Is religion relevant to world problems?
In today’s world we face many political, social, and personal problems. World wide we have trouble with war, hunger, lack of water, unemployment, disease, poverty, slavery and oppression. Those of us who do not struggle with such issues every day still have to work hard to obtain and maintain the blessings of wealth, health, freedom and opportunities that we have, and where our physical needs may be satisfied, we still may struggle with conflict, divorce, depression, addiction, prejudice, rejection and loss of meaning and purpose in life.
In a world where there is an increasing divide between those who have much and those who have little, the needs of the many who have little become more urgent. At a time when there are many whose physical needs are intense–war, disease, famine–it may seem that spiritual needs are increasingly irrelevant. What good is looking to happiness in an eternal kingdom when there is so much to do to bring justice and healing right here and now in this world? How can people take the time to think about spiritual philosophies when they don’t know where their next meal is coming from? What good are promises of salvation to people who have lost homes and families to bombs and tsunamis? Does going to church on Sunday actually make the world a better place?
Neither the question of religion’s value nor the social, political and moral challenges we face are new. When Jesus came the last time to Jerusalem many were looking for an earthly kingdom that would bring freedom from the Romans and other oppressors, an end to hunger and poverty, and healing of every disease. Yet Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world.” It was not a welcome message to those who could not think beyond their worldly desires and challenges, and they may have concluded, as many do today, that the good news about the heavenly kingdom is not as important as making our earthly life more pleasant.
In the coming weeks we will be looking carefully at what Jesus said about our needs both spiritual and natural. We want the relationship between the Lord’s eternal kingdom and our daily actions to make this world a better place, and what it really means to be in the Lord’s kingdom. Our focus will be on a story that sums up Jesus’ teaching about loving God, loving others, and the relationship between our current needs and our eternal life. In the Gospel of Matthew it is His concluding parable, the final sermon before His crucifixion, the last page full of red letters in the Gospel. It is the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats.
The story is simple: in the next life all nations will stand before Jesus and be divided as a shepherd divides sheep from goats. To the “sheep” who will stand on Jesus’ right, He will say, “Come, enter my eternal kingdom! For I was hungry and you gave Me food, thirsty and you gave Me drink, a stranger and you took Me in. I was naked and you clothed Me, sick and you visited Me, in prison and you came to Me.”
The good will answer, “Lord, when did we see You hungry, thirsty, estranged, naked, sick or imprisoned, and help you?”
He will say, “As much as you have done it to one of the least of My brothers you have done it to Me.”
Many people love this story that Jesus told because it is so easy to see that he is teaching us to have compassion on others. We are all meant to take care of those who suffer, who are more needy and less fortunate than ourselves, and everyone who has conscience, from practically any religion, can recognize this universal truth. If people of all nations would act as Jesus taught here, most of our challenges in life would be overcome. Compassion is the key to healing our relationships and relieving suffering throughout the world.
In this parable the Lord teaches us that…
1. The Lord is full of compassion.
To love is to feel the joy of another as joy in oneself (DLW 47). That means that if you bring happiness to someone I love, you bring happiness to me as well. At the same time, if we are sensitive to another person’s happiness we will be sensitive to their unhappiness as well, so to love is also to have compassion, which is to feel another person’s suffering as if it were our own.
In this parable of the sheep and the goats the Lord says in effect, “What ever you have done to make others happy or to let them suffer, you have have done to Me as well.” In other words, the Lord knows, cares about and responds to all our feelings and needs.
There are many passages throughout the Bible that show the Lord’s compassion.
When the children of Israel were suffering in Egypt under harsh slave drivers, the Lord said to Moses, “I have surely seen the oppression of My people who are in Egypt, and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters, for I know their sorrows” (Exodus 3:7).
We are told, “God is love” (1 John 4:8). He is “merciful and gracious, longsuffering and abundant in goodness and truth” (Exodus 34:6). He is “good, ready to forgive, and abundant in mercy …full of compassion, and gracious, longsuffering” (Psalm 86:5,15). “The Lord is longsuffering and of great mercy, forgiving iniquity and transgression” (Numbers 14:18). “He has not dealt with us according to our sins…for as the heavens are far above the earth, so great is His mercy” (Psalm 103:10,11).
When the Lord came on earth, and saw people suffering, His response was compassion.
Once “when Jesus saw the multitudes, He was moved with compassion for them, because they were weary and scattered, like sheep having no shepherd” (Matthew 9:36). Another time, “when Jesus went out He saw a great multitude; and He was moved with compassion for them, and healed their sick” (Matthew 14:14). Again when the crowd had been following the Lord through the countryside, He said, “I have compassion on the multitude, because they have now continued with Me three days and have nothing to eat” (Mark 8:2). When He happened on a widow in a funeral procession grieving the loss of her only son, “He had compassion on her and said to her, ‘Do not weep’” (Luke 7:12-13).
The compassion that the Lord displayed comes from His essential nature. “God is compassion and mercy itself. He is absolute love and absolute goodness – these qualities are his essence” (True Christianity 132). “The Lord in His Essential Being is Divine Love; and love, when it is shown towards those in a state of wretchedness, is called compassion. Thus His Love as it is shown to the whole human race is called compassion, for the human race is trapped in a state of misery” (Secrets of Heaven 9219).
The Lord’s words in the parable of the Sheep and the Goats reveals His compassionate nature: “Inasmuch as you have done it to one of the least of these My brothers, you have done it to Me.”
2. Love for the Lord is inseparable from love for others.
The teachings for the New Church explain that these are inseparable:
Love for the Lord cannot possibly be separated from love towards the neighbour, for the Lord’s love is directed towards the whole human race whom He wishes to save eternally and to join so completely to Himself that not a single one of them perishes. Anyone therefore who has love for the Lord possesses the Lord’s love and so cannot help loving the neighbor. (Secrets of Heaven 2023)
This concept, that love for the Lord and love for the neighbor are inseparable, is one of the things the Lord is teaching in the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats, for He said that those who showed love for people in need were also showing love for Him, and those who did not show love for those in need were not showing love for Him.
People who pretend to love God but do not show compassion for others are like the Pharisees, to whom the Lord said, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith” (Matthew 23:23).
God loves every one of us but cannot directly benefit us; he can benefit us only indirectly through each other. For this reason he inspires us with his love, just as he inspires parents with love for their children. If we receive this love, we become connected to God and we love our neighbor out of love for God. Then we have love for God inside our love for our neighbor. Our love for God makes us willing and able to love our neighbor. (True Christianity 457)
Those who keep the commandments of Jesus Christ live in him, and he lives in them. If any say, “I love God in every way” but hate their brothers and sisters, they are liars. If they do not love their brothers and sisters, whom they see, how can they love God whom they do not see? This commandment we have from him: that people who love God also love their brothers and sisters. (1 John 3:24; 4:20, 21) (True Christianity 458)
Another thing we learn from the parable of the sheep and the goats is that…
3. It is our compassion for others that brings us to heaven.
In this Parable of the Sheep and the Goats, the Lord gathers all nations before Him for judgment. He clearly says that those who have had compassion on others have had compassion on Him, and those who did not have compassion on others did not have compassion on Him. Then he says that the ones who had compassion will enter the kingdom prepared for them and receive eternal life, while those who did not have compassion will suffer. There is no mention of anyone getting a free ticket into heaven by having faith in Jesus, much less by having faith without works. Those who believe we are saved by faith alone have offered various explanations for this, usually by reading into the passage something from Luther’s teachings about salvation by faith alone.
The fact is that the Bible speaks of “faith alone” only in one passage (James 2) which says that faith alone does not save us and is dead. He says that faith without works cannot make justify us or make us righteous.
Now Paul argued that we do not need to do the works of the Jewish law to be saved, but Paul was not talking about works of compassion, but rather of works such as circumcision, sacrifice, dietary laws, and so on, as is very clear from the many places in which Paul mentions these things. Paul never said that we as Christians can be justified without works of love and compassion, only that we could be justified without works off the law. Essentially he was saying, “You don’t have to be Jewish to be a Christian.”
The simple truth, plainly shown in this parable is that if you have compassion on other people you will find eternal happiness, and if you do not show compassion on others, you will not find eternal happiness. Luther’s “faith alone” simply is not a part of the picture.
In fairness to Luther, the church in his day had changed the meaning of good works to include gifts of money to the church, payment of money as penance for sins, payment of money for “indulgences” which were forgiveness for sins not yet committed. Requiring “good works” such as these had become a way for the church to manipulate people to give them more power and money, promising greater reward in heaven in return for greater gifts to the church. It is no wonder that Luther wanted to get away from salvation in return for good works.
Unfortunately Luther did not make enough distinction between acts of compassion and observance of religious rituals, claiming that we are saved by faith without any kind of good works at all, whether they were ritual works or true acts of compassion.
Part of the mistake is thinking of heaven as a reward, thinking that in heaven we will be rewarded for our faith or works by receiving great power, possessions and pleasure. When our minds are stuck on power, possessions and pleasure, we can not think of any other kind of reward, yet the true reward of heaven is nothing more than the joy of bringing happiness to someone else. Heaven is not a reward but a state of mind. It is the way we feel when we show compassion on others. When we truly love others and have opportunities to help them, then we feel satisfaction, joy, and gratitude just knowing that those people we love are better off. That pleasure of helping someone else is heaven. It is salvation. And we cannot possibly experience it unless we actually show compassion to people in need. Salvation is simply the experience of showing compassion on others, and it is not possible to have that experience without actually doing compassionate acts.
4. Everything depends on us loving Jesus by loving others and being like Jesus
Another important teaching of this story is that everything focuses on Jesus Christ. Here is a story of how we finally come into heaven and come face to face with God, yet the only Divine Person in this story is Jesus Christ. It is Jesus Christ alone who brings all nations before Him, putting the righteous on His right and the wicked on His left. Though Jesus mentions the Father, saying that the kingdom was prepared for us by the Father from the foundation of the world, the Father in this story and every other story of the Bible does not appear as a person. As the Bible says, the Father is invisible. “You have neither heard His voice at any time, nor seen His form” (John 5:37; 6:46). “No one has seen God at any time. The only-begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has revealed Him” (John 1:18). The Divine Soul is invisible (like a human soul). But in the body, the soul is revealed. Jesus said, “He who has seen Me has seen the Father; so how can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father, and the Father in Me? The words that I speak to you I do not speak on My own authority; but the Father who dwells in Me does the works” (John 14:9-10).
Paul says that Jesus Christ is “the image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15; 2 Corinthians 4:4) and “the form of God” (Philemon 2:6). We see “the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:6), and “in Him dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily” (Colossians 2:9).
Jesus does not say in this parable, Whatever you have done to one of the least of these my brothers you have done to the Holy Spirit, or to the Father. Nor does he put the righteous and unrighteous on the Father’s right hand and left hand, but on His own. The imagery in this Parable is not that we will see God as two or three Persons in the next life, but that we will have a relationship with the Visible God Jesus Christ in whom is the invisible “Father” as the soul is in the body (compare TCR 787).
5. Loving people involves identifying their true needs and desires and meeting those needs.
In the New Church we learn that true compassion is wise compassion. When we care for others we need to do so in a way that actually helps people in the ways that they most need help. It is good to help those who are needy, but it is not good to give away your goods to people who are trying to scam you. Some people who beg or ask for donations are not really poor, but are just trying to make people feel sorry for them so that they can get more money. Sometimes money that we believe is going to the poor actually ends up in the pockets of the rich. If a poor man wants money to buy drugs or guns that will cause harm to himself and others, we aren’t really helping him by giving him what he asks for. Consequently, a wise person will use discernment and carefully observe the character and the true needs of the person he or she is helping, in order to help them in the best way possible.
Jesus teaches that we are to love all people, including people who are bad and are our enemies (Matthew 5:45?, 5:12?). On the other hand, He says that we should rebuke a sinning brother or sister. (?) Rebuking someone does not mean that we hate them. The Bible says that even the Lord disciplines those whom He loves just as a loving father will discipline his unruly children (Hebrews 5:3-11). The teachings for the New Church say that same thing, that every person is the neighbor who is to be loved, but we love a good person in a different way than we love a bad person. We love a good person by direct benefits–giving them the things they want and need to have a better life. But some people may abuse the gifts we give them, by turning around and hurting others, or by taking advantage of our kindness, generosity and pity by manipulating us into giving more than they need, while others go without because of their greed. These people need to be loved by “indirect benefits.” The best way to help them may be to deny thing things ask for but don’t really need, and instead give them what they don’t ask for but do actually need, which may be firm decisions, clear boundaries and significant consequences. (See TCR 304).
This means we have to be careful about HOW we love people, and we need to carefully examine people’s lives and intentions in order to love them in the best possible way. The Bible puts it this way: “On some have compassion, making a distinction; but others save with fear, pulling them out of the fire” (Jude 1:22-23).
We could compare this to the work of a doctor. The first step in healing is to carefully examine the person and understand the true nature of their ailment. The doctor must know the difference between heartburn and a heart attack in order to prescribe the right treatment. Too often in exercising Christian charity we fail to diagnose first. We don’t really listen carefully to the people in need and understand what their fundamental issues are.
In this parable of the Sheep and the Goats the Lord encourages us not to help people blindly, for example by giving water the thirsty, and then giving water to the hungry and water to the stranger, water to the sick and the imprisoned. Each has their own issues and each has their own remedy, and part of our job is to discern, is this person hungry? Thirsty? A foreigner? Freezing? Sick? In prison? One of our tasks in the coming weeks will be to get more clarity on people’s differen needs and the different ways of helping them.
The New Church teaches that these six classes of people symbolize people with spiritual needs. We might say briefly that everyone needs a way to contribute and give of themselves to others. Everyone needs to grow and learn. Everyone needs community, family and friendship. Everyone needs to be valued and respected. Everyone needs safety and health. And everyone needs freedom. These six fundamental human needs include all the kinds of people we serve. In fact, these six fundamental needs, symbolized by the hungry, thirsty, strangers, naked, sick and imprisoned, were revealed from heaven for the ancient peoples, and their meanings are being revealed again so that true charity may be restored to the church.
Join us on a journey in the next six chapters as we explore these six fundamental human needs and how they help us to be genuinely compassionate and loving towards others.