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Commentary: Jesus stressed kind behavior, not rituals, to get to heaven

Published March 1, 2008 12:00 am

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2008, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

How wide the divide in our greater Utah community is manifest by an imaginary situation in which a Roman Catholic and a Latter-day Saint decide to convert to the other's religion. In such a case, both churches would require rebaptism. Each considers itself the sole legitimate holder of divine authority. The pathway to heavenly salvation for both is a series of ordinances and rituals. For the Catholics, it is most of their Seven Sacraments; for the LDS, baptism, confirmation, ordination, endowment and sealing. In order to live with God in the Heavenly City, one must undergo these rites performed by an authorized representative of God.

We find that Jesus confronted similar views during his ministry. The Pharisees exhibited the same elite and narrow attitude about who enters heaven. They said the Torah was normative for worship. In addition, of equal validity was a great body of extra-biblical oral tradition. God's salvation, they asserted, was found exclusively in a strict outward observance of both the law and oral tradition.

Jesus paid little attention to their extra-biblical external commandments, rites and practice. Instead, he focused on the true spirit of religion - addressing the inner person, asking that we emulate his behavior and become reborn as good and loving people. The tendency of churches, then and now, is to look beyond the mark, to entail more than Jesus requires for entering heaven. Jesus used three well-known parables in Matthew 25 to outline the explicit criteria humankind can expect in the judgment.

In the Parable of the Ten Virgins (25:1-13), Jesus' main point is that they who "know" him enter "the kingdom of heaven." To the wise he said, "I know you," whereas to the foolish, "I know you not." Thus, the first question becomes: "Do you know him?" Or in other words, have you become a genuinely loving person, one who emulates God's nature?

The Parable of the Talents (25:14-30) centers on stewardship. Jesus asks: "What have you done with your time and gifts during your tenure on Earth?"

We find the third area of significance in the enthroned Son of Man judging The Sheep and the Goats ( 25:31-46). After he returns in glory at his second coming, he will judge "all nations: and he shall separate them [people] one from the other, as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats'' (meaning the righteous from the wicked). Importantly, he identifies those who will "inherit the kingdom'' (v. 34) and receive "life eternal'' (v. 46), as those who minister to the: "hungr[y] . . . thirsty . . . stranger . . . naked . . . sick . . . [or] in prison."

Jesus does not judge us by the church we attend, by our distinctive theological beliefs or creeds, or by the peculiar rituals and ordinances that we have embraced; but rather he focuses directly on our behavior toward other human beings. Ordinances are not without value, for they can and do aid and strengthen the worshiper when internalized to experience God's saving presence, but Jesus is not interested in exclusive claims. The gap between all believers is greatly narrowed by individual Christians who ignore such dogma and embrace Jesus' message and promise and ponder it in their hearts.

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* GRANT H. PALMER lives in Sandy and is the author of The Incomparable Jesus and An Insider's View of Mormon Origins. He accepts e-mail at granthpalmer@msn.com.