What is it with Matthew and “unquenchable fire?” Of course, it was on the lips of John the Baptist this morning, but the image will appear over and over again in Matthew’s Gospel (and his virtually alone). The word “fire” appears in the context of judgment 11 times in Matthew, only 3 in Mark, 4 in Luke and once in John. Overall Matthew speaks more about the coming judgment, probably because his community is living under a great deal of stress and also because it is his way of adding urgency to his message, probably following on his read of the prophet Zechariah.
What are we to do with this image?
For me, there is a sense in which the urgency of Matthew is important to hear. Christians (particularly we progressive types) need to recover a sense of urgency about the message that has been entrusted to us. And we need to be careful not to follow our instincts and throw out entirely the message of judgment. We do not have to judge people and thus undo our message of inclusion. That was not Matthew’s purpose in his judgment language. Beginning with the magi who visit Jesus, there’s all kinds of including going on in Matthew’s Gospel. That’s not the kind of judgment we want.
Matthew’s judgment was primarily about justice and privilege. We heard it this morning. “Don’t come to me presuming that you’re OK with God just because you’re a descendent of Abraham,” John says. Bear fruit worthy of a transformed world (repentance). Don’t be afraid to change your lives for the sake of the kingdom that has come near. In fact, you’d better develop some urgency about change, because, in fact, this kingdom is near, not just a far away dream.
I’ve learned a lot about judgment and my attitude toward it from reading about the culture of slaves in this country, and, especially, reading and singing their songs. They were not afraid of judgment or “the last day.” For them, it was the day when things were going to be made right, when justice would be done, and they had a pretty keen idea that was good news for them. If we (no matter our race, I think, but white folk in this country have some special work to do here) are willing to enter into a lifelong process of purging our own participation (intentional or not) in injustice and the assumption of privilege, then the “fire” will have done us and the world some good.
God does not want to kill us, that is not what all this talk about “unquenchable fire” is. God wants to save us and the world. That may take, in Matthew’s view, a little fire. Perhaps a way to look at this “unquenchable fire” image is to understand that I may very well spend some time in it (I think I actually already have) but its purpose is not (has not been) to consume me, but to purify.I think it was William Sloan Coffin who once said about repentance and judgment something like, “God accepts us just as we are. I believe that with all my heart. But that doesn’t mean that there are not some things that God doesn’t want to change. We’ve all got stuff, serious stuff, to work on.”