‘Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord,” will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. On that day many will say to me, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?” Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.’ (Matthew 7:21-23)
Now here’s a thing. We talk a great deal about knowing God, and indeed knowing Jesus — a great deal too much, if you ask me: such talk can be dispiriting for those of us like myself who rarely have any sense of the presence of God or of God speaking to them, and who sometimes wonder if we actually know God at all.
But here is Jesus questioning, not whether we know him, but whether he knows us. This is in some ways a terrifying passage. Jesus envisages people turning up, as it were, at his door, on the Day of Judgment, and claiming to have done lots of spectacular things in his name. Their supposed accomplishments are all at the more glamorous end of faith: prophecy, exorcism, miracles. These are the things that Christian magazines like to write about, that sell Christian biographies and memoirs, that are touted as evidence of the reality of God. Yet Jesus responds that these ‘super-disciples’ were not, in fact, doing the will of his Father. Worse than that, he actually calls them ‘evildoers’. What a shock for those who thought they were well in!
So what, in Jesus’ estimation, is the will of his Father? It is easy enough to find. He has set it out in the preceding chapters: to love God, to love one’s neighbour and one’s enemy, to live humbly and generously, to seek first the kingdom of God. He sets it out again in Matthew 25: to care for the sick, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the prisoner. It is simple enough, though by no means easy.
What, then about the declaration that Jesus is Lord? What about our profession of faith? About acting in Jesus’ name? Surely these ‘evildoers’ qualify on all these counts? Apparently calling Jesus Lord is simply an empty statement, unless our lives demonstrate that we are his disciples. And that is why I find this passage scary. Does Jesus know me? Has he noticed me following his path, showing compassion to the needy, forgiving those who have hurt me, making sacrifices for the good of others? Or am I invisible to him, just one of those who call him Lord but am mainly interested in my own self-promotion?
As an Anabaptist, I inevitably read this as an endorsement of the idea that orthopraxis is just as important as, if not more so than, orthodoxy. It sends me back to the epistle of James, an ‘epistle of straw’ to Luther who majored on justification by faith, but to my mind the most Jesus-like epistle of them all (which is why I am happy to believe it was written by Jesus’ brother). Here’s a typical excerpt:
But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act—they will be blessed in their doing. (James 1:22-25)
Have I just demolished salvation by grace through faith, and set up an alternative salvation by works? If I have, I have at least based it in Jesus’ own teaching. But I don’t think that’s what I, James or Jesus himself is doing. Rather, it is a question of evidence. Salvation is by grace, because none of us can live up fully to the high calling of doing God’s will. But the evidence of salvation is not prophetic words, casting out demons, performing flashy miracles. It is the quiet, often hidden, life of faithfulness to love of God, neighbour and enemy. To quote James again:
Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith. (James 2:18b)
I love the ironic, very Jewish humour of this. The implication, of course, is that faith without works is no faith at all. And the works James indicates are non-showy, everyday things like not showing more honour to rich than poor, like caring for the destitute and showing mercy to the distressed.
So rather than asking ‘Do you know Jesus?’ perhaps we should be asking ourselves (not each other, for that would be a guilt trip), ‘Does Jesus know me? Has he spotted me going to the places others avoid, honouring the people whom others shun or condemn?’. For the best way to be spotted by Jesus is to go where he goes; and as during his life in first century Palestine, where he goes is to the outsider, the ‘unclean’, the places and the people who need him most.