Romans 3.21-31 is the text, and, considering the role its played in Christian history, it’s quite possible this is the most important New Testament passage. It’s where Paul picks up his thesis statement from Romans 1.16-17 to display how God’s righteousness (God’s covenant justice, is how NT Wright puts it) is revealed through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ. This ‘justifies’ us, Paul says, and we need respond only by faith(fulness) of our own.
Thence the Protestant doctrine of justification by faith alone- as opposed to ‘works.’
How this passage has been interpreted and continues to be so is problematic in precise ways I don’t have the energy to unpack. Suffice it to say that the whole faith vs works debate neither resembles Paul’s actual authorial aim nor does it fit easily, if at all, into the Gospel’s schema, which seems to have a lot to say about us being judged according to works.
Playing on an old computer recently, I came across this old sermon of mine on Matthew 25. It reflects on this discontinuity between our reading of Paul and the clear reading of Jesus’ teachings.
Matthew 25.31-46 (10/26/08)
My Week of Living Biblically
So, someone should’ve told Matthew that he had it all wrong. Matthew apparently didn’t get the memo. Clearly he doesn’t know that you and I- we’re saved by grace. Not by our works. Not by our good deeds. Not by our charity.
And if it’s not Matthew’s fault, then someone should’ve set Jesus straight. Someone should’ve told Jesus that Paul says: our salvation is a gift. It’s not something we earn or deserve because we could never do enough to earn or deserve what God has to give.
Someone should’ve sat Jesus down and said: ‘Look, what’s the problem? Paul explains this very clearly. We’re made righteous not by anything we do but by what Christ has done for us. We’re justified not by our works but on the basis of Christ’s work on the Cross.’
Someone should’ve told Jesus: ‘That’s not the way it works. When you come back again in glory, you’re supposed to judge us based not on what we do but based on our faith in you.’
It’s our faith that saves us. Not our works. Not our good deeds. Not our charity. I mean…that’s what makes us Protestants. That’s what I was taught in seminary. That’s what I was tested on before the bishop ordained me.
Except, here’s the rub:
Almost nowhere in the Gospels does Jesus say that you and I will be judged based on our beliefs, our faith. Instead, almost everywhere Jesus’ harsh words of judgment are reserved for those who do not show mercy or love to their neighbors.
St. Paul says we’re saved by our faith.
But today Jesus says when it comes to the Kingdom it’s all about what you’ve done for the least of these.
Okay, which is it?
Faith or works? I mean…how do you reconcile that kind of incongruity? To be honest, I don’t know if I can answer that question. The bible study I help lead on Sunday nights has been confused over this very question for weeks now. I read today’s passage last Sunday evening. I read it over and over and over, and I thought myself into a tangle of theological knots.
And that’s when it hit me: maybe my thinking is the problem. Maybe my problem is trying to understand this passage, trying to square this passage with that passage, trying to reconcile what Jesus says here with what Paul says there. Maybe my problem is trying to approach this scripture with my head when Jesus just wants me to live it.
Maybe my thinking is the problem. Maybe my problem is the way I constantly make my faith about what I believe so that, for me, the life of faith is about getting those beliefs just right. Maybe Jesus teaches what he teaches because he wants me to live it. A novel concept, I know.
Sunday night a week ago I just asked myself: What would it look like for me to live out this passage in my life? In my day-to-day, ordinary life what would it look like for me to take Jesus’ words seriously?
So, last Sunday night, in the laboratory of my mind, I hatched a little experiment.
I decided that this week I would do what Jesus tells us to do. I decided that if I saw someone who was hungry, I would give them food. If I met someone who was thirsty, I’d give them water. Someone without clothes- I’d give them mine.
No assuming that someone else will do something.
I decided that if I encountered a stranger, I would treat them as if they were Jesus Christ.
That was my experiment- my commitment- this week. It just so happens that this week I also traveled to Kansas City for a young clergy fellowship in which I participate.
The first trial of my experiment came in the food-court at the Charlotte airport. I had a layover and was grabbing some lunch. I went to sit down and, scanning the dining room for a table, I noticed a man all alone, eating his burger and fries in an absent sort of way. He was maybe 70 years old.
Before I say any more, I should tell you, in case you don’t me very well, that I’m a shy person by nature. Typically, I’m reserved, introverted, quiet- I never do what I did.
I took my lunch and my luggage and I walked over to the man’s table, and I said: ‘I noticed you’re eating alone. Would you mind if I sat here and gave you some company?’
He kind of looked at me over the rim of his glasses and then looked around the dining room- probably to see if he was the butt of some practical joke but maybe to point out all the other people who were contentedly eating alone. After a moment, he motioned with his French fry filled fingers for me to sit down. ‘I’m Jason,’ I said. ‘Don,’ he replied.
He took a few bites more and then he asked me: ‘Do you always offer to sit down and eat with strangers?’ At first, I just said ‘No’ but he kept looking at me for more so I said: ‘Look, I was reading the bible last night, the part where Jesus says to welcome strangers, and I made a promise to myself that this week I would just do what Jesus teaches.’
Now, you can say that kind of thing here in church and it’s cool, it sounds reasonable. When you say that to strangers in an airport Burger King, it totally freaks people out.
When Don heard me say that he stiffened, sat up and scooted his chair back a bit. You could tell he was expecting me to hit him up with some kind of Jesus pyramid scheme, and he was ready to say ‘No thanks’ to whatever tract I was about to pull out of my pocket.
‘Don’t worry,’ I said, ‘I don’t have any agenda. I just want to eat with you.’
‘You’re kind of strange, aren’t you? Do you always go up to strangers talking about Jesus?’
‘No, not ever,’ I said, ‘I’m a minister.’
We talked for a while. He told me he’d never really gone to church, not since he was child. Faith had never been a part of his life.
‘My brother died,’ he said, ‘that’s where I’m going, to his funeral in Ohio.’
For a few minutes more, Don told me about his brother. When Don checked the time on his watch, I asked him. I said: ‘I don’t want to pressure you. You don’t have to say yes, but would it be okay if I prayed with you?’ And he said yes.
My second trial came later that evening. From the airport, I took a taxi to my hotel. The cabdriver’s ID sitting there on the dashboard said that his name was Omar. The cab was still driving slowly over the speed bumps in the arrivals loop of the airport, and I reached my hand over the seat and said: ‘Omar, I’m Jason.’
Eventually, he shook it, but for a while he just stared at my hand like I’d found something that had long been missing in the backseat of his car.
Having learned from my previous conversation with Don, I just decided to come out with it this time.
‘Omar,’ I said, ‘I’m a Christian and this week I’m working on following Jesus better, and I was just wondering if there was something going on in your life that I could be praying for.’
Again, I never talk like this. Even now I cringe when I hear myself say it. I know how lame it makes me sound.
‘Come again?’ Omar asked and turned the volume down on National Public Radio.
So I went through it all over again. ‘I’m a Christian. I was reading the bible last night and I promised myself that this week I would try to follow Jesus better and I was just wondering if there’s something going on in your life that I could be praying for?’
Omar crinkled his eyebrows and stared at me through his rearview mirror. ‘What’s the catch?’ he asked me. ‘There’s no catch,’ I said.
For several miles he didn’t say anything. The silence was louder than the volume on NPR. But when we got out on the highway he said to me: ‘My wife’s pregnant. We’ve had two miscarriages before. You can pray for that.’
On Tuesday my clergy fellowship visited a hip, bohemian kind of church called Kansas City: Revolution. The church runs a Soup Kitchen in their basement, feeding hundreds of homeless and working poor twice a day. We ate lunch there that day.
After I got through the lunch line I saw that my clergy group- they were all sitting together at a table in one corner of the room. And I saw that opposite them was a table that was empty but for one homeless man. I sat down and ate with him…as much as I didn’t want to.
He was dressed in a patchwork sort of way with sweatpants over jeans over a jogging suit. The View was playing on the TV there in the room, but he was staring intensely at something over it. He was eating his rigatoni like he had a grudge against it, and his whole body seemed coiled in anger or anxiety. I’m sure he had some mental illness that explained all that, but that didn’t make the meal any less awkward for me.
I laid off the Jesus talk. I just tried to make conversation with him. I asked him his name. I asked about him. I told him my name and about me. I poured him a cup of coffee and offered to get him more food.
Nothing. He didn’t say anything to me. Honestly, it was painful.
When he was finished eating, he got up hurriedly and said: ‘Thanks for the conversation.’
I never got his name.
Let me be clear. I share this with you all not to impress you with how faithful I am, how saintly I am. I share it with you not to impress you but to confess to you: to confess how normally I don’t do those kinds of things, how too often I treat my faith, my beliefs, my worship- how I treat it all like I’m practicing for a game that I never actually play.
The apostle James, in his letter, points out how even demons believe in God. A faith without acts of mercy and love to others, James says, is not a faith that’s alive. A faith that never gets around to playing the game isn’t really faith.
Just look at Jesus’ parable. Those who are separated out and sent to Hell- they’re not condemned for any bad or wicked things they did. Jesus doesn’t say they kicked a beggar in the street or spit on a lonely stranger or cursed at a homeless person.
They didn’t do anything bad. They just didn’t do anything.