I’ve been following Don Heatley’s blog Creatio ex Nihilo lately. Don’s an American pastor who has captured my imagination lately with some very thought provoking sermons.
Here’s a thought from his most recent offering:
In Matthew 25, Jesus tells the parable of the sheep and the goats. The story sets the scene of a Final Judgement in which Jesus is portrayed as a shepherd separating sheep from goats. The sheep enter his timeless kingdom, while the goats are sent to eternal doom. Surprisingly, the criteria which is used to separate these flocks is not what we might expect. What differentiates a sheep from a goat is not their faith. It is not their beliefs about the Bible, Jesus, the cross, heaven or hell or even about gay marriage, abortion or taxes. The differentiating factor, says Jesus, is whether they fed the hungry, gave a drink to the thirsty, clothed the naked or visited the sick or imprisoned.
This parable isn’t a throwback to the idea of salvation by works. The point of this story isn’t to motivate us to rack up brownie points with Jesus by feeding the hungry and clothing the naked. Whether it’s performing good works or believing a particular atonement model, doing either merely to gain a reward or avoid punishment would make us the shallowest of creatures. Christianity is at its worst when it preys on those sinful human motivations.
Instead, Jesus is pointing us to a much bigger reality. Here’s a whacky thought: I think Jesus told this story, not to give us the magic formula for getting into heaven or avoiding hell, but so that the hungry actually would be fed, the thirsty actually would get a drink, the naked actually would be clothed and the sick and imprisoned actually would be visited. Jesus portrays his presence not just as some wrathful judge who returns at the end of time, but as a constant reality in our lives right now. He tells both flocks, when you did this for least of these, or when you did this for the ignored and forgotten, you did it for me. In other words you weren’t doing all this to accumulate rewards on your Jesus Mastercard. When you did it, you were serving your Master and the Master is just beneath the surface of this world.
Don’s quite right, of course. Service is all about putting the needs of others before our own. Now that I think about it a bit, the idea of serving others in order to gain eternal rewards seems quite offensive. The ‘less fortunate’ become nothing more than stepping stones to heaven. It might seem heretical to say it, but sometimes we’ve got to look at the here and now and forget about the eternal perspective.
I’ll be thinking about this one for a while.