Conversations about Heaven and Hell: Who Goes Where?
It has been a hell of a week, hasn’t it? From the unthinkable earthquake, to the tropical storm battering our homes yesterday, to the ever-changing political situation around our globe as leaders rise and fall with no end in sight, the past few days have reminded us all the state of world as it is not what we would like it to be.
When natural disasters fall on the most vulnerable, when the elderly and sick have to be evacuated from their homes in moments of panic, when people going about the business emerge from work in the afternoon to find bricks and mortar destroying their cars, if you are like me, you crave good news. You crave to see pictures of any kind evidence of what the world should be, of what the world could be, of any hope at all for the future. Yet, in our 24 hour news cycle of doom and gloom and conflicts over everything imaginable around our world holding back the prophetic and creative gifts of artists who could help us see a different way, we are often left without the hopeful pictures that we crave to see.
Sometimes, however, pictures of hopeful realities find their way into mainstream culture. One such occurrence happened in response to the 1984- 1985 famine in Ethiopia, which claimed nearly one million lives, during one of the worst droughts the continent had seen in modern times.
Harry Belafonte, a known American entertainer and social activist at the time had a dream of gathering together some of the most influential and important musicians of the time for a joint project. Though rarely seen before that singers and entertainers of all kinds would gather together, laying aside personal projects, their own pride and schedules, somehow after signing on Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie and legend producer, Quincy Jones, soon the artists came out in droves to support the project.
When I say, “We are the World” you name that song by completing the phrase, “we are the children.”
With this interracial and multi-ethnic team of gathered artists, musical history was made—not only in the details of this unlikely coming together, but of the message of the song inspiring unity, service and the human responsibility for the suffering of all. In “We are the World” a statement was made, a picture was boldly drawn —that indeed, beauty could come from tragedy, that death and starvation did not have to be the only story being told. While the proceeds of record sales went on to support hunger relief in Africa, the lasting effects of this musical production were far greater. A picture of something different from the normal way things go on in the world was created, and once this happens, there’s never really any going back to complete ignorance of things again.
In the same way, when Jesus gathers his disciples together to give them the last what Matthew’s gospel calls the series of five discourses, he too is seeking to paint a picture of this “kingdom of God” or “kingdom of heaven” that he has been talking so much about for the entire course of his ministry. Only a vivid image would do to get the point across clearly: we know the story as the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats.
As we begin to read it again this morning, we might find that these words are familiar to us, especially those of us who are lovers of the social gospel, seeking proof that our “help people” mentality is truly pleasing to Jesus. In fact, many churches read these verses as a spiritual litmus test for its members. Asking one another, “Did you visit the sick this week?” “Did you cloth the naked?” “Did you go to prison?” And, if one’s responses aren’t in the affirmative, telling congregants to get to work! By all means, care for somebody other than yourself if you want to get the “get out of hell” free card.
But was this what Jesus meant at all? Was he telling a story to his followers to scare them? Was he really talking about eternal, forever damnation for those whose good works list was short and not sweet?
Well, to begin to uncover some of these questions, I feel we have to remind ourselves to whom and why the gospel of Matthew was written in the first place.
In contrast to other gospel authors, Matthew writes with a specific audience in mind—fellow Jewish Christians. Matthew was said to have been well versed in the language of Jewish law, the political plight of a Jewish citizen living in a Roman empire during the life and ministry of Jesus. As a result, throughout Matthew’s version of the gospel, we find him being quite concerned about how to remain Jewish and Christian in a Gentile world and what a Christian response should be to the changing political landscape.
Whereas countless Jewish Christians would cheer “revolt” seek to use the life and memory of Jesus as one who came to birth a new political kingdom, Matthew was known to be regularly re-defining life in God’s kingdom in ways that had nothing to do with the expected norms of “us vs. them” “the strongest always win” or “conquer all by force.” Rather, Matthew’s Jesus taught a lot about what life could be like in the kingdom of God, asking followers of Jesus to do everything they could to help create it.
Thus, when we get to the 25th chapter of Matthew, it is good to frame this story as one more representation of the picture of such the kingdom.
To make it explicit, the picture looks like this: there are those whose lives are full of mercy (represented by the sheep) and there are those who are not (represented by the goats). Our world is full of both types of people. And while sheep of this world may never wonder about or know the impact their overflowing compassionate acts have had (saying “Lord, Lord!), and those who are goats might wonder the same things about their lives, continuing to live as carefree as possible, Jesus has an answer for those in both. In the kingdom of God: we are all seen for who we really are.
While this all sounds well and good, when we think about it, it is quite a controversial message of Jesus, for it goes against everything that is normal about life in this world as human being.
How often are we known to lie because it is just easier? Cheat because no one will ever know? Steal because no one is watching? Or go home and watch more tv or read more books or cook more fancy dinners without considering how our neighbors are doing, or what they are having for supper or even if they can afford this night to have supper at all?
The truth be told, we think that what we earn is ours, what we live in is ours, who we birth is ours, and ours alone. We easily shun out of our kingdom those whom we or our society has not claimed as their own.
In response to this, instead, Jesus is painting an entirely different picture of life in his household where all of us are intimately connected to each other and the distinctions of what we call “heaven” and what we call “hell” have a lot to do with how we choose to deal with each other. Learning to play well with others is the main event in the classroom, not what gets you extra credit.
Consider this: a holy man was having a conversation with the Lord one day and said, “Lord, I would like to know what Heaven and Hell are like.” The Lord led the holy man to two doors. He opened one of the doors and the holy man looked in. In the middle of the room was a large round table.
In the middle of the table was a large pot of stew which smelled delicious and made the holy man’s mouth water. Yet, the people sitting around this table were thin and sickly. They looked miserable and starving as if they were barely alive.
The holy man questioned why until he realized that these people were holding spoons with very long handles that were strapped to their arms. Because of the way the spoons were placed, each found it impossible to reach into the pot of stew and take a spoonful for they could not get the spoons back into their mouths. The holy man shuddered at the sight of their misery and suffering—to be so close to what nourish them but yet so far.
The Lord said, “You have seen Hell.”
They went to the next room and opened the door. It was exactly the same as the first one. There was the large round table with the large pot of stew which made the holy man’s mouth water again.
The people were equipped with the same long-handled spoons, but here the people were well nourished and plump, laughing and talking. The holy man said, “I don’t understand.” “It is simple, this is heaven you see,” said the Lord, “being here requires but one skill. You see, they have learned to feed each other.”
So, while attending our well-being, our own self-care, our own recovery is not to be thrown out the window in the kingdom of God (Jesus did say after all to love our neighbor AS OURSELVES too)—Jesus is teaching us that this is not to be our entire focus. It simply can’t be IF we want to see the kingdom come on earth—a kingdom where the spoons we do have are well-used to feed all those who are hungry.
Yet before you go ahead this morning and do some self-critical judgment of your own by saying, “I’m simply a goat, there’s no hope for me. I like myself. I like my nice clothes and shoes. I like my time to be my time. I can’t live without my gym membership or my I Pad. So, I guess you are just implying, Pastor, that I’m doomed.” To which, I say, wait a minute and let’s think about this.
Just like the holy man in the story who gets to take a tour with God of what heaven and hell might look like, what they feel like and smell like, consider your time spent today with this passage as a journey too.
Pastor Rob Bell helps us out here in his book Love Wins when he gives insight into the original Greek of the place where the goats are sent which is an aion of kolazo. Bell writes, “Aion, we know, has several meetings. One is an age or a period of time; another refers to intensity of experience. The word kolazo is a term used for horticulture. It refers to the pruning and trimming of the branches of the plant so it can flourish.. . . So depending on how you translate aion and kolazo, then the phrase can mean ‘a period of pruning’ or ‘a time of trimming’ or an intense experience of correction.”
Thus, if you are ready to say today that the deeds that you are known by and the lack of mercy of your heart are choking out the coming of the kingdom of heaven into your life, there is always grace and hope waiting for you. Like a plant surrounded by suffocating weeds in a garden, consider your life in a time of trimming.
Consider yourself not dammed to a lake of fire, but strongly exhorted to jump over the fence more often and take note from the deeds of the sheep: deeds which display the love and mercy of our God in the most ordinary of ways day in and day out. Deeds like
sharing what you have with those who need it more than you do, noticing those
whose physical needs are robbing them of the opportunity to pay attention to their spiritual needs, and then doing something about it. Consider then, what needs to be “trimmed” from your plate so that more of God can be known in all you do.
I end with this personal reflection. This past Tuesday, your church hosted the monthly gathering of the Reston Interfaith Clergy Ministerium. As part of our meeting as religious leaders of all faiths from within this neighborhood, the new principals of Forest Edge and Lake Anne Elementary were invited to share more with us about their students and how we as faith leaders could support them. Besides being informative in nature—who knew there was a large and growing immigrant Russian population in Reston—I left the meeting struck by the enormity of the needs within walking distance of this church and what we are doing and not doing to be ambassadors of love in Jesus’ name.
Of course, we are a small but faithful band and we can’t do everything that we would like, you and I do need to be strategic in terms of where and when we commit our energy, remembering we can’t be all things to all people after all. But, I left this meeting with a conviction and the conviction was that I need to be a community participant at Lake Anne elementary. I need to begin having lunch there once a week with a troubled student, as the principal highly encouraged us was a great need there: for relationships of kindness to be built between adults in the community and youth who had just about all given up on someone caring about them.
So, I tell you this today because I admit to you that there needs to be ongoing trimming in my life, as much as does in yours. Not because good deeds make us feel good or look good or even because someone at church told us too. Rather, if we want to mirror the kingdom of God here, if we want the kingdom of heaven to be on earth—we each have to fill our lives with acts that matter among those who are desperate to know that they matter to anyone at all.
For I tell you today, God is longing to tell each one of us: “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”