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Bible study: Christ alone?

Bible study on Matthew 25: 31-46 by Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit (WCC general secretary)

16 May 2010

A Contribution to a Muslim-Christian Dialogue on Matthew 25: 31-46

Presented at the Ecumenical Kirchentag, Munich

by  the Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit, general secretary of the World Council of Churches

It is a great privilege for me to participate in a joint reflection on this biblical text. It is a text of powerful images and expressions which can speak to all humanity. However, as a Lutheran theologian here in Germany today representing an organization which works for that which unites the Christian churches, I am drawn to use the following title for my reflection: Christ alone.

“Christ alone” was one of the principles for the interpretation of the Bible – and therefore a theological basis - formulated by the great German reformer of the Christian Church, Martin Luther. It was one of his series of punch lines: Faith alone - grace alone – scripture alone – Christ alone.

I think our common reading today is compatible with Luther’s understanding and use of the Bible in at least two ways. Firstly, Luther helped the Church to find the way back to its roots in biblical texts as the authority for all basic questions of the faith of the church. The reverence shown to the text by our Muslim brother revitalizes Christian respect for this text. Holy texts, particularly the Gospels in the Bible, are written to be heard in a fellowship, they are words to be listened to together. This is not primarily a text to be studied by us as individuals.

Secondly, Luther translated the Bible into his mother tongue. This translation and the corresponding printing and distribution of the Bible were significant for the church – as well as for the German language. It made the Bible an open book, open for anybody to own, to read and to understand. Christian churches and the ecumenical movement between those churches have benefited from these perspectives. As we listen to it together as the word of God, the Bible is our common authority. And, as a book in our mother tongue, it is an open book where different interpretations in different contexts are welcome, relevant and even necessary.

Even if it could be heard as a rather exclusive approach, or seen as not very ecumenical or open for dialogue and complementary reflections, I still think "Christ alone" is a very appropriate perspective for an open and joint reading and conversation about this text from the Gospel of Matthew. Christ alone is the judge. Christ shows that God in Christ identifies with human beings, expressing in this way God’s compassion with all, particularly those who suffer. Thus, the main question in the text is, quite paradoxically: Do we leave Christ alone?

When we define a text as having authority, we have to be very aware of how we use the text and be accountable for the consequences of how we use such a text in different contexts. To become more fully aware of that, it is for the most part helpful and sometimes actually very necessary to listen to other voices interpreting the same text. And this leads us to the core issue of the text: the surprising judgment.

The surprise in the text is not really the idea that there will be a judgment of human life and behaviour. This was, after all, a central motif of the Old Testament prophets and also present in the contemporary religious ideas of the time of Jesus. The judgment is described here as a judgment of all nations – in the sense that "everybody", all people are included, whatever background we might have (32). But there is not a separation between us as "peoples", no judgment of us as "nations". The judgment is personal, and there really is nothing in the text that can be used for nationalistic or racial or exclusive purposes. Rather to the contrary.

In our time, particularly in a Western European liberal context, it could sound moralistic, exclusive or even triumphalistic to talk about a final, divine judgment, as if I regard myself or my group or my God to be in the position of being the judge of others. This is, however, not the dominant understanding of life in many other cultures and contexts in the world. All over the world the idea of there being a judgment is not questioned. In the end I find it even more triumphalistic and excluding to refuse the perspective of a final judgment. That would mean that I myself am the highest authority to judge my own life.

The purpose of a text like this is sometimes misunderstood in the Christian traditions and perhaps in other religious traditions as well. In itself this text does seem to address such misunderstandings. It is not a text that has within its scope the nurturing of speculations about scenarios for the future, or primarily to answer questions about the fate of this or that human being in terms of them belonging to a particular group – not even as part of a faith group. In biblical texts the perspective of final or eschatological dimensions is almost always a way to express critical, sometimes surprising, perspectives on our life here and now. This helps us to answer questions of how to live in the here and now through the strong perspective of a future judgment. However, there is also another, more secular way commonly used to express this, which is not so very different, when we say, "the judgment of history will be….".

One surprise in the text is that the basis for judgment is not a long moral or religious list of rules; nor is it an exhaustive list of what is mandated by the more specific laws. Rather the text spells out in a repeated description (35-39 and 42-44) the most basic needs of human beings, particularly when for reasons against their own will they are excluded from the fellowship. A glass of water, food, a visit, attention in detention (prisons were for detentions, not for those who where judged already).

We could make our own additions to the list of the needs of those around us. Do you see Christ in the Muslim women next door, who represents a minority not everybody accepts in this country? Do you see Christ in the Christian old man fearful of attacks from extremists when he gathers to worship with his Christian sisters and brothers in a Muslim country? It is neither philosophical nor typically religious action that is required and called for, but rather spontaneous attention to the basic need of another human being.

This approach corresponds to the prophetic critique of religious practices that can be found in the books of the prophets Micah (6: 6-8) and Isaiah (58:5-10). It is summarized in the Gospel of Matthew as the natural spontaneous actions of the children of the heavenly Father (5:43-48), and who thus correspond to the greatest commandment: To love God and to love your neighbour as yourself.

The criterion is to live as Jesus Christ did. Sometimes even against some religious rules – for the sake of humanity. Christ alone is a criterion for the real life of a human being created in God’s image.

This commandment to love God and its focus on my neighbour’s need is also in the common word that 138 Muslim scholars pointed to as the common ground of the peoples of the Muslim, Jewish and Christian traditions, just a few years ago.

The real surprise in the text is that the judge identifies himself with any human being who is in need of another human being’s attention and care. Christ as the representative of God as judge is the alternative to us being our own judges, to making our own rules for judgment, either for ourselves or for our group of people. But it is more than that: Christ makes us able to see that the main question in any moral judgment about how we live or should live is the identification of the need of the human beings next to us. The question is not: How shall I be good enough? But, how can I do what my neighbour needs? To see Christ in our fellow human being is the deepest way to see what we should do. Therefore, "Christ alone" is the way to get out of our self-centred approach or our moralism, and liberate us from our many versions of "me alone" or "us alone" as the focal point. The focus on how God identifies with every human being through these words of Christ, is a liberating perspective. It liberates me to see all human beings in the same way, as fellow human beings in need of me.

The surprise in the text is that Christ was alone … and nobody recognized it. However, some did recognize what they should do and some did not. The text makes a very insistent call to not leave Christ alone. We are created for fellowship with one another as human beings.

I find this is such a paradoxical text about Christ: Christ alone as the judge and the criterion for our human lives, and yet this same Christ is himself left alone. It is a message first of all of a compassionate Christ. Christ is coming to me through my fellow human beings who are in need of my compassion, whoever they are, Muslim or Christian or Jewish or Hindu or Buddhist, or whatever group they might belong to. But Christ is also the one who calls me to do what is right and just, showing real compassion to all. This also implies a protest against the injustice of somebody being isolated or not given access to care for their basic needs.

This compassionate God asks me to be compassionate, because first of all God is compassionate. This is the ultimate meaning Luther conveys in his use of the saying "Christ alone". Christ is not only the just judge but also the life giver. By God’s gracious compassion shown to human beings ultimately in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ can we live and stand before the judgement.

By God’s compassion we can also through a text like this be reminded again of our common call as human beings and find a way to live according to God’s will in this land, in this continent and in all places of the world. We are people of different faiths but all of us are created in the image of God.

As a Christian I believe that this is an image presented to us in Jesus Christ. Moreover, I meet Jesus Christ in all people in need of me, whoever, whatever and wherever they are. I meet you as women or men, as Muslims or Christians, as people of whatever faith you may or may not have.