We’re a strange breed, us evangelicals.
(I feel like most of my posts could start with that line, but I don’t think I’ve used it yet, so I’ll take it this time.)
We’re funny because most of the time, we’re keen to just take the Bible at face-value, and let the most obvious interpretation stand as the right one. We don’t want to do much of this interpretation stuff at all, we just want to know what the words on the page say.
But then occasionally we throw that rule out of the window. For no very obvious reason but that the words that are right there on the page are pretty inconvenient.
So there’s this passage in Matthew commonly known as ‘the sheep and the goats’. Because it’s a metaphor Jesus uses about sheep and goats. It’s a metaphor for the way that he will divide people up into two groups, to go to two different eternal destinies. He says that one group will go to eternal punishment and the other to eternal life.
We’re happy so far. This is good evangelical doctrine, well done Jesus.
So how are the two groups divided up? Here’s what the words on the page say: the ones who go to eternal life (called the righteous) are the ones who fed the hungry, gave water to the thirsty, welcomed the stranger, clothed the naked and visited the sick and imprisoned.
In fact, Jesus says that the righteous people are the ones who did that for him, but they don’t even realise it. They ask him ‘when did we do that for you?’ They weren’t even trying to do it for Jesus, but because they did all that for other people, Jesus says they did it for him.
Those who go to eternal punishment on the other hand, are those who did not do those things. Who see the hungry and thirsty stranger and show no hospitality, those who didn’t give from their possessions or their time to love people in need. Again, Jesus says he was that needy person and they ignored him; they didn’t realise, but because they failed to love their neighbour, they failed to love Jesus.
Every sermon I have ever heard on this passage has started along these lines:
‘Now of course, what Jesus is not saying here is that people will gain eternal life by feeding the poor or in fact by any number of good deeds done. He’s definitely not saying that the basis on which our eternal destiny is decided is how we treat other people.’
And that’s the point at which I want to raise my hand and say, ‘Isn’t he? Looks like that’s exactly what he’s saying to me.’
Of course, it would be very inconvenient of Jesus to be saying that. Paul hits the evangelical nail on the head much more accurately when he says things like, ‘If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.’
It’s not that we think Jesus is entirely wrong – he’s right as far as saying that you can’t love him without loving your neighbour. In other words, we can be okay with the second group going to eternal punishment because they didn’t do that stuff. But he must be absolutely wrong to say that people can gain eternal life by doing those good things, even when they haven’t got a clue that they’re doing it for Jesus!
Why do we insist that Jesus didn’t mean what he said here? What would happen if we just… took him at his word?
I know it’s breaking the first rule of evangelicalism to separate out Jesus and Paul, but indulge me just for a moment. The first retort the question, why don’t we believe that Jesus meant what he said here, is that we have to interpret Scripture with Scripture – and as this doesn’t chime well with other parts of the Bible then we can interpret it according to them instead. But firstly, who gets to decide which bit we interpret by which bit? Why not use this as the basis for understanding bits that don’t chime well with it?
Secondly, the safe evangelical lines about how to be saved by putting your faith in Jesus as your Lord and Saviour, they’re all Paul. I’m not saying I don’t believe them or that they don’t have authority, and I promise you this troubles me as much as it troubles everyone else of an evangelical faith, but I can’t deny it just because it’s unsettling – if we’d just for a minute stop and ask what Jesus said about heaven and hell, what’s actually written on the page not what we assume he should say, we’d see it’s got an awful lot more to do with how we treat each other and especially the poor than it has to do with stepping forward at an altar call.
So my question remains. What if Jesus really meant what he said about the sheep and the goats?
What if the righteous, who inherit eternal life, really are those who feed the hungry, give drink to the thirst, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, and visit the sick and imprisoned? What if, even without any desire to serve Jesus or even without knowing of him at all, people who do those things for other people, are really showing love for Jesus?
Why are we so scared to believe him?