|Written by Peter J. Leithart|
|Saturday, 29 January 2011 13:25|
A Democratic administration is in office, even more profligate than most, and gold prices are predictably skyrocketing. It’s a reasonable reaction. Economic collapse looms, and we hedge ourselves against disaster to protect what’s ours. And there is some biblical warrant for this response to economic disaster. Wealth is a fortress and a strong city (Proverbs 10:15; 18:11). Wisdom is foresight, the ability to look down the road and anticipate what’s coming round the next bend, and so the wise see trouble coming and take steps to avoid it (Proverbs 22:3; 27:12).
As Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount, though, fortresses and cities walled with money are porous, no matter how vigorously or viciously we protect them. Moths, rust, raiders, and revenuers always threaten to grab the treasures we so carefully store up. Besides, Jesus’ own instructions about how His disciples are to act in times of crisis lean in quite a different direction.
That instruction is given most fully in Matthew 23-25. These chapters form a single discourse, Jesus’ last great discourse in Matthew. After Jesus denounces the Pharisees and hypocrites in the temple (Matthew 23), He walks out to the Mount of Olives where He announces the final doom on Jerusalem. While at various points the discourse reaches past the first century to the final judgment, the whole sermon applies primarily to the first generation. The Olivet Discourse progresses smoothly from a prophecy about the judgment on Jerusalem (24:1-35) to warning to His own disciples to be prepared for His coming (24:36-25:30) to a judgment on the nations (25:31-46). Because Jerusalem is the center of the world, when Jerusalem is shaken, all the nations are shaken with it.
I focus here on the last section of the sermon, the separation of sheep and goats. Jesus anticipates this judgment on the “nations” (25:32) earlier in the sermon when He predicts that before the end comes, the gospel will be preached to the entire Greco-Roman empire, the oikoumene (24:14). The Roman world from one end to the other will hear the good news of Jesus, as the apostles fulfill Jesus’ great commission. During the apostolic generation, nations and cities across the Mediterranean world will have the opportunity to accept or reject the gospel.
At the end of that age, Jesus says He will come to assess the nations based on their treatment of His missionaries. They are judged according to how they treat Jesus’ “brothers” (25:40, 45). The naked, hungry, sick, imprisoned in this passage are not, in the first instance, the poor and needy in general. They are the “brothers” of Jesus (25:40; cf. Matthew 12:47-49). Earlier, Jesus sent out the Twelve, and judged the cities of Samaria and Galilee based on their reception of those missionaries (10:1-15; 11:20-24). The apostles went out without anything, so the cities that received the gospel were forced to care for the missionaries as well. When the gospel moves to the Roman empire, the nations are judged in exactly the same way. The peoples of the Roman world will be judged by whether or they received the traveling missionaries sent by Jesus (cf. 10:42).
Jesus is the seed of Abraham, and His “brothers” are children of Abraham. They are the bearers of the Abrahamic promise: “I will bless those who bless you and curse those who curse you.” That’s one of the crucial ways in which the apostles participate in the judgment of the nations and on the twelve tribes of Israel. Whoever gives a cup of cold water to a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward; for those who refuse to receive Jesus’ emissaries, it will worse for them than it was for Sodom. The fate of nations turns on their reception or rejection of the family of Jesus.
Though Jesus addresses a specific situation, His instructions apply again and again throughout the history of the church. He is teaching His sheep how to live during tribulation, in the midst of wars and rumors of war, in the din of clashes between nations and kingdoms, under threat of earthquakes and famines. What would you do if you knew on the authority of Jesus Himself that a tribulation was coming such as never had been seen before? You would be tempted to stock up, hoard and hunker down until the storm passes. Get a generator, for sure, and a small arsenal of weapons.
Jesus’ instructions are nearly the opposite. When tribulation comes, the sheep among the nations are those who do what Jesus has done: Not hoarding, but giving; not stockpiling but serving; not hunkering down but clothing the naked, feeding the hungry, visiting the prisoners. What do we do when catastrophe looms? Buy gold perhaps, but plan to use it to help Jesus’ brothers if things really collapse. And if you’re buying gold, make sure that you’re also giving time and money to local charities, giving what you can to those who have nothing. That is Jesus’ way of preparing for disaster.
Jesus’ counter-intuitive instructions work because generosity with our goods – wealth, spiritual gifts, whatever – strengthens the sinews of the body of Christ, which is a strong city and a genuine fortress in calamity. They work because generous giving is one of the ways to stockpile the invulnerable treasures of heaven, treasures that will be more than enough to see us through the toughest of times.