Tuesday, 8 May 2012

To be or not to be, saved. (Part 3)

By reading these last three parables in Matthew, the ten virgins, the parable of the talents and the sheep and the goats, as teaching, rather than as parable, led to me believing that behaviour could affect salvation.  As I am now a true believer in saved by grace, I have found these parables quite difficult to understand and have appreciated Robert Capon’s book, the judgement parables of Jesus, to assist in understanding these parables, in light of ‘belief’ being the sole principle of salvation.
To save repeating what he says I’ll summarise by saying that the common theme that exists in quite a few, and including these three parables, is one of inclusion.  The ten lamp carrying virgins are invited to attend the wedding, all the guests at the wedding have been invited, even the one in the scruffy clothes, all the weeds and wheat have been allowed to grow together, all the workers are employed, and even the sheep and goats arrive together.  Reading these parables there is a definite theme of; everybody is already ‘in’ and then something happens that then leads to exclusion.  We will certainly find it acceptable that Jesus died for everybody, belief that nobody is excluded by God.  Grace means that anybody can be saved and everybody can be invited.  They are presently in the outer darkness and we invite them into the light.  However this is not the inference here, in these parables everybody is already included, the ten virgins are already attending the wedding, the workers are already employed, the nations referred to as sheep and goats arrive together.   
So in understanding these parables an acceptance that we start with inclusion seems important because it will help us to believe that our starting point with salvation is this; I have been included in Christ’s death and resurrection, I have already been fully accepted by God, I have been already reconciled to God.  Now do I believe that inclusion?  By faith do I accept the inclusion and if this is the basis for my salvation then I can’t really be excluded by bad behaviour or included for good behaviour because it has already been done for me by Jesus.  Perhaps this would change our evangelism, not just our own Hokey-Cokey salvation.  If we thought the person in front of us was already included but had no idea, no belief, no faith in that inclusion and we spent time encouraging them to believe rather than telling them about their sin, would we be more ‘successful’ in our evangelism?  Telling them the good news of a gospel of grace, the good news of reconciliation, rather than the gospel of repentance to acceptance, sounds more like the gospel Paul preached.
Before we start screaming about universalism, the parables are pretty clear that there is still an ‘out’ for those that have no faith, no belief, no relationship.  Jesus is the door and it is open and will stay open for all.  The door does not slam because we have behaved badly.  I certainly used to believe that the parable of the ten virgins was all about ensuring you were ready for when the bridge-groom came, watch as you just don’t know when he’ll come, which is understandable as that’s how the parable ends.  But Jesus must’ve been referring to something more than this especially in the light of the revelation that Christ is in us and we therefore don’t wait in fear that he’ll arrive on the clouds, judge us as not being ready and throw us out of heaven, that we appear to already be seated in.  So what is the parable about if not about being prepared?  Perhaps instead Jesus, in the face of his impending death and resurrection, which is going to happen within the week of him telling this story, is hoping they will see firstly that life is not as straight forward as they might prepare for, the bridge-groom might be late, the car might break down, the doctor might give devastating news, the post might bring an unexpected bill, their Messiah might be about to die, life might be full of the unexpected but you need to see past the reality into the truth that he is coming and to have the assurance and certainty that all will be well.  Secondly, to not rely upon the worldly wisdom of preparing for the here and now, the expectation that the world will run properly and instead rely upon the foolish wisdom that the world does not run properly, it is full of the unexpected and it is only faith that makes any sense.  The faith that despite the circumstances and whether I look stupid for believing, or for bringing extra oil to a daytime wedding, asserts that ‘I do believe’ and that is what matters.  Perhaps this is the message of the ten virgins as the other meaning of, ‘be ready or else’, doesn’t fit with saved by grace through faith.
The parable of the talents.  I used to believe Jesus was telling us to make sure we use the talents he gives us or else we’re in trouble.  I don’t believe that this parable is anything to do with working hard with what you’ve got or on judgement day you’re going to get thrown into hell.  Here the master is away a long time, similar to the bridegroom being late, and when he returns there is a problem with the servant who has not done anything with the talent, as he was afraid.  The man is a character in a story to help us see the nonsense of what he has done with being given something for free.  All he had to do was enjoy the gift and it would have multiplied in his hands.  The story is to help us see how ridiculous we can behave when confronted with sheer grace, we can so easily become the older brother, from the Prodigal Son story, offended by so much lavish love.  We want to see a bookkeeper instead, we want to see our good works rewarded, we want God to have another book alongside the book of life marking down all the good things that we do, like the elder brother who stays home and doesn’t run off, we want our good deeds to be marked down in a book and be rewarded.  Jesus is not a book-keeper he’s a grace provider and the story of the talents is Jesus helping us to see that grace is given to everyone, all you need to do is receive it and trust Him and the grace will do its own work.
Jesus is certainly painting an intense picture for his listeners with these last three parables.  He’s forcing them to focus on their own existence, pointing out that there will be a point when time runs out to choose between the wild, all-included, all-free party or to refuse this grace, to refuse him.  There is a cost to this party, that he is paying in full, and he wants to make sure that they understand that refusing his free gift will not go on for an eternity.
Finally, the sheep and the goats, the story of all stories to fearfully inspire people to do things to avoid being a goat and thrown into hell and I have to doubt that is what Jesus was intending them to believe.  The bible is full of references to taking care of widows and orphans, of taking responsibility for the poor and disadvantaged however there is no reference to your salvation being dependant on it apart from in this story and that is the key.  Jesus is telling them a story with a point and I think we’ve picked up the wrong point.  If it’s true that our salvation is by grace through faith and not by works then clearly Jesus is saying something other than ‘visit the prisoners or the lake of fire awaits’.  So what is the message?  
To begin there is the inclusion of all nations being gathered before Jesus, the Son of Man for separation into two groups.  There is nobody missing, the Jews haven’t been given a free pass at this moment and neither have the Christians, those who we might consider shouldn’t even get to this point are here, those we would thought were on the path ‘straight to hell’ or we wish had been sent straight to hell for their evil acts during their lifetime.  Those who have walked a hidden path and those on platforms are here, everybody is here, all nations are present before Jesus.  Maybe this is one of the points Jesus is hoping we’ll understand that ‘at the end of the day’ we’re all the same to Jesus, we are all in the same boat.  A frightening thought you scream, “What?  So nothing I do here on the earth matters, well I might as well behave as I please and sin to my heart’s desire’!  The knowledge of so much grace leads to so much sin?  I think not!  What we do here on earth, during our lifetime does matter, it matters as to our quality of life and to the quality of life of those around us, what doesn’t matter is whether we get that right or not as our behaviour good or bad will not dictate our salvation otherwise we save ourselves.  Jesus clearly cares about our quality of life, healing the sick, feeding the five thousand and even telling the woman caught in adultery to sin no more.  Even the law’s regulations set out in Leviticus are more health and safety rules than spiritual ones, don’t eat mouldy food, wash your hands, don’t be getting tattooed you don’t know where that needle has been!  Unfortunately we, as ever, took these suggestions by God for a healthier and better life and turned them into requirements for salvation.  The Pharisees were always looking to the failings of the disciples’ keeping of the law; not washing their hands, picking ears of wheat on a Sabbath to accuse them, to show they were sinful and therefore God was not with them.  We just have different sins to accuse people of, to consider them ‘out’ of the favour of God, from speeding to not going to church.  We assure ourselves that God is a just God, an honest God who will ensure those who have done evil during their lifetime are punished; we want them sent to hell.  A seriously understandable position for those who have lost loved ones at the hands of another, understandable when thinking of the atrocities caused by dictators and understandable when looking at the pain and suffering caused by humans to humans, somebody has to pay one day.  However, we do not have a God who gives us what we deserve or what we believe others deserve, instead he gives us his son.  
His son who will judge and use his own motivation of saving the world not condemning it and the only exit is from punishment not from his presence.  The Son of Man is the judge; he came to judge the enemy and to give eternal life to all that believe.  Salvation by grace alone means that it is only belief in Jesus that can save you not behaviour, and thankfully, grace dictates that we do not get what we deserve, good or bad. 
In the parable, the Son of Man separates the sheep and the goats as a shepherd, not as a market trader.  He is making the point that he is the good shepherd of both the sheep and the goats; the good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep and the goats.  His death which is imminent will be for all, the good and the bad.  (Note the Passover lamb could be a goat – Exodus 12:5).  The separation in the story is within the context of the inclusion of all in his death.  The mystery of the gospel was that gentiles would now be included, there was no longer any separation of the nations and here is the picture showing that Jesus has drawn all men to himself, his mission to draw all men into himself on the cross and incorporate them both into his body.  Paul covers this in Ephesians 2:15-16. 
The story now sets out the good-sheep bad-goats scenario.  As mentioned above it cannot be that omission to do good, or doing bad, is an obstacle to salvation or that do-gooders are those that get to celebrate, there must be more to this story than that as it would totally oppose the message of ‘whilst we were still sinners’ Christ died for us.  It negates Jesus’ actions of eating and celebrating with tax collectors and prostitutes.  If our behaviour is what will make the difference then we have a salvation based on works.  I doubt Jesus was trying to change his message in the last few days either, as in, he’s been all about the grace and Mr Nice-guy but at the end of the day it will be all about what you did and Mr Burn-in-Hell.  So what is the message?  If belief is the only thing that Jesus is looking for then where is the faith here, which ‘group’ have faith/belief and which do not?  It is interesting to note in this parable and in a previous scripture, Jesus informs his hearers that casting out demons and healing the sick is not enough, it is instead the ‘knowing Jesus’ that matters.  Here the sheep are commended for having a relationship with Jesus, and the goats have no relationship with Jesus and that is the reason for separation, not who feeds the poor.  There is a danger if we read this as anything other than a parable, we start to be motivated to feed the poor because we don’t want to go to hell and that is clearly not the message. 
The parable is not Jesus’ last call to tell us to feed the poor or we’re off to hell, it is his last call, the story to bring all stories together, to tell us that he’s the judge, he’s come to draw all men to himself, he’s the shepherd of all and there is an eternal party for those who discover and believe him and therefore have a relationship with him.  To be frank it has nothing to do with feeding the poor, visiting the sick and the prisoners at all, any more than his other stories were actual about real events.  They are all pointing to a message, one of salvation through grace.  He even throws in a final point that the sheep didn’t even know it was Jesus, to help them know that they cannot work out this salvation; it is through faith alone, not through intellectual human wisdom.  The story of the sheep and the goats is the final spark to light up their darkness before the explosive light that is his death and resurrection.
Here’s the final shocking point, even the belief, the faith, that is your free pass to a secure and complete, eternal life, is a gift.  We do not even work up our faith; it has been given to us by God.  We cannot even claim that our own work of belief has saved us.  We cannot work it out and we cannot improve it or diminish it.  Our salvation has been given to us so that we have nothing to boast in, except Christ.


  1. Love this, Mags. A quite thorough discourse on grace. So glad you're willing to share. Blessings!

  2. Hmm not so sure there isn't more to this parable. We are all created through Jesus Christ, all of creation is. There is nowhere outside of his presence. When we love we see this reality and the blindness of the egocentric self disappears. In acting in love and kindness to others we help both they and us see Christ within and between us. We realise more of our true natures as being made in the image of God who is a trinity of love. All sentient beings with the knowledge of good and ill are represented in this parable, like a life review in a near death experience the judgement is one of learning about reality that God is love and we are all from God and need to love (let God's love be realised in us through grace -or because that is grace) to partake of our inheritence.