We have just heard what Paul Nuechterlein calls “The smallest huge translation mistake in the Bible.” In the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, the one that we read together on Sundays, we hear:
All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another.
Nuechterlein – and I’m going to be drawing heavily on his research and on his arguments this morning – makes the case that “people” is a poor translation of the original text. The word in Matthew’s Greek is autous. It is the pronoun “them.” Thus, the King James Version – which often gets heat from scholars for not being as up to date or as carefully researched or translated as the NRSV – gets things right when it renders this passage:
And before him shall be gathered all nations: and he shall separate them one from another.
“People” vs. “Them.” The separation is not between people but between nations. That one word changes what Jesus wants to tell us in a big way.
Living in America in 2017, we understand so many things through the lens of the individual. One of the defining stories in our country, one of our deep stories goes something like this: “You can do anything that you put your mind to” or, maybe, “If you work hard you will succeed.” We all have bootstraps, we all can pull ourselves up by them – or not. And we will all be rewarded or punished for our hard work or for its absence by – what? – by life, by the school of hard knocks, by the quasi-God that we call The Market.
You can tell that this is one of our defining stories because we become pretty seriously defensive when someone calls it into question. I’ve been at a dinner party or two at which I said to someone, “I don’t think you can do anything that you put your mind to.” And I got a reaction as though I had kicked a kitten.
One of the reasons that, as a country, we have so much trouble talking about race and racism is that to do so is to call into question the story that you can do anything that you put your mind to. I don’t like the idea that my skin colour has a bunch to do with the neighbourhood in which I am able to live, the number of zeroes in my bank account, the jobs that I can or cannot hold, the nature of my interactions with the police.
My life is something that I did. I am self-made, I am made in my own image.
Our self or me-oriented lens extends to our understanding of faith. For a great many of our fellow Christians, the vital moment of discipleship comes when an individual makes a profession of faith, when that person declares:
I accept Jesus Christ as my personal saviour.
Now, don’t misunderstand me. Announcing that Jesus is your personal saviour is a good and important thing to do. Jesus Christ is my personal saviour. When we are baptised, we stand at the front of the church with our sponsors while the rest of the church sits and we answer a series of personal questions:
Do you turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your Saviour?
Do you put your whole trust in his grace and love?
|Do you promise to follow and obey him as your Lord?|
So absolutely, here is that personal “yes,” here is the singular, here is “you” and here is “I.” That personal commitment, that choice, that individual “yes” matters. But then, as the rite continues, we transition from individual to community. We all stand for the Baptismal Covenant, for the holy promises that we make together. I’ll share the final two:
|Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbour as yourself?
What’s the answer?
|I will, with God’s help.|
|Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?|
|I will, with God’s help.|
This is the moment in the rite when, having said, “I accept Jesus Christ as my personal saviour” we add the word “and.” We transition from individual to community, from “me” to “we.”
We move from personal salvation to collective salvation.
I saw John Strege after the 8am service. And John, who has served as a musician for years at the Jewish Temple downtown, said to me that this is the very core of Jewish theology, that we are saved together.
I want us to notice this collective, this shared salvation. I want to pay attention to it as we watch Jesus separate the sheep and the goats. Because of the individualistic lens that we tend to bring to life – and aided and abetted by the smallest huge translation mistake in the Bible – it is really easy to imagine Jesus, the King, in this scene of judgment, separating people one from the other. And furthermore, it is really easy to imagine him separating them based on personal belief.
Let’s think of any number of cartoons. There is an escalator leading to a cloud. And there a holy receptionist awaits:
Welcome to the afterlife. Did you accept Jesus as your personal saviour? Yes? Okay, you’re in. You’re a sheep. Head for heaven. What about you? Did you accept Jesus as your personal saviour? No? Okay, you’re out, you’re a goat. Malcolm Young will now serenade you as you step onto the highway to hell.
(That’s an AC/DC reference, by the way, a shout out to the band’s rhythm guitarist who died earlier this week.)
But that isn’t the story that Jesus tells. He does not separate sheep from goats based upon belief. He is silent on the subject of belief, on the question of whether or not you went to church, on the question of whether or not you believed the creeds. We are judged not based on what we believed but on what we did. And nor are we judged as individuals. Jesus is talking about autous, about them. “Them” being the nations.
In other words – and again, this is hard when we are so accustomed to talking about “me” rather than “we” – Jesus is not talking about individual action, about individual charity, about whether or not you or I made a donation to a not-for-profit or were kind to a person on the street or volunteered at a soup kitchen, although those actions are all good and important.
Jesus says we will be judged based on what we did together.
A year or so ago, the Pope published a document in which he spoke of our shared responsibility to care for the earth. And a prominent American politician was not so much as offended as confused by the Popes words; he said something like:
I don’t understand why the Pope is talking about this. I thought that religion was all about being a good person.
I think that he was sincere in asking this question. I suspect that our confusion, our tension around collective salvation is at least as old as our country. This is from Forward Through the Years from 1936:
Some people fret and complain that the Christian pulpit intrudes itself into the social order and speaks evil against national leaders. But remember how Jesus followed the prophets in their eager concern for the disposed. It is futile to inculcate in the minds of our young people the ideals of Jesus and then send them into a world uncongenial to these ideals. Critics call upon the church to let business alone. But business and industry and politics do not let the people of God alone. Can the church stand by and see people cheated of the abundant life, pushed under the level of subsistence, in squalor, ill health, and occupational diseases? If it were a question of economics, the church might well leave the matter alone. But moral questions are involved. It will be a sorry day for the church when she ceases to be involved in human welfare.
The Son of Man gathers the nations, gathering autous, gathering “them” on his right and his left. And he will asks:
As a nation:
Did you feed the hungry?
Did you give drink to the thirsty?
Did you welcome the stranger?
Did you clothe the naked?
Did you care for the sick?
Did you visit the prisoner?
As a nation, how are we doing?
This realisation of our shared salvation, of our shared responsibility is hard news and good news. It is hard news because it means that salvation isn’t something that I can do on my own. And it’s good news because it means salvation is something that, together, we can choose and shape.
We will be judged. Together. So together, let’s get to work.