Message for 26 November 2017–“Fiery Entrance Exam?”

 Today’s focus is Matthew 25:31-46, a passage about final judgment. The text reveals a Jesus who, along with angels, will come and gather all the nations, dividing everyone between good and evil, sheep and goats, right and left. Jesus places himself at the center of this psychodrama, saying that he is the king who will decide who gets to pass into heaven or, sadly, into a lake of fire which is also reserved for Satan and his entourage.

For those who crave stark dichotomies, the idea of dividing everyone into either good or evil at a final judgement is irresistible. The Bible words suggest that there is only black/white, not variations or versions of three, ten, or even fifty shades of gray. Ah, that life were so simple! The text suggests that there are no gradations, no mix, no little bit of evil mixed with a pinch of good. Either you get into heaven, or you do not. Such stark contrasts may please people who crave easy, simplistic categories but reality suggests that neither God nor the universe operates this way.

What acts will help get a person into heaven? Through the ages, there is not much agreement about this. Matthew’s words suggest that heaven-bound citizens will have fed the hungry, given drink to the thirsty, greeted the stranger, clothed the naked, tended the sick, and visited the imprisoned. This list of virtuous acts is itself a curiosity, since it supposedly narrates what Jesus wants (and the list certainly includes many other good deeds).

As to other attitudes and behaviors that please God, what about Jesus’ magnificent Sermon on the Mount, wherein he praised the peacemakers, the meek, the persecuted, the . . . –well, you get it. Jesus’ list in today’s Matthew selection is representative, not exhaustive. There are many God-pleasing attitudes and behaviors that people can accomplish. And yes, the talk about judgement and entering heavenly begs the question of how faith and works function together to help someone pass muster and enter heavenly bliss.

There are many sources and perspectives that will empower a person’s trajectory into heaven. The Bible’s Old Testament, for example, has rules, regulations and commands ad nauseum. In contrast, the New Testament takes an entirely different approach by emphasizing love, God’s essence and the greatest force in the universe. Further, it is helpful to consider that how people treat one another (the Golden Rule—the do unto others stuff) remains a chief criterion of how genuine is a person’s spiritual health. It is worth taking all this seriously because the stakes are high given the potential qualifications for forgiveness, salvation and redemption.

If today’s controversial lectionary selection has you feeling hot under the collar with talk of fiery judgement, then you’re in good company. Knowing what to do in life and how best to do it isn’t easy and even the Bible has somewhat confusing and even contradictory messaging. Figuring out what God wants most likely boils down to love, but it is always difficult to work out the minutiae of details. According to Jesus’ core teaching, the surest bet is to love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength and to love your neighbor as yourself.

It is painful to admit that there are varying notions about what God wants, litmus tests for salvation, and so on. The point of the statements in Matthew’s message is that there are behaviors God expects. Yet any list of “must-dos” might be longer or shorter than someone else’s. A life of wellbeing reigns supreme, guided by life-enhancing ways of thinking and acting (the transformational power of love). Embrace this love which, with the presence of God’s Spirit, will build the bridge of love between this life and the next.      –Reverend Larry Hoxey