The pop culture version of Jesus meek and mild doesn’t conform to the Jesus we read about in the Gospels. Jesus is not some kind of Semitic Santa Claus, who pats us all on the head, who tells us not to be too naughty, but who always ends up giving presents to everybody–Jesus is not tame, so to speak. The teachings of Jesus are often extremely unsettling if you actually pay attention to what he says.
Nowhere is the gap between the pop culture idea of Jesus and the Jesus of history wider than in the terrifying parable Jesus tells in Matthew 25, the famous parable of the sheep and the goats:
31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.
34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdomprepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink?38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’
41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’
44 “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?’
45 “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’
46 “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.” [Matthew 25:31-46]
This parable is often referenced in the media. Here, Jesus gives a beautiful picture of what faith should look like–caring for “the least of these”–and it is right for the media to use this parable to point out the failures of the contemporary church. All well and good. However, it is also a parable about judgment, which is a detail that is usually overlooked–folks are loathe to acknowledge that the same Jesus who says such nice things about the poor would also speak so clearly about eternal punishment. But, he does. Jesus doesn’t conform to our expectations.
I think about this parable often; I find it terrifying. Am I going to be held to account for the ways I’ve failed the least of these? But there is one detail that’s particularly unsettling: neither the righteous nor the unrighteous are aware of what they’ve been doing–both groups are surprised by what Jesus tells them about themselves.
What does this mean? It means that who we’re becoming matters. Over time, righteous acts will become second nature to some of us, whereas selfish, self-centered acts will become habitual to others of us. In other words, the righteous act righteously out of who they have become, while the unrighteous act unrighteously out of who they have become. As Lewis famously puts it:
“[E]very time you make a choice you are turning the central part of you, the part of you that chooses, into something a little different from what it was before.
“And taking your life as a whole, with all your innumerable choices, all your life long you are slowly turning this central thing either into a heavenly creature or into a hellish creature: either into a creature that is in harmony with God, and with other creatures, and with itself, or else into one that is in a state of war and hatred with God, and with its fellow creatures, and with itself.
“To be the one kind of creature is heaven: That is, it is joy, and peace, and knowledge, and power.
“To be the other means madness, horror, idiocy, rage, impotence, and eternal loneliness.
“Each of us at each moment is progressing to the one state or the other.”
– C. S. Lewis, “Mere Christianity”
What kind of creature are you becoming today? Every choice matters.
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