About thirty of my favorite people and I were discussing Matthew 25:31-46 this morning. You remember Matthew 25:31-46 don’t you? It’s the parable that Jesus told concerning judgement and the assignment of our eternal future in heaven and hell. I greatly enjoyed out conversation and just didn’t get enough of it the first time around, so here goes with round number two.
The gist of this scripture is that when the day of judgement comes Jesus will separate the sheep from the goats; the blessed from the accursed ones. At this place before the King it is suggested that there will be surprises. “How did I get in Lord?” some will ask, and “Why am I outside?” will be the question of others. Jesus answers this question by famously saying, in paraphrase, that “when you fed me (or didn’t) when I was hungry, clothed me (or didn’t) when I was naked, visited me (or didn’t) when I was sick or in prison, you were doing righteousness.” “When did we do those things? We’ve never even seen You before.” “When you did it (or didn’t do it) for the smallest and most insignificant people in society, you did it to Me.”
OK, I really love that. Jesus has said that your actions matter, and that even if you don’t know anything about Him yet love your neighbor regardless of who s/he is, you are loving Him and pass the test. Of course, that sets up a problem; what if a person is kind and generous with people who have less than him or her and gets down in the dirt too help, or works to save children from traffickers, or other such noble and awesome things loved by God, yet has not prayed the “sinners’ prayer”. Was all of that love wasted, and the person doing God’s business and not just talking about it not saved? I know, other verses say “he that believeth in Me shall not perish but have everlasting life”, and “no one comes to the Father except by way of the Son”, but right there in Matthew 25 Jesus says only that those who DID righteousness would be welcomed into the kingdom, and not just those who paid it lip service.
So, does that extend God’s grace and salvation to a Buddhist monk who fights human trafficking? A Navajo medicine man who shares his meager pot of lamb stew with a sick neighbor, or an atheist who struggles to bring education and/or legal representation to the poor and underserved residents of the ghetto or barrio? I cannot tell by Matthew 25: 31-46 alone, but I cannot argue that they will not receive grace and pardon by that scripture either.
And what about the person professing Jesus Christ who’s purse strings remain tightly tied, who’s smile is only for those who can help him, and who’s time is used to serve his interests only? Does this person’s profession of faith get him anywhere with the Righteous Judge on that great/terrible day? I, of course, do not think so, but I am no theologian. I would love to read what more educated people than I believe concerning this.
And then there’s hell. Chapter 25 of Matthew indicates a place we call hell in three different ways in the three different parables; a place outside the party in parable number one, a place of outer darkness in parable number two, and a place of fire where Satan and his demons are punished in number three. Well, which is it? As Joshua Ryan Butler pointed out in his excellent book “The Skeletons in God’s Closet”, Genesis records that in the beginning God made heaven and earth. No mention of hell there. Genesis goes on to speak of water and land and fish and bugs and birds and stars and people, but not one little peep about hell. So where did this hell come from, what is it like, and who’s going there?
Butler writes that hell is a place in the Bible called Gehenna, or the Hinnom Valley; a place outside of the gates of the city where people would go to, among other things, sacrifice their children to Molech or Chemosh or whatever bloody ‘god’ that they chose to worship instead of God. So hell could be a place outside of the kingdom city where people can go, if they wish, to worship anything other than God, It’s their choice. God wants them in His city, but if they insist on doing what they want instead of what God wants, well, he just can’t allow that behavior into His city. If they insist on staying outside; their will be done. Butler is much more exhaustive in his discussion of hell and judgement, and I highly recommend that anyone interested in this topic should read his book.
So my takeaway from the discussion was that God is not some distant, pissed-off white guy who is just waiting for me or anyone else to screw up so that he can zap me to the torture chamber for eternity. Instead, God sets out to meet me every day, only He is wearing a mask and I may not recognize Him right away. Only by treating each person whom I meet as if s/he was God can I make the cut from a works perspective, and only if I do so because I love and want to serve people can I make it from the grace perspective. And it may, just may, be open to whomever does the will of God, no matter who they are or what they believe.