Skepticism is the chastity of the intellect, and it is shameful to surrender it too soon or to the first comer: there is nobility in preserving it coolly and proudly through long youth, until at last, in the ripeness of instinct and discretion, it can be safely exchanged for fidelity and happiness. -- George Santayana
Conventional wisdom resists considering the possibility of situating an atheistic / secular humanist worldview within the Bible. But in some important biblical texts – like the book of Job, though that is a subject for a separate post – secular humanism / atheism and biblical morality do meet and embrace. In fact, not only do these two seemingly contradictory perspectives sometimes support each other, at times they do so at the expense of an explicitly religious and “God-centric” view. The implication in such cases is that we find the Bible itself arguing, not only that “you can be good without God”, but that, at least in certain situations, it is practically impossible to be good with Her / Him. One such case is Jesus’ Parables of the Sheep and Goats in Matthew, chapter 25. In this particular case, in fact, the conventional interpretation is flatly contradicted in at least two senses by the surface of the text.
Everyone has some degree of familiarity with the “sheep and goats” text, but it is best to quote it in full from the RSV (25:31-40):
When the Son of Man comes in his glory and all his angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will place the sheep at his right hand and the goats on the left. Then the King will say to those at his right hand "Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me. Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when did we see thee hungry and feed thee, or thirsty and give thee drink? And when did we see thee a stranger and welcome thee, or naked and clothe thee? And when did we see thee sick or in prison and visit thee?” And the King will answer them, “Truly I say to you, as you did it for the least of these, my brethren, you did it to me”.
Listen to most -- I'm tempted to say "all" -- sermonic / homiletic commentary on this text, and you will find the interpretation will be some cognate form of the following: the reason we should have care for the poor, the oppressed, the marginalized, the downtrodden, the hungry, the ill-clothed, and the sick is because the face of each such person is, in some mystical, inward sense, the very Face of Christ Himself. Consequently, in clothing the naked, we clothe Christ. In feeding the hungry, we feed Christ. In visiting the sick, we visit Christ. Ministering to Christ should be the motivation for ministering to others, even to "the least of these".
The problem with this -- I repeat, conventional -- interpretation of the Parable of the Sheep and Goats is that it gets the motivation 180 degrees backward. Asserting that consciousness of the mystic Presence of Christ in "the least of these" motivates equity and justice toward them has the effect of preemptively making God a kind of "efficient cause" of the practice of justice. That is, the reason we help the poor, the oppressed, and the downtrodden is because of a prior conviction that God is present in them.
The problem with this conventional interpretation of the parable is that the parable says precisely the opposite. The practice of justice is not predicated upon a prior belief in the Presence of God in the poor, quite the contrary. The awareness of the Presence of Christ in the poor is a consequence, not a predicate, of the practice of justice. Note that, in the Parable, when Jesus says that the "sheep" have fed Him, have clothed Him, have visited Him, etc., the "sheep" initially react with incomprehension. What Jesus is saying is news to them:
Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when did we see thee hungry and feed thee, or thirsty and give thee drink?
This speech speaks volumes about the motivation of the "sheep" in the practice of compassion and justice, far too much to unpack in a brief blog post. And in any case, the salient point is that the righteous were not motivated to the practice of compassion and justice by any prior awareness whatsoever of any mystic Presence of Christ in the people they were serving. The inference is fair that the righteous served the poor, not for the sake of God, not for the sake of Christ, but rather for the sake of the poor, destitute, and downtrodden themselves in their own right. In other words, the righteous believed in God ("Lord"), but were nevertheless capable of "being good without God". The Parable of the Sheep and Goats seems to say that Christians do not serve the poor because Christians see Christ in them, but the other way around: Christians see Christ in the poor because Christians serve them. This is the exact opposite of the conventional interpretation. The moral obligation to practice justice is justified on purely "horizontal" grounds with no "vertical" or "God-centric" component. One may still believe in God, of course -- the righteous "sheep" do -- but that is beside the point, because the practice of compassion and justice and care is not predicated on one's belief in God -- or lack thereof. Compassion and justice trump theology. This is just "orthodox secular humanist" morality.
So what of the "goats"? What of people who do act out of a consciousness that they labor under the moral and monitory glare of God's perpetual Divine surveillance from the Great Celestial Predator Drone? (In an interview some years ago, the late Christopher Hitchens once remarked that he was glad there was no God, because living in a universe supervised by a God would be like living in a cosmic version of North Korea.) Elsewhere in Matthew's Gospel, the answer seems to be that righteous action motivated by a belief that one is being constantly watched and evaluated by God induces in one a tendency to play to the high-dollar seats, in other words, to put on a performance to make oneself look good instead of acting with justice for the sake of others -- the key word here being "acting". Jesus seems to say as much in the 7th chapter of Matthew (Matthew 7:21-23, English Revised Version):
Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven. Many will say to me in that day, "Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy by thy name, and by thy name cast out devils, and by thy name do many mighty works?" And then will I profess unto them, "I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity."
The people referred to in this parallel parable in the seventh chapter of Matthew the people implicitly lauded by the conventional homiletical interpretation of Matthew, chapter 25: people who live and work under an abiding sense of God's supervenient awareness. God is watching. "Thy name ... thy name ... thy name ... ". This belief -- the irony is exquisite -- results in them being the center of their own attention. Not the poor. Not the oppressed. Not the sick. Not even God, despite their pretensions. Themselves. This emphasis is also evident when we contrast the kind of works referred to in the two parables: low-profile service like visiting the sick and feeding the hungry in Matthew, chapter 25; high-profile extravaganzas like prophecy and exorcism in Matthew, chapter 7. Televangelist preacher-entertainers, take note! Note to self: if you want to make sure that your life is centered on yourself, emphasize making God the Center. In other words, the people in the seventh chapter of Matthew believe they "need God to be good", and so in that light try to justify themselves and their actions: "Did we ... ".
The real message of both Matthew chapter 25 and, in a kind of negative sense, Matthew chapter 7 may be summarized in ten words: "It's not about you, and it's not even about God". For the purposes of Matthew, chapter 25, whether or not we believe in God is irrelevant. We do not need God's permission to act with justice, compassion, and mercy. In fact, believing that theology must precede action -- that orthodoxy must precede orthopraxy -- is fraught with the hazards attendant on ego inflation and self-deception. Perhaps T. S. Eliot said it best in one of the Four Quartets: "The only wisdom we can hope to acquire is the wisdom of humility; humility is endless".