The following articles are my reflections in response to John Starke's article, "THE INCARNATION IS ABOUT A PERSON, NOT A MISSION," in which I both affirm and resist in our joint quest for truth.
Dedicated to Bob and Gracie Ekblad and Tierra Nueva Ministries.
- Matt. 25 describes parabolically the final judgement. Clever tricks to make this a preliminary, secondary judgment (as in the dispensationalism of my childhood) are an obvious abuse of Christ's intent in the text, rooted in the need to avoid the difficulties the parable presents.
- The sole criteria for the final judgement is how we treated those on the margins and those in need: the sick, the hungry, the naked, the immigrant and the prisoner are the main examples. St James, whose epistle frequently echoes the Jesus of Matthew, makes his own summary include widows and orphans.
- The criteria focuses specifically on deeds done for the sick, hungry, naked, etc., and note well: only because they are sick, hungry, naked, etc. That is, these deeds are done unconditionally, as pure gifts, as acts of grace for the sake of the presenting need. They are not done with any other motive. They are not done to lead people to the Lord; they are not knowingly done 'in the name of Jesus' (as elsewhere) or as 'acts of service and worship for Jesus' (as elsewhere). Jesus strips even the possibility of a future reward from their motives. And perhaps this is, in one sense, what makes them truly incarnational. That is, as true manifestation of pure, selfless grace (God's self-donation in the Incarnation). Jesus pictures the righteous (just) serving immigrants and visiting prisoners, NOT in order to receive a reward or look good or feel better about themselves. Their compassion is rooted in the unconditioned impulses of self-giving love, which is exactly what the Incarnation was. Yes, elsewhere Jesus explicitly appeals to reward-punishment rhetoric, but the parable itself envisions a people for whom Jesus and his kingdom are the far from their minds.
- The judgement is peculiar in that is imagines 'reverse incarnational ministry,' where it is not the minister who represents Jesus, but rather, the recipient of the ministry. That is, where is Jesus in the story? He is the sick, poor, naked and so on. So in this case, the Word becomes flesh at the margins, so completely disguised that the compassionate ones have no awareness at all of (and thus, no motivation based on) the fact that Christ is somehow Incarnate by identification in everyone who has and will suffer (as he is about to in his Passion).
- First, agreeing with Starke, in our ministries at the margins, don't forget Jesus. He is the true Incarnation of God the Word made flesh, restoring the world through his life and ministry, death and resurrection. Don't just remember it--say it. To Francis of Assisi's statement, "Preach the gospel at all times; when necessary, use words," I might ask, when isn't it necessary, if the Gospel is the story of Jesus? Share that story freely. Let's not divorce or negate proclaiming Jesus from compassionate service.
- Second, in our ministries at the margins, let's not just be talkers: emulate Jesus. As the Father sent Jesus (the Incarnation), so the Son sends you (the incarnational). The Word made flesh now indwells and empowers us and in fact, continues his own incarnational work through us. So the converse of point 1 is: let's not divorce or negate compassionate service from proclaiming Jesus.
- Third, let's grow in the Incarnation Model (Jesus himself) of self-forgetting love and unconditional grace so that in treating the marginalized like as if they are Jesus, we will begin to naturally respond without thought of secondary motives. In so doing, the surprise welcome for serving the needy only because they are needy may even surprise us. Matthew 25 shows that It's not always about our awareness of 'being Jesus to others' or even 'seeing Jesus in others'--our failure to perceive either makes it no less true ... and sometimes even more true.