I spend a disproportionate amount of time thinking about Matthew 25. It strikes me as one of the most important passages in the Bible because it describes a striking scene where the true followers of Jesus are separated from the false followers. Perhaps something about my “closed-set” evangelical background draws me to this scene.
My particular fascination has to do with this: Evangelicals, based on Paul’s letters, teach that the righteous are saved by faith, but this passage teaches that we’re saved by what we do.
Jesus doesn’t welcome people because of what they prayed or believed. He welcomes those who gave food to the hungry, visited the prisoners, and clothed the poor.
I don’t want to necessarily create a false dichotomy here. Of course real, genuine faith is confirmed by our actions. In fact, the word we translate as “believe” is the verb form of faith, which means we’re actually “faith-ing” or taking action with our faith. Having said all of that, evangelicals such as myself have spent so much time focusing on the sin of unbelief, heresy, or criticizing those who allegedly don’t take the Bible seriously enough, we don’t have any time left to examine what we do.
In other words, we don’t say to people, “You are unloving and uncaring, and I question your salvation.” We have traditionally question someone’s salvation based on beliefs alone that we could boil down to answers on a theology exam.
We could have a whole other discussion about whether we should even question someone’s salvation in the first place (I would argue that’s never our role). That discussion is not my aim here. I’m interested in personally examining ourselves with the same standards the Jesus said he would use.
How do we know we’re actually on the right course in following Jesus?
Matthew 25 has a pretty startling, yet straightforward answer.
You can safely assume you’re following Jesus if you love other people because you see Jesus in them.
If you see the inherent dignity and worthiness of the least powerful, most vulnerable, and even the most damaged and unworthy, then you’re in good shape according to Jesus. If you love these people, then “You get it.”
And it’s not just a matter of loving the people who love us. It’s a matter of loving everyone. If you can manage to love the people who have the least to offer you and may even cost you time, money, and sanity, then it should be a cinch to love everyone else in our lives.
Put another way, if God is love, then the ultimate sin we can commit against God is to not love others.
When I am angry at people, when I ignore those in need, and when I think I’m above serving, then I am most unlike God. I’ve hidden behind my theology long enough. I should have started practicing my speech:
When did I see you hungry, homeless, and in prison? I was busy studying theology so that my faith would be pure.
I have been working on learning the startling lesson that Jesus loves me just as I am, but he doesn’t expect me to stop there. I’m learning to simply value the presence of Jesus in the first place and to receive his love. If I have truly received his love, then it should start transforming the way I view others and, most importantly, how I treat them.
There aren’t the worthy poor and the unworthy poor.
There aren’t the worthy prisoners and the unworthy prisoners.
There aren’t the unworthy, lazy unemployed and the worthy, industrious unemployed.
Every year Christians spend thousands of dollars looking for Jesus at really nice conferences full of super successful pastors and teachers. I won’t say that Jesus isn’t there, but I will say that ONLY looking for Jesus among the affluent, successful, and influential is an epic fail according to Matthew 25.
Jesus tells us in Matthew 25 that he is among the poor, the failures, and even the criminals. The goodness we do to those we perceive as “the least” is done to Jesus.
So where does this leave us?
I still think the most important step we can take begins within ourselves: welcoming Jesus and his love. We won’t value the presence of Jesus among others if we don’t value or recognize his presence in the first place. This presence of Jesus brings the ongoing renewal of our minds and hearts that Paul speaks about and fills us with his love.
When we finally receive the love and acceptance of Jesus, we’ll have something powerful to share with others—especially the “least of these.” In fact, if we’re still dividing the world into those worthy and unworthy of Jesus’ love, then perhaps we haven’t truly experienced that love in the first place.