The Kingdom of Heaven: An emerging community of liberation (A sermon by Alejandro Flores-Brown, WashU '19)
(Below is the word Alejandro preached on 11/26/17. If you'd like to read the Scriptures on which he preached, you can find them here: Matthew 25:31-46.)
This week’s Gospel is about what the Kingdom of Heaven will be like. The ideas in this passage are probably familiar to anyone raised in or around Christian tradition, and we’ve all probably heard these themes beaten to death in the past. The people who will inherit the Kingdom of Heaven are the “righteous” - those who have gone out of their way to help the hungry, the thirsty, the sick, the lonely, the poor, . . .
This topic - this idea of an eternal reward after Earth - is important to our faith. But it is also in a sense irrelevant. Why? Well, the Gospel claims that no one knows when what we might call the Rapture will occur. No one knows when the Kingdom of Heaven will actually arrive on Earth, and of course, no one can truly claim to know God’s will about what the Kingdom of Heaven will look like. So we have no way of knowing if we will actually be the “righteous”, and thus no clear idea of how to prepare to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Even if we did, our efforts might not come to fruition for thousands of years.
Instead, I think the important question that arises from this passage is this: We take the Kingdom of Heaven as an aspiration, but how can we make our worldlook more like the Kingdom of Heaven?
To answer this question, I think we need to start with where we were last week. Recall (or for those who were not here, be now informed) that last week’s reading was the verse where Jesus says that our world is like a place where a master rewards those slaves who have high ability and punishes those who have low ability; the world is a cruel place where
people are punished for fear and lacking natural talent. For that matter, the world is a cruel place where slavery exists in the first place.
The question that arises from such an interpretation is this: how can we change this world for the better? How can we improve our world in such a way that our world more closely resembles the Kingdom of Heaven?
Beth suggested last week that one way that this change could have occured in the world described in last week’s Gospel is if the slaves talked to each other, and banded together and collectively worked to turn their eight talents into sixteen talents rather than each do their best to individually procure what profit they could.
I believe that a similar sort of action is needed in this world. We know that not everyone in this world is committed to the liberation of those still oppressed by thirst or hunger or sickness - or further, those who suffer oppression because of race or gender or sexual orientation or class or any other such divide in our world. But this does not mean that we who believe that the first principle of our faith and our lives is liberation should not try to work with each other to make this world a better place, and a better place for those who are currently oppressed.
Those of us who are committed to liberation - to love, to compassion, to justice - need to come together and band together and create a space in this world where the hungry can find food, where the sick can find care, where the oppressed can find safety and support. And by doing so, we may be able to create something resembling the Kingdom of Heaven here
Of course, such a community will not encompass all of the people on Earth. It is true by inspection that we live in a world where some people are not committed to the liberation of the oppressed. Even though we would like for a community dedicated to liberation to include everyone, that is most likely never going to be possible. So how do we reconcile the liberation and equality of all people with a community that is fundamentally exclusive? Here, I think today’s Gospel gives us guidance.
Let me elaborate. Jesus says that God will command the “cursed” to “depart” to “eternal punishment”. This passage has been used to justify condemning sinners or people who do not follow Christ to Hell in the past, but I would invite a different, less existential interpretation of this passage. The “eternal punishment” which Jesus brings up comes directly after he has described the fate of the hapless slave of last week’s Gospel reading as being “thrown . . . into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” In the context of a community of liberation, what this really suggests is a sort of exclusion that isolates those who are not willing to be a part of a more just community.
Now at this point, everyone should be confused, because this idea begs a fundamental question: how do we reconcile Jesus welcoming sinners and seeking redemption with excluding people? I interpret this as more of astatement of fact than a rule, and I think we can see this if we turn more closely to the text. Note that God may command the “cursed”
to depart from the Kingdom of Heaven, but that these are not “thrown” to the darkness, like the slave, but instead “go away”. This suggests that while those who do not wish to be part of the Kingdom of Heaven may not be allowed in, they choose to go away to their “eternal punishment”. If we take this world to be a cruel, unkind place, then this “eternal punishment”
may in fact be remaining in this world as it currently stands rather than choosing to enter the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth.
I believe this is a more palatable interpretation than one where God metes out rewards and punishment as an implacable judge. I believe this fits into the message of the Gospel, where Jesus constantly is seeking for people to be able to repent and redeem themselves, and learn and grow, and transform themselves into people who may enter the Kingdom of Heaven. I find this to be both more consistent with the rest of the Gospel and a more acceptable message. Under such an interpretation, the “cursed” are not, in fact, eternally cursed. The eternity of the punishment will stand, because the cruel world outside the Kingdom of Heaven will not cease to be itself. But no one is actuallysentenced to such an eternal punishment; if someone can change and become righteous, then they will be welcomed into the Kingdom of Heaven with open arms.
In a sense, I describe a phenomenon that is already manifesting itself. Communities that are committed to social justice and liberation are already forming all over the world and seeking to create a more just society, both in formal institutions and in informal settings. In some sense this emerging community is a first approximation to the Kingdom of Heaven, and though we may never be able to recreate the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth, we may be able to create something close to it given enough time and enough work. We will face and are facing resistance from those who have taken oppression as their first principle rather than liberation. But I believe what Jesus tells us in this Gospel is that what we are doing is in fact the first step to creating the Kingdom of Heaven here in our world - to change our world into what it could be, and what Jesus wants it to be.