we do good to our neighbor we do it for and to you.
Lord, we ask for your peace to descend upon this troubled world. Where there is conflict and war, let there be understanding and peace. Inspire our leaders, and the leaders of other nations to govern their people with compassion, with wisdom, and with your Holy Love. Where there is famine and thirst, may good hearted aid come and satisfy the needs of those who want. Where there are natural disasters, may help come from good neighbors and from compassionate governments. Where there is hardship and unemployment, lend your patience and hope.