In Matthew’s Gospel account, Jesus gives us a couple of examples of what it takes to be ‘damned’. In chapter 18 he tells us about a servant who is forgiven an astronomical debt by his king. The servant then goes out and proceeds to exact legal punishment upon a man who owes him relatively nothing. The king is not pleased to hear of this ingratitude.
“For everyone who has will be given more, and he will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him. And throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
Later, in chapter 25, Jesus talks about another king, himself, who will address two groups of his subjects, one he calls sheep, the other goats. The sheep, he is pleased with. The goats have earned his wrath and when they question him he explains.
“They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you.
“He will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’
“Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”
In the first parable Jesus seems to be addressing us as individuals. After having been forgiven our life apart from God, the expectation is that we share in his limitless grace by forgiving others. To do otherwise is detrimental to our own salvation. In action we will likely often fall short of this goal, but the prevailing nature of our hearts should be one of unconditional forgiveness.
In the second parable Jesus expects us to actively serve those who are in need, even if we have no personal attachments to them. This is the best way for us to serve God; not on our knees, or up in pulpits or handing out tracts but in service to those who have a direct material need. Whenever we encounter those who we can help, we should do so, but from a practical perspective this may be very difficult, if not impossible. There are millions of suffering people in the world today, where do we start? Must we actively seek them out? Are we always best suited to help? Where does charity begin and where does it end?
It is telling that Jesus is talking about sheep(pl.) and goats, not the sheep and the goat. Individually we may not have the time, resources or talents to feed all the hungry, care for all the sick or assist all those in prisons. Our communities certainly do. Whether they be businesses, social organizations, governments or churches, we have it within our communities to do exactly as Jesus commanded us. For our communities to act in accordance with God’s will does not just mean responding charitably, but to take the needs of others into account before we act upon them, before we turn them into charity cases. Throughout history and certainly today, we have hellish examples of communities that have forgotten mercy and compassion.
Both of the above texts have been used by many to suggest that Jesus actually did believe in a place we call Hell. Perhaps, but more significant is what he plainly says about that which will put us there; a lack of mercy and forgiveness, a lack of compassion, a lack of sacrifice. He does not say that believing in him as Lord and Savior will in some way overcome these ‘sins of omission’.
Perhaps believing in him is not merely a profession of faith, or belief in a creed, or adherence to a doctrine but the visible actions, the performance if you will, of those who live lives of mercy, forgiveness and compassion. Jesus would seem to suggest – no- he stresses that salvation is contingent upon a reciprocal way of life. In order for God to help us we must treat others as he treats us; with love, mercy and compassion.
For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.
As for the communities we belong to; are they sheep or are they goats?
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