Thoughts Along the Way…
For the past 2 years our congregation has been enjoying a Sunday morning Adult Ed class called Occupy the Gospels. It has been an enlightening and stimulating study and discussion that has taken all of us who participated into a deeper level of understanding of why each gospel is so different from the others and just what each of the gospels is all about. We’ve done a close reading of each gospel examining such questions as who was it originally written for, what kinds of stresses and pressures were they dealing with in that community, why does Jesus say things one way in this gospel but differently in another gospel, and so on.
If you’re going to call yourself a Christian, a follower of Jesus, an apprentice of Jesus, it’s important to be deeply familiar with what Jesus said and did. In his tract How Christians Should Regard Moses, Martin Luther suggested that we are not really properly equipped to understand the rest of the Bible unless we first come to a clear understanding of the gospels.
One advantage of doing a close reading together in a group is that very often others will spot things you haven’t seen before or ask questions that hadn’t occurred to you. I honestly couldn’t tell you how many times I’ve been through the gospels, but in our class together I was frequently seeing new things or seeing them from a different perspective than I had before. And sometimes that new little thing I saw would sit with me for weeks and make me rethink a lot of other things about my faith and my understanding of my faith.
Here’s a case in point. The 25th chapter of Matthew has always been important to me. I’ve even sometimes called myself a “Matthew 25” Christian. This chapter is the only place in the gospels where Jesus, himself, describes the final judgment, where the “sheep” are separated from the “goats,” and the criteria are not at all what a lot of people expect. He doesn’t say a word about what you believe or don’t believe. There is no mention of whether or not you accepted him as your personal Lord and Savior or invited him into your heart or any of those other popular ideas that some people think are the doorway to being “saved.” Nope. Nothing like that at all. No statement of creed. No tally of church attendance. Not a bit of it. Instead, the final exam is all about one thing and one thing only: how well did you take care of people who were in need?
34 Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’
A few years ago I realized that the “sheep” in this text, the people who did these good things and are being rewarded and inheriting the kingdom, are quite surprised to find that they are, in fact, the Grand Prize Winners! They didn’t know that by taking care of those in need they were also taking care of Jesus, himself. They just did it because it was the right thing to do.
Rereading this text in our class a few weeks ago, though, I was suddenly hit between the eyes by yet another little epiphany. Words I had read maybe hundreds of times before suddenly hit me in a way I just had not thought of before. And this time it was the flip side of the coin. This time it was the “goats,” who got my attention– you know, the ones who did not feed the hungry or visit the sick or give a drink to the thirsty, the ones who ignored those in need, or worse, went out of their way to do nothing for them.
41 Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42 for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink…
These are the words that hit me like a ton of bricks: “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” I confess, I’m not real big on the idea of Hell and eternal punishment. I like to think that God’s grace trumps everything in the end. On the other hand, the punishment motif crops up several times in the Gospel of Matthew, so in this gospel, at least, it is kind of unavoidable. But seeing that the “goats” get punished wasn’t the thing that arrested me. It was that they were being consigned to a punishment prepared for the devil and his angels. In other words, the failure to take care of those in need is not merely a “failure” or sin of oversight. It is something far worse. It is evil. If the punishment is the measure of its severity as a sin, then the failure to care for those in need is demonic.
I think the ramifications of this are huge. Jesus, as I read it here, is saying that any actions on our part that deprive those in need of food, water, clothing, shelter or medical care, actions that deprive the imprisoned of hope and comfort, actions that alienate the stranger– such actions are evil, even demonic; the punishment is the measure of the crime.
At our little congregation, the little church with a big heart, we have much to be proud of in the ways we have fulfilled the positive side of this equation. We have been wonderfully generous in feeding, clothing and providing for those in need. Our benevolence is extraordinary, and I am so proud, as their pastor, of this congregation’s generosity in spirit and in practice. I know and trust that we will keep up the good work that leads us into God’s presence.
But think about those “goats.” As you read the headlines or watch the news, as you watch what our elected officials are voting for or against, what they are funding or not funding, remembering that they do all this in our name as our representatives, think about those “goats.” Think about the final exam as Jesus describes it. Think about how Jesus sees it. Are we on the road to inherit the Kingdom? Or are we stumbling toward that place prepared for the devil and his angels?
Pro Gloria Dei