There are two ways with which to read this Gospel passage and other apocalyptic texts. We can either interpret this from the lens of fear or from the lens of action.
The Politics of Fear
Many churches and preachers use “the end times” to enforce anxiety on people. When people think of the apocalypse, the knee-jerk reaction is fear. When sun and moon are out of their orbits, when seas roar announcing impending tsunamis and tidal waves, when the earth shakes and rivers burst, when weathers depart from their normal patterns and create unimaginable havoc, fear and tremble for the end of the world has come. You are either lost or saved. Buy candles or flashlights to prepare for dark days, stack food and drink as much as you can, kneel and pray and ask for forgiveness – for the Lord has come to judge us!
The same logic of fear governs the politics of our times and politicians – from Trump to Duterte, from Europe to Africa, from Latin America to Asia – are ever willing to use it. Fear them who is coming to take your jobs, to change your religion, to destroy the moral fabric: the immigrant, the terrorist, the Muslim, the asylum seeker, the refugee, the economic migrant – and in the Philippines – the drug addict! We must act now or else, they will occupy our cities, change or beliefs and destroy our country and our children. We better destroy them first before they destroy us. We better kill them first before they kill us. Surveillance, deportation, isolate, arrest, kill: these are operative words born out of fear for the constructed “other”.
Before the Duterte campaign, drug addiction was already a problem in the Philippines – but not the biggest problem. Hunger and poverty were on top of the list. The DFA count was 1.8 million drug addicts. But Duterte’s count varies – 3 to 4 million – depending on which rambling speech one hears. The “fear of drug addicts” also rose a record high from the time Duterte took power, says the SWS survey. He portrayed addicts as inhuman, violent, hopeless animals, rapists, pests, uncontrollable. They are out to destroy the whole country. They are criminals to be feared. The power of construction!
“Fearism” is a new word – recently popular in academic circles and ordinary life. It makes the experience of fear to be the new normal. This same cultural matrix is made invisible but very active and effective. In the process, the stranger is constructed as fearsome because he or she poses as a danger to our imagined political, moral or religious identities. Used by preachers and politicians alike, fearism divides us from them; separating citizens of good standing from those who are intent to destroy society. The problem with fear is that it produces distorted perceptions. Motivated by anxiety, people could no longer think well. They accept everything that is peddled as truth. It also produces paralysis. Ruled by fright and panic, people could no longer act well. They do nothing but rant; or anything in panic.
The Gospel of Compassion
But the apocalypse can also be seen as a call to compassion. Not fretful action as if we are cramming for time at the last minute. Not fearful perceptions which separate us from them. Not anxious practice which builds walls or isolates people. But compassionate action, acts of caring and movements of solidarity.
Like others, Matthew 25 is also an eschatological text. When the Son of Man comes, he will divide the sheep from the goats, it begins its narrative. But this Gospel does not instill fear. The end challenge it gives is simple, hopeful and straightforward: “Whatever you do to the least of my brothers and sisters, you do it to me.” This is in fact the summary of the whole Gospel: a call to active solidarity and compassion. The end times is a time for caring, for solidarity with the other, for loving compassion. Because as Jesus said: the stranger, the refugee, the immigrant, the drug addict is he himself.
Despite some readings to the contrary, the Gospel today is in fact a message of hope. “Look at the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near.” Leaves are sprouting. The sad and cold winter has long gone. It is a time for flowers and fruits, for laughter and fun, for doing and acting. This kingdom of God is not a kingdom of fear and isolation but of joy and compassion; not a kingdom of violence and exclusion but of peace and reconciliation; not of pathetic paralysis but of inclusive action. This was what Jesus proclaimed. This was what Jesus did.
The great theologian, Johann Baptist Metz, wrote:
“The Christian idea of imitation [imitatio Christi] and the apocalyptic idea of the imminent expectation belong together. It is not possible to imitate Jesus radically, that is, at the level of the roots of life, if ‘the time is not shortened’. Jesus’ call: ‘Follow me!’ and the call of Christians: ‘Come, Lord Jesus!’ are inseparable.” (Faith in History and Society, 176).
Now that political powers press us to exclude, isolate, and kill “the other”, we say as in every Advent we do:
Come, Lord Jesus. Come. Do not delay!
Daniel Franklin E. Pilario
St. Vincent School of Theology - Adamson University