Here’s a reflection I wrote for my church’s April newsletter. It’s based on my message from March 26 titled “The Christ in the Other.” You can listen to an audio recording of most of my past messages at https://phoenixchurch.org/home/phx-sermons/.
During Lent we’ve been reflecting on some of Jesus’ parables as told in the gospel of Matthew, which we’ve found can get a little “judge-y.” A little fire and brimstone. And that’s not all on Jesus. Matthew definitely has his own spin on things. In general, we get mixed messages from Matthew’s gospel. It seems to speak of heaven and hell, but we are also told that the kin-dom of God exists here and now and not in some distant future time or some other spiritual dimension. If that’s true, how do we understand passages such as in the 25th chapter where Jesus talks of people being sorted like sheep and goats with some sent to eternal life and some to eternal punishment?
Well, the gospel of John tells us that to know and trust God is to have eternal life. To me, this means that to have eternal life is not to have an everlasting life, but to be in harmony with God, living in unity with God’s love in the present moment. Eternal life is to have a heart filled with compassion, knowing that the least of these are worthy of respect and dignity. It is to give food to the hungry, to give a drink to the thirsty, to welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, and visit the prisoner. It is to serve everyone as if they were Christ – because they are. The most important message of this scripture about the sheep and goats is that Christ is always present, not only among, but AS the most vulnerable and needy.
If eternal life is not everlasting life but a state of unity with God, then eternal punishment is not everlasting punishment but it is to fall short of unity with the Divine. It is to be self-centered and selfish, to put conditions on our love. It is to live estranged from God. It is to look around us and not be able to see worth in the homeless person, in the poor, in the sick. It is to be spiritually alone, without compassion for God’s good creation. It is to know loneliness and despair.
I don’t think Jesus is talking about an after-life heaven and hell reward and punishment system. What Jesus is describing is the here and now spiritual consequences of living out of a selfless love versus living only for one’s own benefit with no thought for anyone else. In a way, it isn’t God who judges, but it is our own behavior that judges us.
One problem, though, is that we often think that people should be judged. Doesn’t an eye for an eye sound a lot more fair than turn the other cheek? Shouldn’t those who are evil be punished? Of course, we should stop people from endangering others whenever possible. Not judging someone does not mean accepting or allowing dangerous behavior. But, part of the problem is that we confuse justice with revenge. We are too quick to move beyond the possibilities of love, of prevention and rehabilitation, of justice, and move right to judgement and punishment. And thus it should be no surprise when we imagine a God that also judges and punishes. Perhaps we take mentions of eternal punishment too literally because it suits our ideas of justice rather than God’s idea of justice.
The apostle Paul advises us in his letter to the Romans to leave judgements to God, saying we shouldn’t repay evil with evil but we should bless our persecutors, treating everyone with the same attitude – as if they were Christ. Let us always remember the Christ in all people, no matter who they are or their situation in life.
Eternal life isn’t an after life reward. Eternal life is found in the doing, in the loving, in the building of relationship with neighbor and with God in the here and now. Eternal life is found when we act not out of the desire to get something, but out of love, because the so called least of these are not the least of anything. They are the precious beloved children of God, fully worthy of being loved and cared for, as are each and everyone of us.