31 ‘When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. 32All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 34Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” 37Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” 40And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” 41Then he will say to those at his left hand, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.” 44Then they also will answer, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?” 45Then he will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” 46And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.’
When moderate Christians talk about judgment we often feel uncomfortable. When we read passages where God threatens or enacts some kind of judgment we might even feel embarrassed. Like hanging around an older relative who’s started to say awkward things in public. We have this subtext of “Oh God, you don’t mean that.” Jesus and mercy and forgiveness and love are the whole story now. Judgment is some sort of historical holdover.
But this isn’t really a whole answer. Ultimately, we don’t want to go to either extreme, completely ignoring words of judgment in Scripture or making them the central or even only thing we talk about. But this leaves us in a hard place. People just generally have a hard time finding balance between two contradictory positions. So what do we do?
Well we have to remember something important right out of the gate. We have a very different perspective on judgment in this time and place because we are living very comfortable lives. God’s judgment looks like an unnecessary burden. But there are places in the world where horrific things are happening. Where people strive and struggle and do their best and then something awful happens. Something or someone takes what little they had away. There is weeping, bleeding, bone deep brokenness being inflicted on the world and if God is God that has to matter.
We see this so rarely around us because we are blessed to be in a place of deep safety. But much of the world needs judgment, needs the profound intervention of God and God’s people which says “this evil which has happened and continues to happen is not right and will not continue forever” Thousands and thousands of children under five die each day from poverty and hunger. Girls seeking an education to free them from poverty are harassed and abducted and killed. Millions go hungry when we have enough food to feed the world twice over. If Jesus is who we believe He is then we cannot call ourselves his followers and say that these things go unnoticed by God and will be allowed to go on forever. We cannot be uninvolved.
What is even more amazing is what Jesus claims here. The distant infinite cosmic, mountaintop and creation, heights and depths and stars in the sky God took on flesh at Bethlehem. God incarnate. But Jesus goes a step further. Because Jesus didn’t just take on the human condition of one first century dusty peasant rabbi but here in Matthew 25 he takes on all the human condition. Everywhere someone suffers and hurts, every time someone is struck or beaten or broken down, Jesus is there.
God stakes God’s self on and in humans. Jesus says if you want to see me, know me, serve me, go find the broken and the hungry and there I’ll be. When we fix our eyes on Jesus in worship Jesus points beyond himself and back into the world, reminding us of our brothers and sisters in need. When we serve our brothers and sisters in need and look into their eyes we see Jesus staring back at us.
This is the first of our 30 Hour Famine devotionals. As we joined together in fasting, prayer and service for those who suffer in poverty and hunger we also dove into some of the harder passages of Scripture that call us to serve God’s people. I will add our actual discussion video to the end of this post as it becomes available. Donations for 30 Hour Famine have not ended and you can still contribute here to help HVBC Youth address hunger and starvation in the world! www.tinyurl.com/hvbcfamine2014
When churches talk about helping those in need we often find ourselves stepping back to discuss the bigger question of faith and works. After all many of us, and Baptists especially, take the framework of our faith from Paul’s discussion of faith and works in Romans. Paul says things like “For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law.” Later major thinkers like Martin Luther took this even further making sola fide or his doctrine of “faith alone” a central piece of his theology, a Protestant theological heritage many of us share.
Unfortunately this often becomes a conversation killer. It’s the shut down conversation move. A lot of folks, with good intentions, end up using this thinking to throw the brakes on involvement in the community or service to others. It even becomes a put down we throw on other Christians. We invoke this argument to make ourselves feel better about not being involved. If they’re trying so hard at works they must not have faith. (This is of course a great big straw man version of this argument, written so you can see the problem in a paragraph or less, but you see where its coming from.)
But this problem isn’t new at all. When Paul wrote Romans he was still living in a church that was both literally and culturally Jewish. The oldest, earliest and most influential leaders, churches and thinkers in the early Church were all Jewish. And what they passed on to the Gentiles was still full of Jewish influence (and for good reason of course, Jesus himself was Jewish and understood himself as flowing out of Judaism). But something tricky happens here. The particular brand of Jewishness that was being passed on didn’t just contain many of the great things of 1st century Judaism but was also laced with that “yeast of the Pharisees” Jesus himself had warned against. This kind of Jewishness took “works” which for them meant very specific Jewish cultural elements (like circumcision, sacrifices, following the calendar of feasts and holy days and a very calculating petty version of tithing) and made them the center of salvation. They turned Judaism’s center from the people’s relationship with God and the lives of holiness He created in them to a narrow racial/cultural definition of salvation.
This got passed on to some of the early Gentile converts. Missionaries and evangelists other than Paul were spreading a Gospel which included Jesus but also (contrary to the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15) insisted that Gentiles take on all these cultural markers of Judaism to be saved. In light of all that its not surprising that Paul comes out pretty strongly against works and for faith when he writes his letter to the Romans.
Christians took Paul’s letters and their response to these specific “works” and started to take them to extremes. They made a version of the Gospel where God’s salvation was totally set apart from the things Jesus commanded us to do. So we see this pendulum swinging. God lays out commandments for life and justice and worship and over time people bend them towards one extreme or another and then back again.
So if we stop at Romans we don’t realize that we’re only getting half a conversation. To see a whole cycle we have to flip over to James chapter 2.
14 What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? 15If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, 16and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill’, and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? 17So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.
18 But someone will say, ‘You have faith and I have works.’ Show me your faith without works, and I by my works will show you my faith. 19You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder. 20Do you want to be shown, you senseless person, that faith without works is barren? 21Was not our ancestor Abraham justified by works when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? 22You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was brought to completion by the works. 23Thus the scripture was fulfilled that says, ‘Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness’, and he was called the friend of God. 24You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. 25Likewise, was not Rahab the prostitute also justified by works when she welcomed the messengers and sent them out by another road? 26For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is also dead.
James is a corrective, bringing us back to the middle. Our trust and our worship are important, when we try and separate them out from our service and God’s justice in the world it’s a bit like a dissection. We only find out how deeply connected they are when we start cutting those connections and find the pain, damage and suffering that follows.
Our love of God and our service to others are interwoven so tightly we can’t tear them apart. We see Jesus in the faces of those we serve, we have our hearts widened and deepened, when we carry God’s love into the world through our actions. We have the strength, the compassion and the courage to serve because we have been caught in God’s love and are being transformed by His holiness. When we neglect the poor we are not just callous but failing those whom God loves and died for. When our faith and worship fails we are no longer rooted in the source of our strength and our true hope for change.