Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Judgment: Matthew 3

In that middle section of Matthew 3, we get a couple really striking images of the last judgment that Jesus will inaugurate.  The axe is being put to the root of the tree; the grain is being winnowed. *  It's quite dramatic stuff, and a prelude, really, to Matthew's image of the judgment in chapter 24. (Don't sneak ahead; we'll get there.)

Just last week, another Jesuit and I were in a heated discussion about the usefulness of this whole idea of the last judgment or final judgment for Christians today.  You think, most of the New Testament was written with an attitude not only of wonder at what had happened, but expectation; the coming of the Son of God having happened in recent memory, they didn't think it would be too long until the whole human story was finally wrapped up with a bow. And so the urgency of the moment was tangible.  

Today, we're two thousand years later.  Jesus could show up at any time, and sometimes I kind of wish he would, because I want to see how it ends! But he may not. He may very well not.  And so that sense of urgency that Matthew is going for here is far harder to come by. 
But not too long ago I was listening to a writer talk about his work.  And he made this comment about wanting desperately to have a body of work to leave for the world.  He had no illusions of grandeur, just a sense of his own mortality, and a desire -- a fervent one -- to leave something good behind.  There was a way in which he was haunted by the reality of death.  

How's your health? Very well, I hope. I know I'm planning to live a while longer. But maybe I won't.  You and I both know, tragedies, surprises, horrible coincidences -- these things happen.  And if we knew that might very well happen next week, a truck turned wrong on the interstate, and you in its headlights -- would we feel like we were leaving things the way we wanted them? 

The point, then, a way of understanding Matthew here today, is not fear (unless that's a positive motivator for you, in which case, fear on!);  it's focus.  Strip away all the busy and the idle and the checklists and the immediate priorities. You have a limited time here; how are you using it? 

* Do you know how winnowing happens? For some reason I imagined it had something to do with cutting the grain down, but the action is actually more akin to making pizza crusts. You grab a bunch of cut grain with a winnowing fork (think a rake, or Poseidon's trident) and throw it into the air, like you would pizza dough. The grain, the good stuff, falls back to earth, but the chaff, being lighter, blows away.

And that's how you separate the wheat from the chaff!


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