This morning at church, the pastor preached about Matthew 25:31-46.
This is the passage in which the Son of Man separates the sheep from the goats. The Son of Man welcomes the sheep into the Kingdom prepared for them from the foundation of the world, and they receive life eternal. The Son of Man tells the sheep that they fed him when he was hungry, gave him drink when he was thirsty, welcomed him when he was a stranger, gave him clothing when he was naked, took care of him when he was sick, and visited him when he was in prison. The sheep ask the Son of Man when they saw him in these states and helped him, and the Son of Man replies that they did these things for the least of those in his family, and doing that was the same as helping the Son of Man. The Son of Man then reprimands the goats for not doing these things, and they are told to depart from the Son of Man into eternal fire, prepared for the devil and his angels. They receive eternal punishment.
The pastor referred to some things that I would like to record here for future reference. The pastor relayed to us a story from Roman mythology about Bacchus and Penelope. This story is about gods who look for hospitality, and their search is in vain until they find a lowly married couple. This couple helps the gods, without knowing that they are gods. This is similar to Matthew 25, in which people help the Son of Man, without realizing that they are helping the Son of Man. This story interested me on account of the ways that I read Christians conceptualize Greco-Roman culture in their attempts to make Christianity look superior or revolutionary. Maybe Christianity was those things, in areas, but Greco-Roman society did value hospitality; that was why Josephus tried to present the Jews as hospitable, or to highlight their hospitality in biblical stories: he was trying to rebut the view that Jews were clannish and misanthropic, to a culture that prized hospitality.
The pastor also told the story about the last lecture by Professor Randy Rausch before he died of pancreatic cancer. It was about achieving one’s childhood dreams, and it has received millions of views on YouTube. My impression is that most people at church this morning were aware of this lecture. I heard of it a while back. The pastor was saying that Matthew 25 may have been Jesus’ final address, and he was telling his disciples to take care of each other. That was what he was leaving them with.
The pastor made a brief point about hell. The goats, he noted, would be separated from God forever. They would not see God. The thing is, however, that they did not see God in this life. They failed to see God in the vulnerable. They failed to receive God’s kingdom of helping people when it was around them. Hell was a continuation of how they lived on earth.
Now for my rambling thoughts:
A. A lot of times, Christians interpret Matthew 25 in terms of helping the poor in general. A case can be made, however, that Matthew 25 is not about that. Rather, it is about helping those in Jesus’ family, namely, Christians. Atheist biblical scholar Robert M. Price interprets the recipients of help as Christian missionaries, who depend on hospitality. Indeed, this sort of message does appear in the synoptic Gospels. Matthew 10 talks about this, and it concludes by saying that those who give a glass of cold water to one who is a disciple, because he is a disciple, will not lose his reward. That is a fairly decent point: it does, in a way, reconcile Matthew 25’s emphasis on good works with Paul’s view that salvation is by faith in Jesus, for the good works in Matthew 25 arguably flow from a belief in Jesus, manifested in hospitality towards Jesus’ disciples (though, at the same time, the sheep do not know that they are helping Jesus). Yet, there are also passages in the synoptic Gospels about helping the poor and the vulnerable, and the poor are not necessarily disciples of Jesus. In Luke 14:12-13, Jesus exhorts his audience to invite the poor when holding a banquet, for the poor cannot repay, and the person hosting the party will be rewarded in the resurrection of the righteous. This accords with Judaism, which stressed the importance of almsgiving. Jesus also healed people who needed help, even if they may not have made a commitment to him.
B. Take care of each other. The pastor was talking about helping anyone who needs help, whatever his or her background. I do not know if he was referring indirectly to the Syrian refugees, but he did say last week that we should pray for wisdom in that area: we want for those who need help to receive it, but we also want to be safe. In any case, in discussing Matthew 25, the pastor was talking about outreach. But his statement about taking care of each other may be consistent with people in church taking care of each other. We see this sort of theme in the New Testament. In Acts 4, Christians donate their possessions, and the proceeds went to the needy, such that there was no one in the Christian community who lacked. In other Christian writings, however, there appear to be qualifications to this. Galatians 6 talks about bearing one another’s burdens, but also the importance of each person bearing his own burden. II Thessalonians 3 says that people should work in order to eat. I Timothy 5 is about helping the widows who truly need help. How all of this plays out in my church, I do not know. My impression is that we usually focus on helping people “out there.” If someone inside of the church needed help, however, the church may provide it, on some level. I would not be surprised if there are people in church who visit church members when they are sick.
C. Salvation by good works somewhat scares me. I would like to believe that salvation is by grace through faith alone, for there are days in which I do not feel like a good person. At the same time, I can see the point that entrance into the Kingdom involves having a good character: to return to my pastor’s sermon, would a person who failed to recognize God in this life really appreciate being in God’s presence forever and ever? If I find that I lack love, however, I should not despair, but I should take it to the Lord in prayer. I should also be sensitive to the needs of those who are hungry, thirsty, etc. When I am hungry, I eat, and thereby live. What makes me better than someone who is hungry and is not sufficiently nourished but dies of hunger? The answer: nothing! We are both human. We both deserve a chance to survive.