I grew up thinking that salvation consisted of praying a sinner’s prayer. I assumed that Paul had clarified that issue for posterity when he observed, “If you declare with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” (Rom. 10:9) As a result, I viewed evangelism as a process of getting people to pray the prayer. (For example, see my experience with street witnessing.)
It took awhile for me to come to terms with the fact that Jesus provided a different perspective on salvation. The locus classicus comes in the parable of the sheep and goats in Matthew 25:31-46. In this passage Jesus ties salvation to works of justice: “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”
I suspect that nobody in modern times has done more than Mother Teresa to promote the challenge of Matthew 25 for the Christian life. For example, in a 1989 interview she observed,
“The dying, the cripple, the mental, the unwanted, the unloved, they are Jesus in disguise.”
Thus, if you give a coat to a homeless Muslim man, you have given a coat to Jesus. If you feed a hungry woman who has no religious beliefs, you have fed Jesus. For Jesus is to be found in the poor, the weak, the crippled, imprisoned, marginalized, homeless, and forgotten.
But is this a correct view of the passage? Detractors rightly point out that within the Gospel of Matthew Jesus seems to tie the familial language of brother and sister to faithful discipleship. For example, in Matthew 12:50 he declares:
“For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”
If we read Matthew 25 in light of Matthew 12, then the picture narrows substantially. Suddenly the teaching is not about indiscriminate acts of kindness to all the needy. Instead, it offers a prioritization with the focus being on acts of kindness extended to those of the in-group (i.e. Christian disciples).
However, this interpretation faces a couple problems. To begin with, there is the problem of circularity which I have blogged about before. In short, on this view the text is saying the true disciple is identified as a true disciple by the way they treat true disciples.
One way to break the impasse is by qualifying that the individuals who are receiving care need not be true disciples. The agent of mercy need only believe that they are true disciples. This qualification defeats the circularity because we are now saying that the true disciple is the Christian who extends mercy to other known members of the in-group of Christians.
This qualification may deal with the vicious circularity in the passage, but it quickly gives rise to another, deeper problem. Elsewhere Jesus’ own teaching appears to contradict this “in-group” reading of Matthew 25. Perhaps the most obvious place is in Luke 10:
25 On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
26 “What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?”
27 He answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”
28 “You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”
29 But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
If the in-group reading of Matthew 25 is our guide, the answer is members of the in-group. But of course that’s not what Jesus says. Instead, he relays the famous story of the Good Samaritan. Today we tend to think of the phrase “Good Samaritan” as perfectly fine. But Jesus chose the Samaritan as the symbol of the outsider, the reviled one, the perfect exemplar of the out-group. On this view, eternal life comes not by how you treat members of the in-group. It comes as you reach out to members of the out-group.
This focus on the out-group in Luke 10 is good news given that a consistent in-group reading of Matthew 25 appears fundamentally inconsistent with Christian discipleship. After all, a rigorous pursuit of the ethic of the in-group would suggest that Christians ought to prioritize extending acts of mercy and justice to members of the in-group (fellow Christians) prior to any out-group individuals. And this would quickly lead to absurdities. For example, a rigorous in-group reading would suggest that the person who decides to devote their life to living among and serving out-group individuals (i.e. non-Christians) would be placing their own salvation in peril because on judgment day they will have on their record few if any acts of mercy toward in-group members.
But wait a minute, am I saying that Luke 10 gets to trump Matthew 25? No, I’m not. If it strikes me as absurd to think that we are to prioritize in-group members in acts of mercy, it is likewise absurd to think we are to prioritize out-group members. Bring these two teachings together and you have an admirable dose of paradoxical pedagogical tension which is resolved as we set aside concerns about prioritizing anybody and instead extend acts of mercy to any and all.
Given the topic of this post, it would seem a good time to invite readers once again to help entrepreneurs in the developing world by joining The Tentative Apologist Group at Kiva.