Readers of the previous blog will know that I interpret the so-called parable of the Last Judgement as applying first of all to the nations gathered at the throne of the “Humane Ruler ” ( Son of Man). As this is not the usual interpretation and as it makes the parable more explicitly political than usual, people may ask me phow certain I am of it. I would reply that interpretation is not a exact science and that usual interpretations usually have something going for them. So of course I am not certain, but I think it a reasonable and defensible interpretation even if it is a bit disturbing to Christian believers who have a liberal fundamentalist view of economics. According to my interpretation nations will be judged by how they treat Jesus who identifies himself with the most vulnerable citizens in society.
It does not however, specify by what means the state is to make sure that the vulnerable are treated with justice. Obiviously neither the Roman Empire nor the kingdom of Judaea was a welfare state, nor perhaps could Jesus have envisaged such a thing. Nevertheless Jesus’ attribution of responsibility to the nation is not unprecedented. His Jewish tradition expresses this responsibility in the Torah. God gives the land to the people on condition that they do not worship idols and that they care for the widow, the orphan and the stranger. Every fifty years debts have to be cancelled and slaves freed. Obviously these commands can only be obeyed by individuals and groups of people, but the people as a whole is made accountable for seeing that they are obeyed, that just people are honoured and unjust people called to account. The leaders of the people, especially their kings are judged by whether they have ruled by God’s justice rather than by gross national product or foreign conquest.
Not only the lawgivers but also the Jewish prophets of God insist that God’s just law must be applied to societal as well as personal relations. We know from the gospels that Jesus was known as a prophet, that is, he spoke the message of God’s justice with authority rather than referring to scriptures or teachings of rabbis. His parables show that he was aware of some of the socio- economic conditions of the time, including debt, absentee landlords, foreign occupation and the like. It is therefore at least likely that his parable of judgement refers to whole societies, and that he expected his own and other nations to have laws that prescribe measures of social justice and to implement them. The Jewish laws of social justice did not prescribe action by the state, but by the leaders, by religious officials and by communities and families in the land. As I indicated in yesterday’s blog, social care may be enabled by the state but it must be delivered by individual persons. Welfare on the other hand can be both enabled and delivered by the state. In Jesus’ nation, alms-giving for the destitute was organised through the temple priesthood and probably through the leaders of local synagogues.
When Jesus identified the true king, the humane ruler, with the least important in the land, he was emphasising a kind of restorative justice as the first duty of government: the rich and those with adequate wealth can look after themselves; the vulnerable cannot, and must be helped. If you accept my argument and agree that the parable of judgement applies to societies, you may still question the kind of sanction that Jesus used. His only sanction is what scholars call eschatological: the just are going to eternal life; while the unjust are going to eternal punishment.
If God doesn’t do that, I can’t see the point of Him or Her. It’s not up to me to try to imagine how this will happen. Dante Alighieri has done that in his divine comedy, which is based on the idea that even those who are in hell have got what they want. It is of course a vast parable itself, but I find it far more acceptable than modern notions of a God for whom justice is not a priority.
Does this mean that I preach heaven and hell?
Yes. Disgraceful, isn’t it?
If I end up there I expect to meet Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot and other great monsters of injustice, along with George W Bush and Tony Blair, if they don’t get round to repenting Iraq and Eurozone leaders, if they don’t get round to repenting Greece.
Yes, it’s that disgraceful.