On taking Jesus to our urban areas: a response

Philip North, the suffragan bishop of Burnley, offers this response to my comments in the previous post:

I am very grateful to Ian Paul for such a thoughtful and reflective response to my Church Times article, and indeed for this opportunity to respond. Those who are part of the Estates Theology Project are very keen to start exactly this sort of conversation. (And indeed it’s worth pointing out that there are theologians in that group who would take a view different from my own).

Ian’s response is based on our fundamentally different understandings of the Incarnation. That may sound a bit technical. However, the way we understand Christ to be present in his world has a huge impact on how we go about the work of evangelism.

The heart of the difference is the way we read Matthew 25.31–46 (the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats) and more specifically who we consider the recipients of compassion to be in that parable. According to Ian, the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger and the imprisoned are followers of Jesus rather than any human being in need. In other words, those who show mercy to others are serving Christ only if those they serve are consciously his followers.

The effect of this is to restrict the incarnate presence of Christ to the Church and thereby leave a big gulf between that which is sacred and that which is secular. The saving work of Christ is about a God who (for a while) steps into a dark world in order to pluck out human souls with the rest of creation left fundamentally untouched.


This understanding of the impact of the Incarnation has a number of implications. First, as Ian demonstrates himself, it makes for a one-sided relationship between the evangelist and the community to which they are sent. The evangelist can accept material support from the community (in accordance with a rather literal understanding of the Sending of the 72), but because they have exclusive access to the Christian truth of the Incarnation, any mutual relationship ends there. The message for estates residents could be an uncomfortable one. We’re going to eat your food, spend your universal credit and pinch your council house but don’t worry, because at the end we will tell you all about Jesus!

And second there are knock-on implications for the environment. The extreme separation of the sacred and the secular implicit in this reading of incarnational theology has been a vehicle for an understanding of creation that sees it as an inherently dark and godless place. It is an easy step from there to see creation as ripe for plunder.


But what if the hungry and the imprisoned in Matthew 25 are not Christians but anyone in need of compassion? That reading seems to me to be much more in tune with the rest of Matthew which is repeatedly clear that the fruits of faith are works of mercy shown to all (Matthew 7.20, 12.7, 16.27). It also makes it consistent with the great parables from the other Gospels, such as the Good Samaritan, which call the Christian to acts of mercy precisely for those who are different from us.

Such a reading means that the Incarnation is no longer limited to life of the Church. The birth of the Saviour has not just ecclesiastical but cosmic significance. There is no place where Jesus isn’t, no life untouched by his presence. We can go to the estate, the prison cell, the cancer ward, the hospice, the factory, the army barracks and so on and find Christ incarnate and present. His being goes way beyond our capacity to measure, understand or comprehend.

There is therefore no distinction between that which is secular and that which is sacred because by taking on creation, Jesus has sanctified it. The world is charged with the presence of the Word made Flesh which gives us a responsibility to care for it and nurture it as stewards. That is surely consistent with Romans 8.20 where Paul talks about all being subject to futility ‘until now,’ (Rom 8.22) that ‘now’ being the advent of Christ.


The Incarnation is not about a God who steps in for a while to rescue a few souls from a godless world. It is a cosmic work of God in history that impacts the whole of creation for all time. Its particularity has consequences that are universal and eternal.

There is of course a lazy, universalist way of reading this understanding of the Incarnation. If Jesus is present in everything, why bother? Why do we need the church, its worship or a call to conversion? But that would be wholly wrong. Just because Jesus imbues creation and is present in the poor and the hungry that doesn’t in any way forego the need for conversion, repentance and new life. Of course we need to acknowledge Christ as Lord and bend the knee before him. Of course we need faith to know salvation. And of course we need evangelists to bring people to that point of conversion. What it effects is the why and the how of our evangelism.

So why do we evangelise? When the church ministers to an estate, we are not carrying Jesus there—because he is there already. Rather our purpose is to help people to see the Christ who made them, who is present in their lives and who longs for their salvation. To become a Christian is to wake up to something that we know fundamentally to be true, perhaps that we knew all along, but couldn’t find the language or the rituals to articulate. We don’t import good news. We point it out.

The Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote these remarkable lines in his poem ‘The Wreck of the Deutschland.’

I kiss my hand
To the stars, lovely asunder
Starlight, wafting him out of it;

Hopkins had a profound sense of the incarnate presence of God charging all creation and of the poet’s task to ‘waft out’ that presence in order that others might worship him. Perhaps the work of the evangelist is the same, wafting out the presence of the Saviour in unlikely people and places so that those who seek life’s purpose might find that purpose in His eternal starlight.


And how do we evangelise? To turn up with a large gang of people who believe they have a monopoly on the truth and who import a culturally alien message using language and concepts local people do not understand is not evangelism. It is colonialism. Our approach needs to echo the incarnational principle.

First we need evangelists who will listen and help people find the Christ in their midst. We need to go expecting to find Jesus in the most unlikely places and rejoice together when we do find him. That means (for example) that the most successful estates church plants tend to have very small leadership teams who move into an area and for many months pray, live the life and become part of the community. They model the incarnation themselves and in so doing gather together communities of disciples.

Second we need evangelists who have the humility to be evangelised themselves. In Matthew 25 Jesus is present in the hungry and the prisoner. If that is the case, then it is the hungry and the prisoner who minister Christ to us. As Vincent de Paul wrote, the poor are our evangelists. Those who long to convert others must be open to being more deeply converted themselves.

And third, any evangelism on estates needs to be passionate about raising up local leaders. The best voices are local voices who can find good news in the people they know and point it out in a language that local people can understand. The attempts being made in many parts of the church to call and form local leaders from urban communities are vital.


I read Ian’s post on the same day as a I watched a powerfully moving edition of DIY–SOS in which the team, funded by Children in Need, gathered a vast crowd of tradesmen to renovate an old school building owned by a parish in our Diocese. In less than two weeks they transformed the building into the most wonderful, safe space for six homeless teenagers who have now been rescued from the streets and are learning skills that will set them up for life.

Where is Jesus in that scenario? Is his presence really restricted to those who happen to attend that small church? Or is he present in the incredible love and compassion of those, Christian or not, who gave so freely of their times and gifts to transform the lives of some of the nation’s most vulnerable people? Surely it is when we find Christ in the latter and then, when we find him, name him and worship him, that his glory shines forth.

+Philip Burnley, November 15th 2019


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29 thoughts on “On taking Jesus to our urban areas: a response”

  1. I’m thinking this response does a lot to reconcile the two positions in the debate and to guide us to best practice in urban evangelism. In my view the role of the outside evangelist after long listening and relationship building is to witness to and reveal the truth of the gospel. In everyday urban church life I am not sure that the binary division of believer and unbeliever is helpful. As Mt 25 shows it is God who will eventually sort out sheep and goats. The evangelists role is to explore with those who are interested in following Jesus how they can be better informed and more faithful disciples.
    .

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  2. There is no place where Jesus isn’t, no life untouched by his presence. We can go to the estate, the prison cell, the cancer ward, the hospice, the factory, the army barracks and so on and find Christ incarnate and present. His being goes way beyond our capacity to measure, understand or comprehend

    So again my question is — how is this different from panentheism?

    To turn up with a large gang of people who believe they have a monopoly on the truth and who import a culturally alien message using language and concepts local people do not understand is not evangelism

    It’s what Jesus did, though, isn’t it? Bring the culturally alien message of holiness to a fallen world. I mean if …

    we need evangelists who have the humility to be evangelised themselves. […] Those who long to convert others must be open to being more deeply converted themselves

    … does that mean that when Jesus met, say, Zacchaeus, He was being converted as much as Zacchaeus was? (I’ve actually heard sermons preached on this, that Jesus needed to learn something from humanity while incarnate (often bouncing off the story of the Syrophoenician woman)… but I’m pretty sure that’s a heretical idea, isn’t it?).

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  3. I too was taught that Matt 25 is primarily focused on the church in the same way that in Timothy we should care for our own families as a priority, so too the church is our family and priority. This is illustrated in Acts 2 and 4 and 6 where the church cared for its own; this distribution did not appear to be a general social handout. And in 1 Timothy 5 this appears to be only a church scheme for widow support.
    Of course as in the feeding of the 5000 there is always generosity left over to share more widely. And in Galatians 5 there is generosity to all but prioritising the church.
    Is there not a need to tease out whether or not there is a difference between “Blessed are the poor in spirit “ and “Blessed are you poor”; especially in removing the politically loaded application of Luke’s version?
    I find there is much more value in recognising that the Holy Spirit is at work in the world as per John 16 rather than the world revealing Jesus which contradicts the same chapter! When the Holy Spirit is freed to work even the middle-class John Wesley could break through to the hardened miners!

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  4. And furthermore…

    To become a Christian is to wake up to something that we know fundamentally to be true, perhaps that we knew all along, but couldn’t find the language or the rituals to articulate.

    No, it isn’t. It’s learning something that we didn’t know, but that suddenly makes everything else make sense. If it seems obvious in retrospect, it’s only because of the way it explains so much that had previously been mysterious, like the inverse-square law.

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  5. Matthew 25 sheep-and-goats has traditionally been understood as enjoining Christians to do works of mercy with respect to their poor and suffering fellow believers first of all (‘the least of these brothers of mine’) and then more broadly. The idea that it applied primarily to all those in need is I understand a 19th century ‘social gospel’ innovation.

    However, the teaching has traditionally been understood to be directed to Christians, enjoining them to works of mercy to one another, which makes sense of its context and rhetoric. It wasn’t understood (as another novel more ‘conservative’ reading has it) to be telling non-Christians to be kind to Christians in order to gain access to eternal life (which would contradict the Gospel, and anyway non-Christians are not generally listening to Jesus’ teaching), or similarly telling Christians that non-Christians will be saved by being kind to them.

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    • Thanks Will–but you are completely wrong here. Denny Burk summarises Sherman Gray’s 1989 survey of the history of interpretation here https://www.dennyburk.com/the-predominant-view-of-the-least-of-these-in-church-history/:

      ‘In the Patristic Period, you can find the narrow interpretation in Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Tertullian, Chrysostom, Jerome, Ambrose, the Venerable Bede, and (most notably) Augustine. Augustine’s towering influence is well-known. He refers to “the least” 44 times in his writings, and “nowhere does Augustine specifically state that ‘the least’ are the poor in general… it is obvious that the Christian poor are meant” (p. 69). Whereas some of the patristics are inconsistent in their references to “the least,” Augustine is consistent in identifying “the least” as Christians. Thus, “Augustine comes down clearly on the side of those who hold a restrictive viewpoint” (p. 71).

      In the Medieval Period, the narrow interpretation is found in Anselm of Laon, who says that “the least” are not the poor in general, “but only those who are poor in spirit who, having put aside their own will, do the will of the heavenly Father” (p. 168). It is also in Bonaventure, who “clearly identifies ‘the least’ as Christians” (p. 175). The most influential theologian of this period is obviously Aquinas, and he also comes down clearly identifiying “the least” as Christ’s disciples (p. 180).

      In the period of the Renaissance and Reformation, you can find this interpretation in a number of figures including Erasmus, Zwingli, Luther, and Calvin. Of course, the latter two are the towering figures of the Reformation, and so it is significant that both Luther and Calvin are clear that “the least” are Christians (pp. 203-206, 208).

      The amount of evidence that Gray covers is vast and can hardly be reproduced in a single blog post. But we can summarize his findings with respect to the narrow view of “the least of these.” He concludes that if one sets aside references to the “least of these” that are unspecified, “then it is clear that the narrow interpretation of ‘the least’ is the predominant viewpoint throughout the centuries” (p. 349). The narrow view is held 68% of the time in Middle Ages and 74% of the time in the Renaissance/Reformation (pp. 349-50).

      None of this establishes the narrow view as the correct interpretation. That has to be settled on exegetical grounds. This impressive survey, however, does establish that interpreting “the least of these” as Christians is no historical anomaly. It has an impressive pedigree in every major period of church history. And I would argue that there is a good reason for that. The most careful readers of Matthew 25:40 have understood that Jesus was referring to his followers when he spoke of “the least of these.” And that is how we should understand it as well.’

      Others note that the ‘universal reading’ only came about through the influence of Liberal Protestantism, with its twin conceptions of the universal fatherhood of God and the universal brotherhood of mankind [sic].

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      • Ian – I’m not sure why you say I am completely wrong, I support the view you defend in this comment. That’s why I say: ‘The idea that it applied primarily to all those in need is I understand a 19th century “social gospel” innovation.’ I am agreeing with the ‘narrow’ view.

        What I am disputing is the separate point that the ‘sheep’ are not Christians. The traditional view here is that they are (which is why they are called the ‘righteous’ who are ‘blessed by my Father’ and who ‘inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world’ and receive ‘eternal life’ – all of which clearly mark them out as Christians). The teaching is about enjoining Christians to care for their fellow Christians.

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        • “The teaching is about enjoining Christians to care for their fellow Christians.”

          Yes. And it teaches that, in this present world, those whose salvation is authentic (i.e. the sheep) reveal this in their (even unconscious) practical relief of the suffering of those who, despite being considered “least” in this world, are precious members of Christ’s body.

          In Matt. 24:12, the impetus behind Jesus’ admonition is his summarised foresight into the recidivism that would ensue as a result of the intense enmity aroused by extensive widespread moral polarisation: “Then they will deliver you up to tribulation and put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations for my name’s sake. And then many will fall away and betray one another and hate one another. And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray. And because lawlessness will be increased, the love of many will grow cold. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.” (Matt. 24:9 – 13)

          Therefore, it becomes very costly, in the midst of such hostility, to provide comfort and relief to those whom society brands as public enemies (as they did in the first century).

          Yet, it’s also in this context, that we can understand Christ’s promise: “Whoever receives a prophet because he is a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward, and whoever receives a righteous man because he is a righteous man will receive a righteous man’s reward.” (Matt. 10:41)

          Of course, this resembles the promise of deliverance that the Old Testament prophets extended to those who, in the fear of God and in defiance of widespread sinfulness, rendered comfort and support to His servants (e.g. Joshua 2:12 – 14; 1 Ki. 17:13-14)

          Yet, having said this, there’s nothing in Matt. 24 that allows us to set aside St. Paul’s exhortation in Galatians 6:10: “As we have therefore opportunity, let us do good unto all men, especially unto them who are of the household of faith.”

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      • Great article. I have never felt that the Matthew passage was referring to serving the church, but was referring to professing Christian’s as Sheep and Goats – some say “Lord” but have never actually served him or seen him in those in need who are “other” to them. This seems to be an entirely consistent evangelical interpretation and fits with the Good Samaritan and the challenge to the Rich Young ruler. Well done Bishop Philip.

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  6. I spent some time this morning comparing +Philip North’s Church Times post with Ian Paul’s counter-argument and this rebuttal from the bishop.

    The first key point of dispute is that +North identifies the extent of deprivation as a concomitant of smaller urban congregations (when compared to rural ones). However, Ian challenges his assertion that “nobody really seems to know the answer to this question” about smaller urban congregation by reminding of the link between church growth and investment stipendiary ministry and the comparatively lower investment (per capita) in stipendiary ministry for urban areas.

    Despite this, there is one point made in the original article that deserves greater consideration, which is that “those urban parishes that do have larger congregations tend to be eclectic ones that gather people together from across a much wider area.”

    Those congregations also tend to be far more ethnically diverse at all levels of responsibility. And this is true for all large urban congregations, whether within historic denominations or the ‘new’ churches (the latter being founded during or after 1980).

    We do have census data on how ethnicity correlates to church growth. In 2014, the Council for Christian Unity explained that between 2001 and 2011, “the number of Christians in England who self describe as white (English, Scottish, Welsh) fell by 5.47 million to 27 million.” https://www.churchofengland.org/sites/default/files/2017-10/north_east.pdf

    During that period “the percentage increase in the number of white (other), mixed ethnic and black Christians is broadly similar at round about 50%. The percentage increase of Asian
    Christians is nearly 400%.” And, although these non-native ethnicities still only comprise 8.1% of the total UK population, they are significant evidence of ethnicity being a key concomitant of urban church growth.

    In contrast, there is a relative lack of ethnic diversity in the CofE. From the 2007 National Parish Diversity Monitoring report, I’ll cite two examples:
    1. In Birmingham, the clergy in the diocese was 4.5% minority ethnic, while the core congregations were 11.1% ME. In 2011, the ethnic distribution was 58% white, 27% asian and 9% black.

    2. In Southwark, the clergy in the same diocese was 6.8% minority ethnic, while the core congregations were 22.7% ME. In 2011, the ethnic distribution was 63% white, 9.4% asian and 25.9% black.

    Even in 2014, the Everyone Counts diversity monitoring report revealed that “in urban, there is a disparity between local the ethnic diversity of the local community and CofE congregations.”

    It means that, if the CofE is not emulating Eph. 2:14 – 18 in its leadership and mission (as the early church did), then it is alienating the very people who not only contribute to the ethnic diversity of urban areas, but also comprise the majority of those who represent growth in urban congregations.

    When I’ve highlighted this before, there’s been little consideration of how this might be rectified. So, let me be clear that this comment is not meant to precipitate handwringing, but (once again) to encourage candid thoughtful engagement on this issue.

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  7. Is there any contradiction between saying:
    a) God has not chosen to stay distant but has come near, especially in the darkest places. He is active, working for justice, pointing to love, sometimes through the actions of those who do not acknowledge him, AND
    b) Those whom God is calling need to recognise his presence, repent and believe the good news, this becoming his adopted children through the death and resurrection of Jesus in the fellowship of the church?

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    • Hi Andy,

      I think that a) is consonant with both Acts 14:16,17 and Acts 17:27,28. Both passages point towards God, who, as you say, is: “working for justice, pointing to love, sometimes through the actions of those who do not acknowledge him.”

      Yes, there is a starting point in the acknowledgement of good news that recognises that even the natural providence in life bears witness to God’s enduring goodness and forbearance.

      However, at no point did the apostles confuse this providence with the Good News per se for which they were empowered by the Holy Spirit to effect His victory over the powers of darkness and deception.

      So, what I would question is +North’s belief that the task of evangelism is to do no more than to discover God’s naturally-occurring providence which (despite its existence from time immemorial before Christ’s incarnation and life) he dubs the Good News, i.e. “the Good News is there already; our task, in the company of local people, is to dig it up and show it to the world.”

      In contrast with this notion, as the evidence of the Good News of the Kingdom of God, Christ pointed to His supernatural authority (which was far from naturally occurring) to expel the powers of darkness and deception : “But if I drive out demons by the finger of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.”

      So, if there’s a contradiction between a) and b), it’s when some assume that to share the Good News (b) involves nothing more than making people aware of the common grace in their midst. The experience of common grace is not mediated through faith in Christ.

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  8. “There is therefore no distinction between that which is secular and that which is sacred because by taking on creation, Jesus has sanctified it. The world is charged with the presence of the Word made Flesh which gives us a responsibility to care for it and nurture it as stewards. ”

    I don’t see how the Incarnation” sanctifes ” creation in a” changing it” way. Certainly it clearly declared it as loved by God…. as it had been from the beginning. Any uncertainty about that was only on “our side”. But it clearly wasn’t sanctified by the Incarnation in such a way that sickness, sin, death etc are banished.

    Wasn’t the world “charged ” by the Word from the beginning? The mark of the creator is in all things if clouded and tainted by sin.

    “To become a Christian is to wake up to something that we know fundamentally to be true, perhaps that we knew all along, but couldn’t find the language or the rituals to articulate. We don’t import good news. We point it out.”

    I can think of nothing in the evangelism of the NT that supports this. The work of the Holy Spirit in opening hearts and minds to receive the Good News suggests that people are not in possession of it….

    Yes… Culture gaps can be an issue along with patronising (particularly the “poor”?) but that’s about a social understanding mismatch not about a fundamental fault in evangelism. Mind you both Jesus and Paul leapt over some biggish gaps.

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  9. I certainly agree with David that it’s a problem if someone believes that proclaiming the good news is “nothing more than making people aware of the common grace in their midst”. I don’t think anyone is making this claim, though. “Of course we need to acknowledge Christ as Lord and bend the knee before him. Of course we need faith to know salvation.”

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    • Agreed, +North focuses on common grace as having the potential for conversion to be effected: “Hopkins had a profound sense of the incarnate presence of God charging all creation and of the poet’s task to ‘waft out’ that presence in order that others might worship him. Perhaps the work of the evangelist is the same, wafting out the presence of the Saviour in unlikely people and places so that those who seek life’s purpose might find that purpose in His eternal starlight.”

      The gift of the Holy Spirit provides so much more than just a deeper insight into God’s presence in creation, such that the writer of Hebrews describes the experience of grace as having been: “…enlightened, …tasted the heavenly gift,…shared in the Holy Spirit,…tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming age”.

      It’s a stretch toward panentheism to claim that this gospel, replete with this supernatural experience of Christ’s victorious power of the coming age, is to be shared through evangelists “wafting out the presence of the Saviour in unlikely people and places.”

      For instance, despite God overcoming all odds to reach Cornelius with the message of the gospel, the apostle’s evangelism included far more than “wafting out Christ’s presence” in the centurion’s household.

      +North’s above explanation of ‘how do we evangelise’ does not recognise this important fact.

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  10. First, as Ian demonstrates himself, it makes for a one-sided relationship between the evangelist and the community to which they are sent. The evangelist can accept material support from the community (in accordance with a rather literal understanding of the Sending of the 72), but because they have exclusive access to the Christian truth of the Incarnation, any mutual relationship ends there.

    Surely that’s the very definition of a two-sided relationship? One side gives material support; the other gives knowledge. It’s a fair exchange. It is a totally mutual relationship, a relationship in which both sides gain something from the other.

    The only way in which it could be a one-sided relationship is if one side took and gave nothing of value in return. Which is why…

    The message for estates residents could be an uncomfortable one. We’re going to eat your food, spend your universal credit and pinch your council house but don’t worry, because at the end we will tell you all about Jesus!

    …is so concerning. Are you really saying that knowledge about Jesus is worthless? That’s an… interesting position for a Christian to take.

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  11. One thing I find hard to understand is when the bishop says that Christ is already present in the lives of those who have to be evangelised. How does this square with Ephesians ch 2 which says that before we are saved we are dead in trespasses and sins, and only when Christ comes into our lives as Saviour do we have life?

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  12. There is a hermeneutical turn in the Matthew 25 passage which may be relevant here, and which seems largely unnoticed in commentary. For all their differences, the sheep and the goats share a characteristic of ignorance – they both deny knowing Christ in the people he mentions. But once we have heard the parable, we can no longer be ignorant, so we, as hearers of the parable, can be neither sheep nor goats. It is a parable which changes the world – we have to live with knowledge, we can no longer pretend ignorance. [And of course that has echoes back to Eden]

    I haven’t done an exhaustive search for the same turn in other parables, but I haven’t noticed it elsewhere. When I noticed it here I did rather think that I had missed the point for years.

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    • ‘But once we have heard the parable, we can no longer be ignorant, so we, as hearers of the parable, can be neither sheep nor goats.’ Quite so.

      And that is a major problem with the common reading, and one that those advocating the currently common reading seem not to notice (ironically!).

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    • Commentators commonly note that the surprise of the sheep is for literary effect perhaps reflecting the surprise of the listeners, not to be understood as reflecting a true ignorance on the part of the ‘sheep’ in the final judgement.

      For instance, John Wesley writes: ‘”Then shall the righteous answer” — It cannot be, that either the righteous or the wicked should answer in these very words. What we learn herefrom is, that neither of them have the same estimation of their own works as the Judge hath.’

      Matthew Henry remarks similarly that: ‘The expressions are parabolical, designed to introduce and impress these great truths, that Christ has a mighty regard to works of charity, and is especially pleased with kindnesses done to his people for his sake.’

      The sheep are clearly marked out as Christians. As I note above, they are called ‘the righteous’ who are ‘blessed by my Father’ and who ‘inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world’ and receive ‘eternal life’, all of which mark them out as Christians in New Testament terms. To suppose people described thus are any other than Christians is surely to undermine the Gospel. I am not aware of a tradition of interpreting the sheep as people other than Christians, but Ian says there is and I am hoping he will point me to it when he gets a moment.

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  13. “In other words, those who show mercy to others are serving Christ only if those they serve are consciously his followers.”

    This is a false conclusion and patent nonsense.

    We are talking about a specific teaching of Jesus, as recorded by Matthew. Jesus never identified His ‘brothers and sisters’ as people in general. Indeed in the very same gospel:

    ‘While Jesus was still talking to the crowd, his mother and brothers stood outside, wanting to speak to him. 47 Someone told him, “Your mother and brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.”

    48 He replied to him, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” 49 Pointing to his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers. 50 For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”’

    Note that He points to His DISCIPLES. He couldnt be clearer.

    It is simply not true that understanding this teaching in this way means we are less merciful than others, or that we are not serving Christ. This conveniently forgets Jesus’ other teaching, such as ‘love your neighbour as yourself’ which clearly means doing good to everyone, or ‘do unto others as you would have them do unto you’.

    The specific teaching is about how we show our allegiance. How many non-believers do you know who show mercy and good works to Christians because they are followers of Jesus? Personally I cant think of any. In some countries such help could be costly to the individual.

    Finally, we know Jesus is only refering to His disciples in this passage because He always closely identified the treatment of them with Himself. When He confronted Saul, He said ‘Why do you persecute me?’ In fact Saul hadnt persecuted Jesus at all, but he was persecuting His followers. Hence when you persecute the followers of Jesus, you are also persecuting Him. And conversely, if you care for His followers you are also showing care for Him. Hence the judgement as to your allegiance – to Jesus or not.

    Peter

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