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In Matthew 23, Jesus isn’t just frustrated with the Pharisees; he’s frustrated with religious people as a whole (see this blog for a better explanation). Instead of rebuking the Pharisees for being ignorant of the law, or for not following it, Jesus calls them hypocrites and rebukes them for “[washing] the outside of [their] cups and dishes, but leaving the inside with nothing but greed and selfishness” (Matthew 23:25).
In other words, Jesus is frustrated that the Pharisees know and follow the law but refuse to allow their hearts to be changed by it.
We, too, fall victim to this sin when we reduce Christianity to a mere checklist of Christ’s commands. As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 13:2, “If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.”
Christianity is not about perfecting one’s own actions, but about allowing God to shape one’s own heart in the way he sees fit.
The Nicene Creed tells us that God is “the Creator of Heaven and Earth,” and the scripture tells us that in the beginning, God created mankind—with his own hands and breath—in his own image. However, we should note that God’s idea of creation is very different from our own.
When human beings create, we (1) often toss aside creations-in-progress that we feel are “irredeemable,” and (2) gradually lose interest in creations after they are completed. Even the best foods are eventually forgotten, and the newest cell phones are eventually tossed aside in favor of new and improved models. Furniture and clothes are disposed of when old or even “unfashionable.”
Creation, to God, however, is a continuous process. He does not create human beings as wind-up toys, content to wind them up once and watch as they walk about until their energy dissipates. Rather, as Paul says in Acts 17:28, “in him, we live and move and have our being.” Our every heartbeat is proof that God’s hands—the hands of the potter (Isaiah 64:8)—are still shaping us. If God removed his hands from us—for even a moment—we would cease to exist.
Human potters spend their days hunched over hunks of dead clay. This clay lifelessly submits to the direction of the potter’s hands. If the resulting pottery is marred, the fault lies squarely on the potter’s shoulders: dead clay cannot sculpt itself.
God, however, is a potter who lovingly sculpts living clay. Unlike the human potter, God has imbued his medium with the freedom to choose whether it will submit to his direction or not. When his fingers attempt to carve pieces of us away, for example, we, unlike the dead clay, are able to resist his instruction. When God’s hands press on us, we can submit, or we can choose to join our cry with Satan’s, claiming that we are no man’s servant; that we will be shaped by no hands but our own.
Whatever we choose, we will always be clay—and clay cannot shape itself.
Whether we are a saint, a devil, or anyone in between, we need to realize that all we are is clay. We can choose, like the saint, to submit to God’s hands. Or, like the devil, we can choose to resist. Resisting, however, does not make us independent—our every breath reveals that God is continuing to support us despite our rebellion.
Whether we accept God’s guiding hand or not, our finished form will always reflect our father: Depending on our choices, we will look like our father, God, or our father, the Devil.
However, in the meantime, “what we will be has not yet been made known” (1 John 3:2). It’s never too late to do the right thing. Even if we’ve made a mess of our lives, God can sculpt us into something beautiful—regardless of how little time remains.
Since every single one of us is clay in the hands of a potter, and we can all choose to bend (or object) to the potter’s whims, God expects us to treat one another in a certain way. As Christians, we must see other people as unbelievably valuable because they are not only created in the image of God but are constantly being created by him.
There is a reason why Victor Hugo once said, “To love another person is to see the face of God.”
However, even God’s creation process is not infinite.
There will come a day when we are no longer able to choose between submission and rebellion. On this day, we will be judged, and (as our scripture this week, Matthew 25:31-46, says) we will be given the inheritance of the father we chose. God’s children are given his kingdom, but the devil’s children inherit nothing but “the eternal fire.”
How, then, are we judged?
Jesus does not say that people are judged according to their good deeds. There are no scales of justice (Egyptian mythology) or scale of deeds (Islam) in Christianity by which Jesus judges our heart according to the amount of good we did versus the bad. However, Jesus also does not say that we are saved solely by our belief in him. In fact, in Matthew 7:22, Jesus tells us that many people who believe in him—and who even prophesied in his name!—will face the same punishment and those who do.
What we are judged by, however, is our heart.
It is interesting to note the goats’ response to Jesus in this chapter. Not only do they not repent of their sin, but they demand that the Lord tell them when they neglected to minister to him. Almost as if they had been feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting people in prison and fulfilling any number of Christ’s own commands. One can almost see the Pharisees in this group, insisting that they fulfilled every one of God’s 613 commandments.
Simply feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and visiting prisoners is not enough to warrant sheep status. Doing these things is “washing” only the outside of our hearts and it’s the inside that we need to wash most.
God puts in us a new heart for anyone willing to receive Christ—but how do we know that we have received this heart? If we look at the hungry, the naked, and the prisoner and see not a pitiable or contemptable person, but someone who is in the process of being created, then we know we have taken our first steps into receiving this heart.
No matter how useless, how horrid, or even how evil someone else seems, our new heart will see the very face of Christ.
When we see Christ in the face of others, it’s impossible to remain indifferent. To the hungry, we’ll give food; to the naked, we’ll give clothing; to the prisoners, we’ll give our time and love—even if we don’t know anything about them. We’ll do this not because we’re good people or because we’re kind, but simply because, no matter how broken they are, we can see the image of God shining through them.
Instead of cursing and judging others, we realize the truth of what Paul said in Romans 14:4: “Who are you to judge the servants of someone else? It is their own Master who decides whether they succeed or fail.”
God judges us according to how we judge other people. If we judge harshly, God’s judgement of us will be harsh, too.
The sheep are not the people who did everything right. They aren’t the people who dedicated the most time their church. They’re not even the people who knew the most about the Bible. The sheep are simply the people who, because of the new heart put in them by Christ, looked at the “foolish,” “worthless,” and “irredeemable” people of the world and found their hearts filled with love.
When they fed the hungry, they fed Christ. When they clothed the naked, they clothed Christ. When they visited the prisoner, they visited Christ.
The goats, however, may have fed the hungry, clothed the naked, and visited the prisoner, but they never did any of these things to Christ.
If we simply feed the hungry because we are commanded to (or even simply because we pity them), our help will not be effective. We will pass a can of beans to a homeless man who is too poor to afford a can opener, we will fill food banks with nutrition-less foods, or we will refuse to form deep relationships with any of the homeless people at the homeless shelter we volunteer at every week.
The person who sees Christ in those who are hungry, however, sees a friend in need. They will provide not just a meal, but a relationship. They will take the hungry man to a sit-down restaurant instead of passing him a can of beans; they will cook meals for the poor family that lives nearby, and they will form relationships with the men and women at the homeless shelter at which they volunteer.
And they will never consider this action to be “enough.” In fact, people who see Christ in others almost always think that they have not done enough. After all, Christ died for them while they were still Christ’s enemy! How could something as small as taking Christ to a restaurant begin to covering everything that he’s done for us!
What frustrated Jesus about the Pharisees wasn’t their adherence to the law; it was the fact that they were using the law to escape God’s guiding hand. Feeding the hungry is easy; seeing Christ in the hungry, and supporting God’s creative hand in their lives, is the surprising criterion of judgement, according to the words of Christ.