Beyond Belief… (Matthew 23-25)

January 2, 2011

Happy new year, dear reader. And what better way to start my 2011 blogging with a nice little jaunt through the “woe to you”s and apocalyptic musings for Matthew 23-25? Hmm… this may prove tricky.

Well, it’s not all tricky. Unlike much of the gospels, reading these three chapters together actually makes a lot of sense to me. They don’t so much seem to be a collection of stories and parables joined by many a theme but generally hard to reflect on collectively, but rather as one piece; a prolonged and developing narrative.

However, it just so happens that the prolonged and developing narrative is on the stuff I really struggle with; the whole heaven and hell thing. Well, the hell thing really, the heaven thing is pretty peachy. But these are the kinds of passage that confuse me a whole lot. Is God really going to divide us up like “the sheep from the goats” (25:32) and send some into “eternal punishment” (25:46). It just doesn’t seem right. And I find the whole “God is not subject to human concepts of justice” argument slightly tenuous because a) isn’t the law “written on our hearts”? and b) the people who use that argument also often explain the cross totally in terms of human concepts of justice e.g. “sin can’t go unpunished” and “someone has to take the penalty”.

I think the part I most struggle with, perhaps slightly ironically as a committed Christian, is the idea that belief in Jesus is the only way to heaven, and everyone else if off to the place “where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” I think many of us struggle with the idea that, for example, George Bush has a one way ticket to paradise because he confesses his faith in Jesus but, say, Gandhi? Sorry mate, you’re heading for somewhere with a rather warmer climate. Yes, that’s a hard one to stomach, I prefer to believe, and perhaps this is a bit of a cop out, that the afterlife is God’s business and beyond human concepts altogether. That doesn’t mean I don’t want people to meet Jesus, no siree. Nor indeed that I don’t feel ‘saved’ and that my sin has somehow been covered, cleansed, washed away by my own relationship with him, I just don’t want to narrow down God’s plan and power to fit my own understanding and experience. But then I worry, is that just a very convenient way to escape a difficult truth, I mean shouldn’t I just believe what the Bible says?

But hang on one cotton picking minute! What does the Bible say? Is it really as clear-cut as it’s sometimes made up to be? Maybe not… It certainly not in Matthew 23-25.

These chapters build upon each other, with ideas about the relationship between this life and the next. 23 is what I think of as the “woe to you” chapter; the part where Jesus really sticks it to the temple authorities for not practicing what they preach and losing focus on what matters. A great example is verse 23: “For you tithe mint, dill, and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith”, shortly followed by the killer one-liner in verse 24 “You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel!”. That Jesus, always a joker!

Chapter 24 moves on to the apocalyptic predictions, the signs of the coming of the Son of Man, or “the really weird bits” to you and I. These readings are so strange and foreboding to the modern reader, but the apocalyptic was a genre of writing whose aim was to comfort the people. Where modern western culture may be inclined to see “the end is nigh” as a warning, ancient  (and to some extent current) Jewish culture would have seen it as a statement of hope. Plus, it seems, this section gives Jesus a chance to make sure his disciples know that once he’s gone they should not simply wait, but work and prepare for God. The parable of the unfaithful slave in 24:45-51 makes this crystal clear.

So then we have chapter 25, cram packed with parables that can be seen to be about the day of judgement, or the end of time. The parable of the ten bridesmaids, the Talents, the sheep and the goats, and the final story of the King who talks to the righteous and the accursed, from 25:34-46, which contains the famous lines “for 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.” Those who are taken into the kingdom are those who cared for the “least of these”.

So what’s missing here? On a second or third reading it occurred to me that there is no mention of faith or belief in these chapters, or if there is then what seems to matter is how that faith manifests in our lives. Controversial, perhaps. Of course, it’s different in John’s gospel and in the letters of Paul, there is certainly mention of faith there. But there is also usually emphasis on behaviour, of peace and mercy. Are we in danger, in the church, of focusing so much on faith that our actions and/or God’s call to justice and mercy, become and after thought? At least, often it’s one without the other; some churches look at personal behaviour but neglect issues of wider justice and perhaps for others the balance tips the other way.

The point is, I think, that ‘justification by faith alone’ is a powerful and profound idea, but it can be taken too far. There is nothing worse than the casual smugness of a Christian assured of their own salvation and just as sure of the damnation of others. Jesus’ descriptions of the “end of the age” (more cryptic than many would have you believe) are book-ended with a call to justice and compassion. The reason that the “scribes and pharisees” are criticised is partly because of faith, but also because of action and inaction.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t know of church that preaches “if you believe in Jesus you can do what you like”, nor do I want a church that says “if you’re not perfect you won’t go to heaven”. But I do know of churches in which action comes after faith. In a way I see this; that we need God’s support and blessing on our doings and, of course, that Jesus’ comes first. But does this have to make belief more important? Can they not both be integral to our faith and to our salvation? If we declare Jesus as a our Lord and saviour but have no care in our hearts for ‘the least of these’, can we truly call ourselves Christians, is that Christ-like? No, I don’t think so.

In the amplified translation of the Bible the term “believe in” is extrapolated in two ways. In Matthew’s gospel it is “believe in and acknowledge and cleave to Him” and in Mark’s (16:16) “who adheres to and trusts in and relies on the Gospel and Him Whom it sets forth”. And various combinations of these words throughout the gospels. The words ‘cleave to’ and ‘adhere to’ are key for me here. They suggest that our belief can be more holistic, and can be based in the way we live as well as how we think. This chimes in with Jesus’ words in Matthew 23-25.

So, to believe can be more than to say and think, it can be to do, to live, in a way that clings to Christ and that relies upon God. A life lived in that way is assured for entrance into the kingdom or, as it is put in the parable of the talents (24:21), to “enter into the joy of your master”. I am not sure what this means, I am even less sure what the opposite means. But I trust that Divine justice is so much more than we could ever hope for. It also gives me enough of a kick to realise that this all applies to me too. There is a great Kirk Franklin song with a lyric that asks “tell me how can I love Jesus, when I’ve never seen his face, yet I see you dying and I turn and walk away?”

I hope in 2011 I can live my belief more fully. I hope and pray that for you too. And I hope you’ve enjoyed/endured this rather bumper addition of the blog; I’ve never written a post this long before, but don’t worry, I don’t it’s a sign of things to come!

I’ll leave you again with the inspiring and challenging words of Jesus:

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.”

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