Friday, September 3, 2010

Jesus and the Atheists

Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink? When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee? Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee? (Matt. 25: 37-39)

One thing I love about this text from Matthew 25 is that the "sheep," the righteous whom Christ welcomes into his rest at the last day, don't seem to have had any idea that they were in Christ's service during their mortal life time. "When saw we thee?" they ask again and again. They didn't know that Christ was in the persons of their fellow human beings. It had to be explained to them at the final judgment, when the reason for their exaltation comes to them as a complete surprise. Apparently they fed the hungry, took in the stranger, clothed the naked, and visited the sick and imprisoned out of a love for their fellow man, not out of a desire to please God, whom they literally did not see.

One reason this becomes such a powerful statement about the nature of exaltation is because it emphasizes that the sole, ultimate criterion is not whom you think you are serving, but that you serve. It emphasizes that charity, pure love, is the quality that aligns us with the Kingdom of God, not whether or not we see Christ in this life. The seeing of Christ described here is metaphorical. Is believing a form of seeing? I think so. The text definitely suggests that exaltation is not a matter of belief. It is not dependent on whether we see Christ in our suffering fellow humans. It is purely and solely a matter of compassion for one's fellow human beings, compassion that motivates us to act.

Believers who serve their fellow human beings because they've read this text and are eager to be among the sheep are not necessarily described in this text. In fact, I would argue that someone who serves their fellow human beings solely because of concern with reward in the next life has utterly missed the point here. I think the teaching at the heart of this text is that love for the sake of love is the love that exalts. I think that's the true meaning of the text that says, "Whosoever shall seek to save his life shall lose it" (Luke 17: 33). You can't be saved, if the reason for your behavior is to be saved, to avoid damnation. You've missed the point if that is your motivation.

Another text that I think is relevant to the problem of belief is the parable of the two sons in Matthew 21: 28-31. Here, profession is at the core of the problem. It is what distinguishes one son from the other. One son professes that he will serve his father. But he does not. The other son professes that he will not serve his father. But he shows up and serves anyway. Christ asks the Pharisees which of these sons are righteous, and they are compelled to answer, the son who actually showed up for work despite his profession to the contrary. Christ then ends by delivering the shocking moral: "The publicans and the harlots go into the kingdom of God before you." Again, this teaching suggests that profession is irrelevant to exaltation.

As an outcast homosexual, I think about this a lot. I will be a witness at the last day of the kindness and compassion shown me by people who professed no belief in God, contrasted with the hardness of heart of those who profess belief and a love for God. Believers so often pick and choose whom they will serve. The "worthy" poor are a favorite target for charity. Jesus didn't seem to make any such distinction. He anticipated seeing harlots and publicans in Heaven before good, righteous believers.


mandi said...

It never fails to surprise me when devout, hard-core "christians" use the bible as their backing for hatred toward gays. I always refer them back to the New Testament and ask them to show me where Christ ever turned against anyone. (this is disjointed as my three year old is using me as a jungle gym- but I think you get the gist of what i'm saying. :)

MidKnight543 said...

Thank your for your blog today. I needed to hear it. One very eye opening day, my significant other, my partner of 17 years. I have to say that because as a resident of Utah, I have not been allowed to legally marry him yet, said to me, have you ever thought that maybe instead of us being judged for being gay our family and friends will be judged on how they treated gays? Maybe we were put here on earth to challenge their beliefs and actions and not created as gays to try and judge our character. Something to think about. Maybe someday I'll buy the t-shirt and wear it that simply states "God told me to hate you". I don't know how many people would get it.

J G-W said...

Mandi, MidKnight543 - There's an old African American spiritual that goes, "Everybody talkin' 'bout Heaven that ain't goin' there..."

I think what's equally interesting in the Matthew text is the surprise of those who thought they knew Jesus, whom Jesus tells, "You never knew me."

alan said...

A deity that requires you to believe in him always seemed a little questionable to me. It's like the Greek gods who were overwrought with emotion when people didn't worship them. They always seemed kinda...childish. For example, the people on the coast who worshiped Poseidon would send missionaries inland to share news about Poseidon at the god's request, because inlanders wouldn't have a god of the sea (the sea didn't concern them) and this wasn't acceptable in Poseidon's eyes. But why? Why would a society that functions fine without a god need to believe in a god unless the god is self-interested?

I remember a story about a goddess that would literally disappear if people didn't believe in her; her existence was tied to people's belief, so she was indeed self-interested. I don't think God in Christianity is understood this way (although people do fear God being written out of public life), and so it makes me think about the nature of worship.

What I found is this, a quote from a Leopold Weiss with regards to Islam that I find to be a satisfying explanation of worship:

"The innermost purpose of the creation of all rational beings is their cognition of the existence of God and, hence, their conscious willingness to conform their own existence to whatever they may perceive of His will and plan: and it is this twofold concept of cognition and willingness that gives the deepest meaning to what the Quran describes as 'worship.' ...[T]his spiritual call does not arise from any supposed 'need' on the part of the Creator, who is self-sufficient and infinite in His power, but is designed as an instrument for the inner development of the worshiper, who, by the act of his conscious self-surrender to the all-pervading Creative Will, may hope to come closer to an understanding of that Will and, thus closer to God Himself."

The reason I like this quote is because it takes selfishness out of the picture on both the part of the deity and the worshiper. I'm still a little confused about why this "Creative Will" must necessarily be a deity, though, but that's because I'm not a theist.

J G-W said...

Alan - I believe in, and am in relationship with, personal Heavenly Parents, who do yearn for their children to be reunited with them, for whom Heaven is incomplete without them.

But I very much like the Leopold Weiss quote. I do think that the most meaningful type of worship arises from those deep yearnings of the soul for communion and union with the Divine.

I guess I have experienced this is a mutual yearning, between me and God...

I find the idea of any sort of compulsion or punishment as a religious motivator utterly repulsive... (Diabolical?)