Sunday Message for 22 November 2020: “Compassion Avoids Fire”

This Sunday’s focus is Matthew 25:31-46, about how acts of compassion can help a person avoid a fiery 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, the king who will decide who gets into heaven or who casts rejected souls into a lake of fire.

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. Life is a black/white dichotomy. The Bible nonetheless 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 oversimplified categories but reality suggests that neither God nor the universe operates this way.

What acts will help get a person into heaven? Matthew’s words suggest that heaven-bound people 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 an example of what Jesus wants (and the potential list of admirable deeds includes many more beyond what the text lists).

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 Matthew is representative, not exhaustive. There are many God-pleasing attitudes and behaviors that people can accomplish via loving neighbor as self. And yes, the talk about judgement and entering heaven begs the question of how faith and works function together in achieving a virtuous life that pleases God.

There are many sources and perspectives that will empower a person’s morals and ethics. The Bible’s Old Testament has rules, regulations and commands ad nauseum. The New Testament takes an entirely different approach by emphasizing love, which is God’s essence and the greatest force in the universe. Acts of love are at the center of today’s discussion, including the Golden Rule of doing unto other people what you’d like done to you. It is worth taking all this seriously because the stakes are high given the qualifications for forgiveness, salvation and redemption.

If talk about fiery judgement has you feeling hot under the collar 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 confusing and potentially contradictory messaging. Figuring out what God wants most likely boils down to compassionate love, but it is always difficult to work out the minutiae of details in day-to-day life. 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, hellish judgement, litmus tests for salvation, and so on. The point of Jesus’ statements in Matthew’s message is that there are behaviors God expects if you want to be on a heavenly path. Despite the challenges, embrace the transformational power of love, which will energize your best possible life.

–Reverend Larry Hoxey

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