I have read through the 4 Gospels many times. Their words are both familiar and unfamiliar to me. They are familiar. I have read and heard and even preached the words of Jesus many times. They are unfamiliar. I have many moments, indeed I often wonder if they are not increasing, where I am stopped in heart and mind and think, "I've never really seen this or heard this before." It happened to me several years ago when reading Matthew chapter 25.
The fiery passion of Jesus is seen in Matthew 25:31-46. When I read these words I have wondered, who, then, are the real followers of the Real Jesus? If you can, stop now before reading further and slow-read these words of Jesus. And tremble. Behold Jesus, the "Familiar Stranger."
|Woman begging in Jerusalem|
You don't need to be a hermeneutical genius to understand these words. Jesus separates people into two groups: "goats" and "sheep." "Goats" are people who see hungry, needy, sick, thirsty, homeless, and imprisoned people but do nothing to help them. "Sheep," on the other hand, are the real followers of Jesus who thereby, obviously (since it is Jesus whom they are following), actively help such people. Jesus himself was tight with the "least of these."
N. T. Wright says that Jesus “ate and drank with all sorts and conditions of people, sometimes in an atmosphere of celebration. He ate with ‘sinners’, and kept company with people normally on or beyond the borders of respectable society… This caused regular offence to some of the pious.” (N.T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, 149)
For it isn't to the palace that the Christ child comes
But to shepherds and street people, hookers and bums
- Bruce Cockburn, "Cry of a Tiny Babe"
"Goats" are religious, pious people who know about the suffering of others (and who doesn't today in our media-saturated world?), but don't actually follow Jesus into the slums of the world. "Goats" don't actively and sacrificially help the people who are low on the honor-shame hierarchy. The fate of the goats is clear: "they will go away to eternal punishment." (Matthew 25:46).
"Sheep" are actual Jesus-followers. They sacrifice their lives for others who are "less" than they are. They are the "righteous," and their destiny is "eternal life." The sheep of the Shepherd are always moving downward into their surrounding culture.
There's a great, separating, spiritual-litmus-test going on here, a Christ-defining either-or. The level of seriousness is intense. Jesus came for the least and the lost. Not to actively do the same is to be a goatish unbeliever. Because someone who doesn't actually follow after Jesus is an unbeliever, right? True belief always leads to active following; theoretical-religious belief is dead because it lacks deeds.
I am the judge of none of this. But I can read.
“For I was hungry, while you had all you needed. I was thirsty, but you drank bottled water. I was a stranger, and you wanted me deported. I needed clothes, but you needed more clothes. I was sick, and you pointed out the behaviors that led to my sickness. I was in prison, and you said I was getting what I deserved.”
- Matthew 25, paraphrased by Richard Stearns, in The Hole in our Gospel, 59.