Two days ago, Steve from West Virginia took time to tell us about the unexpected kindness that he and his son Matt saw at a local Dairy Queen. Their experience reminds me of another Matthew and another story.
The New Testament Gospel according to Matthew shows how impressive and memorable mercy is when it shows up in discussions of moral and religious law. From Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) to his parable of the sheep and the goats (Matthew 25:31-46), he personified a kind of human compassion that experts in Mosaic law didn’t know what to do with—without getting rid of him.
Matthew’s Gospel builds to a conclusion: God identifies with the poor (Matthew 25:31-40)—and warns of irreversible loss for those who don’t see their King in the most challenged members of his family (Matthew 25:41-46).
But how are we to understand the second half of this parable? (vs 41, 46). If God, by nature, is patient, compassionate, and merciful, how can he judge without mercy those who don’t even realize that they are showing contempt for him— by ignoring the needs of others? How could Jesus urge us to be like our Father by loving our enemies if he shows no mercy in judgment (Matthew 5:43-48)?
At this point, those of us who are trying to be honest with the Bible come up with different answers. Some of us say that, from the beginning, it is evident that the judgment of God is punitive. Some of us work with the same Scriptures to conclude that the judgment of God is redemptive. Some of us conclude that God’s righteous wrath will result in eternal torment for all who don’t come to repentance and faith in Jesus before they die. Some of us quote Scriptures we believe indicate that, in the end, it will be clear that Jesus died for all rather than for some of all people. Some of us interpret some of the things Jesus said and did in light of some of the things the book of Revelation says. Some of us interpret some of what the book of Revelation says in light of some of the things that Jesus said and did.
The result is a different understanding of God’s holiness, goodness, and mercy.
For me such questions would be far more troubling if it weren’t for the fact that in the very next verse Matthew writes, “When Jesus had finished saying all these things, he said to his disciples, ‘As you know, the Passover is two days away— and the Son of Man will be handed over to be crucified (Matthew 26:1-2).
If everything written up to this point in Matthew’s Gospel (and in the whole of Scripture) works together to help us see our need for who Jesus is—and what he was about to do, then could it be that— whatever it is that we can’t prove may not be as important as what we do know about the heart of our Father, and his intervention to love the loveless, to forgive the unforgivable, to show mercy to the unmerciful, and to give hope to the hopeless?
Regardless of our present differences in such questions, there are some things in which many of us can stand together in agreement. We can agree that God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son so that whoever believes in him will not perish but have everlasting life. We can agree that this is Good News to those who believe. We can agree that this is the Good News that everyone desperately needs to hear and believe. We can agree that this is the Good News Jesus wants the whole world to see and know. We can agree that this is the Good News that—in our shared humanity, and in our shared confidence in God— we find reason to be patient, and kind to one another…