Last time, I promised to take a look at Jesus’ prerequisites for spending eternity in the presence of God. We’ve already looked at the parable of the Good Samaritan and Jesus’ command to “go and do likewise” (i.e. live like the Samaritan – a man of a different religion). The implication here is that God is not as big on theology as on love.
A number of readers on Facebook objected to this reading, because after all, “Jesus specifically said that no one can be saved without receiving Jesus.”
Perhaps, but Jesus also proclaimed that heaven is for those who live like the Good Samaritan.
It’s not my fault that Jesus framed eternal life in more than one way. I’m just the messenger.
That Good Samaritan theology isn’t a one-off. Jesus uses it elsewhere too.
Sheep and Goats
In the parable of the Sheep and Goats (Matthew 25), Jesus describes what we understand to be Judgment Day. He lets us in on the selection process for “the inheritance, the kingdom prepared…since the creation of the world.” Who receives the reward?
Not the ones who had asked Jesus into their hearts.
The favored ones were those who had sacrificially loved others – caring for the hungry, thirsty, sick, and naked, the stranger, the inmate – these would be rewarded because, “whatever you did for one of the least of these…you did for me.”
To recap: the Sheep and Goats parable teaches that the inheritance – the kingdom – is for those who care for “the least of these.” This is essentially the same message as the Good Samaritan, which teaches that eternal life is for those who follow the Golden Rule.
In an attempt to “harmonize Scripture” (make it say what we think it should), we humans have spun these parables into something they are not. I’ve heard, for example, “unbelievers can only act selfishly –no one can truly do a good deed unless he believes in Jesus,” and “you can’t truly love your neighbor unless Jesus is in your heart.” (The puzzling thing is, so many people who “have Jesus in their hearts” are so unloving.)
The idea of someone gaining a heavenly reward because they loved and served others – why is it so repugnant to so many Christians? Could it be because we have to be right?
Pharisee and tax collector
Check out this passage from Luke 18:
To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable:
Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’
But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God.
The Pharisees, of course, were the religious experts and the most pious; the tax collectors were hated because they were collaborators with the Roman occupiers.
The tax collector knew he needed mercy and forgiveness, and as we can see from the story, God is ready to forgive those who humbly seek him – not those who check certain boxes.
But wait, there’s more
How about the Canaanite/Syrophoenician woman (Matt. 15/Mark 7)? She was a non-Jew so she did not have “proper” theology. But Jesus didn’t care: he declared that her faith was great – and granted her request.
How about the centurion (Luke 7)? Jesus made a startling claim about this non-Jew: “I have not found such faith in all of Israel.” And then he granted the centurion’s request.
How about the woman with the alabaster jar of perfume (Luke 7)? We don’t know whether she was a Jew or a Gentile, but we know she was a sinner. In anointing Jesus’ feet with perfume, she demonstrated that she “loved much.” That was enough: Jesus forgave her.
In these three examples, Jesus was in search of faith, not theology. Notice that he didn’t mention the Golden Rule or the least of these. What can we make of all this?
At the very least, based on Jesus’ words to his followers, we can surmise that Jesus met people where they were and did not make doctrinal demands before welcoming them.
I want to share one more significant passage with you – but we’ll save that for next time. Are you subscribed to my newsletter? It’s free, and you can easily opt out if I get on your nerves.
I’m not suggesting for a minute that Jesus is irrelevant. I am suggesting that “ask Jesus into your heart or go to hell” might be a little too simplistic. Based on Jesus’ interactions with a number of people, I’m thinking he would agree.
We are very comfortable with our theology, but Jesus came to upset the apple cart.
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