What role do we have in each other’s salvation? How can we facilitate salvation for one another, or how can we prevent, limit, derail, undo, discourage, or otherwise impede the salvation of others? Are there clues in what Jesus said about the Pharisees in the passage we discussed last week?
Moses was and is known as the lawgiver, as the seat of authority. That seat was physically represented in stone or wood in synagogues, elevated like a pulpit to convey a sense of authority, importance, and leadership. From it, a teacher (a Pharisee, in the time of Jesus) would read the law of Moses in the Torah scroll. With this as background, the key passage in what Jesus said regarding the Pharisees:
“…therefore all that they tell you, do and observe, but do not do according to their deeds; for they say things and do not do them.” (Matthew 23:3)
It seems that impeding salvation involves demanding a behavior or behaviors—some form of action or inaction—which the demander personally is unwilling to undertake. The behaviors demanded are difficult (Jesus called them “heavy”) and are imposed without any offer of assistance. Contrast this with:
“Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)
When you hitch yourself to the yoke of Jesus, He becomes your ox, to haul your load for you.
While placing heavy behavioral loads on others, the Pharisees themselves merely had to demonstrate their piety by wearing conspicuous religious adornments:
“But they do all their deeds to be noticed by men; for they broaden their phylacteries and lengthen the tassels of their garments.” (Matthew 23:5)
In the Middle East today, some Moslems wear their beards and robes in a certain way as a sign of piety. Human religious arrogance seems to be a potential impediment to the salvation of others. But impedance is not just placing behavioral burdens on others or displaying religious arrogance: It may also involve a display of social arrogance:
“They love the place of honor at banquets and the chief seats in the synagogues, and respectful greetings in the market places, and being called Rabbi by men.” (Matthew 23:6)
In the early Christian church, the issue of behavior was a major topic of discussion with respect to the practice of circumcision and the eating of kosher and un-kosher foods. These Jewish religious practices were being imposed by Jewish Christians on Gentile Christians. If someone were to approach a Christian and ask: “What must I do to be a Christian?” the response would involve a set of prescribed and proscribed Jewish behaviors.
At a council of Christian brethren gathered to discuss whether and how to let Gentiles join them, James said:
“Therefore it is my judgment that we do not trouble those who are turning to God from among the Gentiles, but that we write to them that they abstain from things contaminated by idols and from fornication and from what is strangled and from blood. For Moses from ancient generations has in every city those who preach him, since he is read in the synagogues every Sabbath.”
Then it seemed good to the apostles and the elders, with the whole church, to choose men from among them to send to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas—Judas called Barsabbas, and Silas, leading men among the brethren, and they sent this letter by them,
“The apostles and the brethren who are elders, to the brethren in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia who are from the Gentiles, greetings.
“Since we have heard that some of our number to whom we gave no instruction have disturbed you with their words, unsettling your souls, it seemed good to us, having become of one mind, to select men to send to you with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, men who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. “Therefore we have sent Judas and Silas, who themselves will also report the same things by word of mouth. “For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay upon you no greater burden than these essentials: that you abstain from things sacrificed to idols and from blood and from things strangled and from fornication; if you keep yourselves free from such things, you will do well. Farewell.” (Acts 15:19-29)
Paul made instructions even more explicit, and potentially more troubling for those who want to impose a viewpoint on others:
Now accept the one who is weak in faith, but not for the purpose of passing judgment on his opinions. One person has faith that he may eat all things, but he who is weak eats vegetables only. The one who eats is not to regard with contempt the one who does not eat, and the one who does not eat is not to judge the one who eats, for God has accepted him. Who are you to judge the servant of another? To his own master he stands or falls; and he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand.
One person regards one day above another, another regards every day alike. Each person must be fully convinced in his own mind. He who observes the day, observes it for the Lord, and he who eats, does so for the Lord, for he gives thanks to God; and he who eats not, for the Lord he does not eat, and gives thanks to God. For not one of us lives for himself, and not one dies for himself; for if we live, we live for the Lord, or if we die, we die for the Lord; therefore whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and lived again, that He might be Lord both of the dead and of the living.
But you, why do you judge your brother? Or you again, why do you regard your brother with contempt? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God. For it is written,
“As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to Me,
And every tongue shall give praise to God.”
So then each one of us will give an account of himself to God.
Therefore let us not judge one another anymore, but rather determine this—not to put an obstacle or a stumbling block in a brother’s way. I know and am convinced in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself; but to him who thinks anything to be unclean, to him it is unclean. For if because of food your brother is hurt, you are no longer walking according to love. Do not destroy with your food him for whom Christ died. Therefore do not let what is for you a good thing be spoken of as evil; for the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. For he who in this way serves Christ is acceptable to God and approved by men. So then we pursue the things which make for peace and the building up of one another. Do not tear down the work of God for the sake of food. All things indeed are clean, but they are evil for the man who eats and gives offense. It is good not to eat meat or to drink wine, or to do anything by which your brother stumbles. The faith which you have, have as your own conviction before God. Happy is he who does not condemn himself in what he approves. But he who doubts is condemned if he eats, because his eating is not from faith; and whatever is not from faith is sin. (Romans 14)
Is living a life of faith easy or hard? Or is it neutral—does faith have no influence on life? If life is easy, do we have a sense of unease that we are not living it correctly? If we are religious, if we value a relationship with God, should the path be easier or harder? How does our relationship with God influence and impact the salvation of those around us?
We have seen salvation only as an issue affecting the individual, not as affecting groups. Yet in the passage under study, Jesus strongly implies that there is a social aspect to salvation, a mutual responsibility for it. How can we share our faith without impeding that of others?
Anonymous: I think God looks at our intentions. As long as they are good—based on a loving heart and goodwill—I don’t think God would allow them to be interpreted as offensive. If we are misinterpreted … . It’s what we mean, not what we say or do. God sees what we mean.
Shakir: We are more capable of impeding the salvation of others than we are capable of facilitating it. So the best thing we can do is to stop being an impediment. Helping or facilitating is extra, just icing on the cake. It is better to be neutral than to be harmful, even with the best of intentions. It is best to be very concerned about being an impediment.
Michael: I was at a social gathering recently where one of the other guests, who barely knew me, lectured me non-stop on how to live my life better by going to church. His basic assumption was that I was doing wrong and he knew just how to put it right. Maybe he meant it in good faith, but I did not find it helpful.
Anonymous: His intention was good, but your response was up to you. I don’t know if God directed that man to say something you might not like to hear now but may come to reflect upon in the future, to your benefit. God sees and supports both hearts.
Michael: But I was being judged, and to me, passing judgment on others is never well intentioned.
Anonymous: The judgment that matters is God’s, and this man’s judgment would be irrelevant. God judges what is in the heart, and we should not be afraid to open our hearts to others. Older people tend to be more judgmental of younger people, in this way. It is easy to be offended, but no offense was intended. God knows!
David: Michael’s antagonist seems to have been proselytizing. Pope Francis recently said: “Do not proselytize!” Even the conservative Pope Benedict once said essentially the same thing. Shakir is right: Be Neutral. Let people find their own way to salvation.
Shakir: There is nothing wrong with sharing one’s faith. It’s a matter of how it is done. If the recipient feels pressured or judged, it will not be well received. If it is simply a suggestion to consider something, to take a look at something, the response will be more positive. It’s the difference between sharing, which is good, and judging, which is not. It’s a matter not so much of whether to share, but rather of how to share.
Chris: I agree. Judging is not sharing. We were never meant to judge. We were meant to be a tool for sharing God-given principles, not a tool to use for our own benefit. We are God’s tool, and it’s up to God how He uses other people as His tools. We may be tools at the right time to help another grow a relationship with God. God knows, but I don’t. Tools don’t judge—they do what their creative owner wants.
Anonymous: Faith has two applications: A group of beliefs (a denomination), or a personal walk with God. Maybe sharing is more effective when it is to share one’s personal walk with God and testify to His impacts on one’s life without mentioning Scripture.
David: Proselytizing is an attempt to convert someone.
Anonymous: It doesn’t hurt for an older person to give guidance to a less mature person. The aim is to affect their lives for God, to help them live happily and successfully with God, to have a conscience, joy in the heart, strength, faith, hope, and love. It is not to bring them to one’s own religion.
David: Michael was upset. Could his anger have impeded his salvation?
Michael: Proselytizing and even just evangelizing is tricky business!
Don: How might faith be shared in a neutral way, without causing offense?
Shakir: It depends on the recipient’s perception of the intentions of the sharer. Whether in religion, politics, sports, or whatever, bringing a new supporter validates our belief, strengthens our side, improves our chances of winning whatever game we are playing. This is different from caring about people enough to want to share with them something you think might make their lives better in some way. But you have to be willing to listen to them. Sensitivity and openness are most important.
David: This is what happens in this class, coming as we do from different faiths and backgrounds. We share our different perspectives without fear of judgment within the class or of feeling bad. I would say nobody’s salvation is being impeded here; but I can’t say whether we are assisting in each other’s salvation I think we are, but I can’t prove it.
Don: So the Shakir Rule of Neutrality rules?
Shakir: It is neutral in terms of action. A bad action may have been well intended. Perhaps the actor just did not know how to perform the action properly. It happens in surgery!
Michael: So it’s the action, not the intention.
Shakir: Both are important. If the object is inanimate, intention does not matter, but a human being can perceive intention and react to it.
Anonymous: It depends on the listener, not on the talker. Given clearly good intentions, only someone with a bad heart, someone who judges people, someone who wants to get his own way, could be offended. But those with a good heart will accept anything from you without being offended. They will accept you as you are.
Don: It’s clear from the passage that Jesus is talking not just about action but also about motive and the whole subject of religious and even social arrogance. Any time we proselytize or share our faith from an elevated Seat of Moses standpoint there’s a risk of falling into the trap Jesus referred to.
Anonymous: But we cannot be always alert and sensitive to the salvation of others, we cannot remain unfailingly neutral, and we cannot invariably act in good faith. We are not perfect. And God’s will may intervene at any time.
Isaac’s wife Rebecca acted out of faith with respect to Jacob, but she is considered to be bad. She led Esau to want to kill his brother. She created a big problem in the family by favoring Jacob over Esau.
Naomi’s advice to Ruth to go to a man to be covered by a robe could be considered bad advice.
Scripture shows that God’s will can be imposed on us no matter what we want. So what we say may seem bad but have been inspired by God for His purpose.
David: We seem to agree that there is always some danger of impeding the salvation of others in what we say. But salvation being what it is to Christians—the most important issue in life—then anything that risks the salvation of others must be totally unacceptable. It must be left to God alone. This seems to be what God told Job’s friends.
Anonymous: How smart, how enlightened are we? How are we to know the very small possibility of being an impediment for someone? If I am unaware of the possibility, I may talk with the best of intentions yet be an impediment. All I can do is try to be good!
Shakir: In sharing faith, it is important to be sensitive to the listener’s freedom, independence, right to choose, self-awareness, and so on. As well, the listener’s perception not only of the message but also of the messenger matters. The one might get in the way of the other. The listener expects respect, and without it, the message will fall on deaf ears.
David: This has serious implications for religion. In church, there is a sense of judgment from the pulpit. The church is not neutral.
Don: One of the capstones in all of this—something that puts the Woes into perspective—is Jesus’ statements about humility: That he who is first is last, and so on. How can one be humble when one knows one is right, as church knows it is right?
Shakir: If one is lost and God brings one home, one is humble about it. If we make our own way, we are proud of our achievement.