Friday, April 20, 2007

If you've done it for the least of these, you did it for me.

Matthew 25: 31-46 is an interesting section. I've often seen it used in justification for not all those who call on Jesus's name will actually be saved, and it proves the existence of a hell in referring to an eternal fire.

I think both viewpoints miss the purpose of the chapter.

First -- with the sheep and the goats (is there a signifigance to picking goats? Sheep I understand, given all the Shephard references). If this is combined with Matthew 7: 21-24, one category alone determines everything: helping the less fortunate. As much as the emphasis is on grace and faith, works do matter. They really do, because it's the very thing that makes the sheep be sheep. It's even more interesting with Matthew 7: 21-24, because prophecies and casting out devils and doing wonderful works in Jesus's name isn't always enough. Actually, it's almost like Jesus doesn't matter at all in terms of salvation, according to Matthew 25.

Second -- the sheep are surprised that it was a qualification, as are the goats. It's almost as though the matter of salvation is a surprise for everyone. Which, actually, I really like what that says. It means the sheep didn't act kindly out of a sense of reward, but they simply acted kindly. I recently ran across as website that asked if people wanted to be sheep or goats on the day of the Second Coming. If we want to be sheep and get into Heaven, then we must make sure to do kind things to the less fortunate. Doesn't that reduce the kind deeds to only doing them to ensure you get something out of them -- to avoid Hell? That makes doing the deeds completely selfish, of which there was no element in Matthew 25.

Third -- who are the less fortunate, exactly? Are they the sheep or the goats? Really, it almost seems like there are three groups here -- the sheep, the goats, and 'the least of these.' Are 'the least of these' goats or sheep?

Fourth -- Jesus's identification with 'the least of these.' The inference here is that whenever the sheep helped someone, they were helping Jesus. Jesus identified with 'the least of these.' Truthfully, hasn't every single person been 'the least of these' at one point or another. If Jesus is seeing himself in the 'least of these,' then would he really cast some people into an eternal fire? It seems like Jesus identifies himself with all people, period.

Therefore, I think the point of this section of Matthew 25 has nothing to do with hell or the Second Coming, but rather to make one aware of how connected we all are, and how connected God is to everyone. It's to reduce selfishness.

12 comments:

JumpingFromConclusions said...
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JumpingFromConclusions said...

Two of my recent readings have influenced how I look at these verses now. "Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium" makes me think that Jesus was talking about a judgment coming soon to those on earth. It fits right in with a lot of other teachings when interpreted in light of Jesus being an apocalyptic prophet.

Also, I recently read a piece from 1880 that was written by Robert Ingersoll, a leading freethinker of the 19th century. He uses the Gospels themselves to show that "salvation by faith" is not taught by Jesus, and that it is an invention of the church. The essay is called "How To Be Saved" and it is available online. It is a great read.

Also, I think we should give to the poor and be kind to those in need, but we really shouldn't need the threat of eternal punishment to inspire us to do good things. Great post, Heather.

HeIsSailing said...

Thus saith Heather:
"The inference here is that whenever the sheep helped someone, they were helping Jesus. Jesus identified with 'the least of these.' Truthfully, hasn't every single person been 'the least of these' at one point or another."

I like this. And in some way, this reduces down to humility. Remove your pride. I enjoy volunteering at the old folks home, because I know someday I will be one of them - or as you say - the least of these. My turn is coming, so caring is the least I can do.
Something happened the other day - I was in the grocery store, and a very old man was trying to buy ice cream, but he could not even read the labels. I offered to help, he told me what kind he wanted and I found it for him. A young college girl came up and THANKED ME for treating the old man that kindly. I told her that was really nothing, we should all not only honor the elderly, but go out of our way to help them where we can, because someday I am going to need help with those routine things in life. There are many 'least of these' in this world, and this is always worth remembering.

Note that I did not mention 'hell' or 'salvation' once. I like that :-)

Heather continues:
"Therefore, I think the point of this section of Matthew 25 has nothing to do with hell or the Second Coming, "

Heather, what do you do with Verse 46 then?
"Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life." Seems pretty clear to me. What is your take?

Heather said...

JfC,

Thanks. :)

HIS,

**And in some way, this reduces down to humility. Remove your pride. ** Yes. Because in here, it's obvious that the people who did help the least were those who expected nothing out of it.

**Note that I did not mention 'hell' or 'salvation' once. I like that :-)** That's why you have a blog. :)

**Heather, what do you do with Verse 46 then?
"Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life." Seems pretty clear to me. What is your take? **

That verse can be problamatic. The reason why I dislike it is because that is the verse used most often to justify the concept of hell, which I think misses the point of the passage. I think it's showing that there are consequences to how we behave towards others. In effect, by not caring for others, we are showing that we want nothing to do with them, or don't care for them, and thus it's like being in that fire, because we're so consumed with ourself. We're denying life to others. Plus, either the greek word for life or fire has a meaning close to 'pruning' when used in all secular Greek sources. Which also really changes the passage.

Guy Sonntag said...

Is there a significance to picking goats?

I have owned both sheep and goats. Goats belong in this parable. They are like the evil twins of sheep.

Who are the less fortunate, exactly?

Hmm. Never thought about that way. Something to ponder. Thanks.

Heather said...

They are like the evil twins of sheep.** I was actually researching this last night, and it did make mention of goats being stubborn and such -- as you said, the evil twins of sheep.

Plus, goats do eat anything and everything, right? Even garbage. Which would actually be a metaphor for the ones rejecting the least. They would be the clingy, gluttounous, selfish people, possibly even dressed very well and fat.

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Guy Sonntag said...

Goats are indiscriminating consumers. They also are obnoxiously loud, they wander from the flock and they have never seen a fence that was not worth trampling ('cause, you know, the grass is always greener...).

Sheep, on the other hand, are quiet (except at feeding time), they are picky eaters, they stick together, and they do not challenge boundaries.

When we put them together in the same paddock, our lambs learned all the worst goat-traits. The goat learned nothing worthwhile from the sheep. Whatever the parable represents, the metaphor spoke volumes to people for whom herding was a likely career choice.

JumpingFromConclusions said...

**The reason why I dislike it is because that is the verse used most often to justify the concept of hell, which I think misses the point of the passage.**

I agree with you here, Heather. Besides the whole eternal punishment threat, this is a real gem of a passage. And again, Jesus' teaching comes across kind of "if you love others, you're loving me." It doesn't say anything about "if you tell others about me, you have done good for me." If you take care of the less fortunate, you are showing kindness to him as well as the people you are caring for. It is a shame that this is usually just used as a 'proof-text for hell.'

Heather said...

Guy,

**They also are obnoxiously loud, they wander from the flock and they have never seen a fence that was not worth trampling** And that's just speaking volumes about this particular parable, and their behavior overall.

**Whatever the parable represents, the metaphor spoke volumes to people for whom herding was a likely career choice. ** This is one of the things I really like about the Bible, especially the parables. Fifteen things are always going on at once.

JfC,

**And again, Jesus' teaching comes across kind of "if you love others, you're loving me." It doesn't say anything about "if you tell others about me, you have done good for me." ** That's how I'm seeing it. I also see it as God is 'in' everyone, regardless of beliefs.

SocietyVs said...

This is one of my favorite passages in the bible and helped to shape my life in leaps and bounds - and like you Heather - it wasn't the 'eternal punishment' idea that caught my attention - since I do not think it is the point of the teaching 'the least of these'.

I heard some really good things about this teaching and the take HIS has about the elderly is an awesome take on it - of which I agree 100% (make total contextual and human experience sense). We will be sick, we have been poor, we might be jailed, etc...so we should care for them also (cause Jesus does/did in the gospels).

This passage has always challenged me to develop a higher value in my life about looking at the totality of the human race's experience - we are all 'one' - you hurt, it hurts me and so on (which is quite true). It also makes me realize all life is important and we need to respect everyone - which can be hard to do - but our rabbi did - and he then died for them also. I guess this parable for me wraps up the greatness of the gospel message.

Heather said...

SocietyVS,

**We will be sick, we have been poor, we might be jailed, etc...so we should care for them also (cause Jesus does/did in the gospels). ** THat's what does it for me, too, because aren't we all 'the least of these' at one point or another? The passage itself just seems to have an expansive approach, to encourage people to look beyond boundaries.