The first “You Can Be Good Without God” placard was placed on the side of a city bus by Jesus Christ sometime during the first quarter of the first century CE. Well … OK … technically speaking, that is not true: there were neither placards nor city buses to put them on in the first century CE. But everything else about the first sentence is true. What Jesus actually did, according to the Gospel of Matthew, was to teach “You Can Be Good Without God” in the famous Parable of the Sheep and the Goats … which around a hundred generations of preachers and homilists then proceeded to misinterpret by getting the story exactly, precisely 180 degrees “bass-ackwards”. It is this mis-reading of the Sheep / Goats parable that renders the bus-placard sign, and the sentiment behind it, so scandalous. Like so much else in famous Documents – the Bible, the US Constitution, the plays of Shakespeare, etc. – we think we have read it, when in reality we are only familiar, second-, third-, and fourth-hand, with others’ reading of it.
The story itself is so simple to tell, how anyone could get it wrong is, at first glance, baffling. But I strongly suspect that it becomes less baffling if we concentrate on the readers instead of the reading. (As Prof. Harold Bloom has made a formidable career of pointing out, our mis-readings of texts tell us more about ourselves than about the texts are mis-reading.) But that is a rant for another time. So let’s start with the latter (NIV, boldface added):
When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.
Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’
Now, the conventional homiletic interpretation has been that (1) in serving the poor, the naked, the hungry, and the oppressed, we are, in fact, actually serving Christ in the poor, the naked, the hungry, and the oppressed; and that (2) it is this antecedent perception on the part of the servants of Christ in … that renders the acts holy. So, e.g., Mother Teresa served the poor and dying of Calcutta because she saw Christ in them. What renders the actions of the “sheep” righteous is that they are motivated by the perception of something above, beyond, and in addition to the raw humanity of those they serve. So goes the conventional wisdom.
The actual text contradicts that reading, however. Instead, the actual, as-written text says that God (= “the Son of Man” = Jesus) has already deemed the actions of the “sheep” righteous prior to any such perception. The “sheep” themselves certainly do not recognize Jesus in the people they are serving: hence the repeated “When did we see you …” locutions. The “sheep” are serving people and alleviating their suffering simply because the latter are just that: people who are suffering. Period. Full stop. New paragraph. Pause for a “beer-and-brat” break. Prior to anyone’s perception, any act of service or compassion is already rendered righteous strictly on its own terms. If there is a perception of "Christ in ... ", that perception is the result -- not the cause -- of one's compassion toward them. The traditional homiletic reading of the Sheep / Goats story gets this precisely backwards.
The companion text for the Sheep / Goats parable is at least arguably Matt. 7:22-23, where the subjects of the parable are people who, unlike the “sheep”, are acutely, even bombastically, aware of whom they are serving – and who make sure God knows it (NASB, all-caps in original, boldface added):
Many will say to Me on that day, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?” And then I will declare to them, “I never knew you; DEPART FROM ME, YOU WHO PRACTICE LAWLESSNESS.”
Not a word about the people to whom they prophesied, or about the people from whom the demons were cast, or the people who benefited from the miracles. Purely “God-centric” language: “ … in Your name … in Your name … in Your name … “. The intent seems not to be to censure those who are susceptible to some kind of mystic insight – the St. Johns of the Cross, the St. Teresas, the Buddhas, the Muhammads, the Sri Ramakrishnas, et al. -- but rather those who use such insight – even assuming it to be genuine – to “play to the box seats” for the aggrandizement of their own egos.
(Incidentally, all the foregoing is why I am somewhat ambivalent about that sculpture of the “homeless Jesus” that was recently rendered so justly famous in news coverage of Pope Francis’s visit to Washington, DC. It is indisputably a haunting piece of work, but I wonder to what extent the nail-scars in the feet will result, no doubt against the artist’s intent, in supplanting the humanity of the figure: dammit all! … forget the humanity of the homeless person and remember this is actually Jesus. Including the nail-scars is – arguably -- like losing patience and skipping to the last few pages of a who-dun-it to see if it was the butler who really murdered Lord Sniveley Purplesnot, the Twelfth Earl of Rufflepants. Think of it another way: how many people, looking at the figure on the park bench, would see the Divine if the nail-scars were removed?)
At least from the standpoint of the practice of justice toward others in society, Jesus seems to be saying that God is eminently dispensable. Here He forms a kind of contrarian trinity with both Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Albert Camus. While confined in Flossenburg Prison awaiting execution for his part in the plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler, Bonhoeffer -- a minister in Germany's "confessing church" -- wrote an unforgettable series of letters, mostly to his friend Eberhard Bethge, in which he (Bonhoeffer) unburdened himself of many gestating theological opinions it might well have been unwise to express, even privately, were not death so imminent. He spoke of "man come of age" and interpreted the Passion and Crucifixion as God's renunciation of what we today would call "helicopter parenting" in favor of allowing Godself to be pushed out of the way, onto the periphery of human life and experience, in order to give human beings space, intellectually and morally, to grow and to mature. Perhaps the most poignant of these reflections is summarized in Bonhoeffer's justly celebrated maxim Before God and with God, we live without God. (Why and to what extent we should bother with the "before" and the "with" in light of the "without" is, likewise, a rant for another time.) Albert Camus wrote a no less unforgettable novel The Plague that chronicles the improbable relationship between two men, Dr. Rieux, an atheist, and Fr. Paneloux, a Catholic priest, as they work together to serve the citizens of the Algerian city of Oran, which has been quarantined due to an infestation of the Black Plague. At one point, Dr. Rieux says to Fr. Paneloux that he has concluded that the highest purpose a human being can serve is to be a "saint without God". The "sheep" of Matthew, chapter 25, are "saints without God".
Of course, all the above begs the question: if God really is optional in terms of the practice of justice, how do we define and pursue justice, absent an awareness of God in the world? And why should we, anyway? Speaking of rants for another time, that is another. Here's a hint, though: the short answer is "anthropic".
James R. Cowles