If you go into the Stone Chapel of Lanier Theological Library on the north edge of Houston, you will see in the dome of the apse a figure of Jesus in a composite view of final judgment, left hand gesturing down and right hand gesturing up. Human beings in the midst of collapsing buildings are heading upwards on his right and downwards into flames on his left. Obviously, the right and left gestures are from Matthew 25, the parable of the sheep and the goats. There the criteria of judgment are how one has handled the hungry, the thirsty, the immigrant, the sick, and the prisoner – the needy of this world, the “least of these.” This behavior, it is clear, is credited as having been done or not done to Jesus himself.
This parable has been discomforting to the interpreters of my youth. This is judgment on the basis of works, it was asserted, and surely it must be for “someone else,” either “the nations” (but what does that say about “the nations,” then, that they can be “saved by works”?) or perhaps the Jews (since Jesus was speaking to Jews). Neither of these was satisfactory in that they introduce multiple bases of entry “into the kingdom.” Yet, in a sense, the answer is clear in two factors, one being that commitment and deeds in accordance with that commitment cannot be separated, as James says in Jas 2, and the other being that the same nature of God that we see in the Hebrew Scriptures is also found in the New Testament, and preeminently in Jesus.
God is, as Christian theology teaches, a triune God of love. The Father loves the Son and the Spirit is the love between them being one way that this is put. Each seeks the good of the other as other (for their benefit, not for the benefit of the one doing the loving action), and this is their nature. Creation itself is an act of extending this love, creating a human being who can love and be loved, and who can be drawn into the love-bond of the Trinity. Love, then, is always reaching out to find others to draw into the love relationship.
In the Hebrew Scriptures God shows love towards the Hebrews in rescuing them from bondage in Egypt just as he already showed his love to their ancestors who lived as foreigners, immigrants, in a land they did not own. This divine action, which we have sketched in the briefest of terms, is enjoined upon the Hebrews, upon Israel, in the covenant-making act and the expansions upon it. They are to be holy as God is holy, i.e. set apart, different, like God. So says Lev 19:1-18, which is only one example. What does this look like? It includes doing good to the underprivileged, the vulnerable. This passage concludes with, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus was asked, and he gives an example of a member of a group that the Jews saw as illegitimate immigrants who followed Torah teaching (i.e. the Samaritan Pentateuch in some form) and showed love (was a neighbor to) a Jews, a member of a group that was actively hostile to them. The parable has no benefit returning to the Samaritan, but rather the love is simply seeking the good of the other as other, doing to another what one would want done to oneself. In the Hebrew Scriptures the key groups to reach out to are the poor, the widow, the orphan, and the alien/immigrant. All were without means of repaying those who sought their good; all were vulnerable. God is on their side, for he is love, caring for them. One sees this with hardly a mention of God in Ruth, in which two widows who do not seem to have access to the older widow’s land (which either was not planted or had been sold before her foreign sojourn or, if it had been planted, the one who planted it, relative or not, was not sharing the crop with them) receive divine love, in this case defined as covenant faithfulness, despite the main character being an immigrant from a group that could not, according to the Torah, enter into the people of God, an excluded group. Thus if one was faithful to God, if one loved God (sought his good, his honor, not that anyone could actually add to God’s honor or well-being), one loved that which God loved, which were those on the margins or even outside of the covenant people. There is where one found a face of God to love, where there was someone one could actually benefit, where one could be God’s “hands and feet” or “co-worker,” reaching out in love as God loves.
We return to the parable and see that if one really loves God, has entered into the loving relationship that characterizes the Trinity, then one loves whom God loves, and that is the hungry, the thirsty, the immigrant or alien, the sick, the prisoner (one suspects in the New Testament period especially those captured in war and often exiled and/or sold into slavery). There one sees the face of God, the same face of God one saw in the Hebrew Scriptures, and there one can perform concrete acts that express the verbal commitment one makes in worship settings. Of course, this comes at a cost, and the cost is a type of cross, a dying to self-interest and a seeking of the interest of others, but that makes one more one with God. When Jesus sits on his throne, i.e. exercises his rule, he calls such into his “kingdom,” into a fuller experience of his rule, of his way of life, of the loving union of the Trinity (which would be explicated later), for in following their Lord, their heart and commitment is already there and they are expressing it every way they can in this age of the world and in this life.
What about those “goats?” They have also lived out their commitments. The devil in the various forms of Jewish literature, is involved in self-interest and self-honor. He is the opposite of the first part of the Lord’s Prayer, in a way. He is seeking pleasure, honor, power, and wealth (we might say, security). That is what is offered to Eve and Adam in Eden, that is what the angels who fall seek in 1 Enoch, and that is what Jesus consistently condemns. It is the opposite of love. The hungry, the thirsty, the immigrant, the sick, and the prisoner have nothing to give one; they are of no benefit. Thus they are ignored, or perhaps thrust away, or even exploited. Look at the politics of this world: if our care for the sick can benefit our cause or result in care for us at a later time, then we are for it, but if we do not see that, then we want to privatize medicine, making the sick care for themselves. If the immigrant can gain us votes or a good reputation or be needed workers for our industry (often at exploitive rates of pay), then we are for immigration, but if all we can see is social costs to their integration or a call to accept them and their culture as equals, then we reject them, for whatever reason. This is not a full explication of the politics involved in this country and many other countries, but it sketches the style of reasoning (to the extent that Christian thought and its kin has not been taken up, consciously or unconsciously). The point is that this age is concerned about “us” and, if there is a “seeking the good of others,” there is an underlying “for the ultimate benefit of us.” The giving characteristic of what God describes of love is relatively absent, and certainly there is no cross.
The “goats” may be saying what they like about their commitment to God or to Jesus, but their lives show that their real commitments, their true “faith” is in self. That is their ultimate good. They are like their greater and more powerful antecedents, the Watchers of 1 Enoch (picked up on Jude and 2 Peter 2, among other places), or the devil (in his first century form, ready to put down others for his own exaltation, and leading others in rebellion, i.e. in exalting self against God). Such a “kingdom” is unstable, which is how the New Testament characterizes the demonic. In is in a sense already a fire. And fire is prepared for the demonic (it is not said to be prepared for people, not even for goats, but for the devil and his minions) – they can be given freedom or space to express their nature. That, of course, is not the desire of God for any human being. Yet there is this mystery of freedom, which is necessary for love. God can create space for freedom and yet in his being outside the created order with its time know in his once-for-all knowing its outcome. These have chosen to put their real faith in self, or what they see as self, even if in actuality they are captive to spiritual forces they do not admit exist. They get to burn in the fire they have chosen. In fact, if they were in the presence of love itself, if they were dragged into the sphere of the kingdom, since it is the ultimate opposite of what they have chosen, they would experience it as fire. To the extent their choice of self is a negation of the good, to that extent the presence of Love Himself would be the burning refilling of their negation.
Jesus does not tell us how many are in each group. His purpose is to tell us what choice of the kingdom looks like and what are its results and the results of the negation of this choice. We can hope that ultimately not many choose the negation of love of “the least of these,” although, looking at the world around us, that seems more like hope in a coming conversion than the observation of the apparent actions of the people, structures, and political systems that we see, i.e. of the world.
So, no, faith without works is dead, for it is not true faith. There is no commitment to the love of God if we do not express the love that God is. The more God frees our lungs, the more this is as natural as breathing. It is all grace, but where one sees no evidence of grace there may well be no grace.
And that is why one wants to read, mark, and live Matthew 25. And that is also why one wants to observe its concrete outworking in the life of someone like St Teresa of Calcutta and countless exemplary lives before her, for they show that such entering into Trinitarian love is not only a desirable ideal, but an actual possibility, if one is also willing to take up one’s cross and follow Jesus.