37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you?” -Matthew 25:37-38
In the last five years, I’ve heard this passage so many times I feel numb to it. Jesus divides all of humanity up into two groups that he labels the “sheep” and the “goats” and he rewards the sheep because they had related with him. The best part is that they didn’t even realize it. Whenever they cared for “the least of these;” the hungry, the thirsty, the estranged, the naked and the lonely, they were (by proxy) loving Jesus. I read these words and I feel a sense of duty and purpose in finding Jesus, but I also feel overwhelmed by the incredible bulk of people who could be Jesus in disguise. Every person on the street asking for change, every phone call from a lonely person who needs to talk, every photo of a child in a developing nation with those sad eyes could very well be Jesus himself. How can I ignore Jesus?
Most of these thoughts that come up are related to something I’m reading and this is no different. I was reading one of my books (The Preaching Life, by Barbara Brown Taylor) for my preaching class and the second half of the book is almost entirely made up of sermons delievered by the author. One of her sermons is on this specific passage and she spends a lot of time talking about her own difficulty and overwhelmed feeling from all the perceived need and the frustration from her inability to help everyone. She said something that really resonated with me and even though I read it a couple of days ago it has stuck with me. I can’t quite shake it, so I wanted to share it with you.
One thing is for sure. You cannot win this truth like a scavenger hunt, checking off one hungry person, one thirsty one, one sick one, and one in prison. You cannot toss a quarter in a cup or throw a dollar bill at an old woman in the grocery store and call it done. “There! There’s my good deed for the day, my ticket to eternity with the sheep!” You cannot use people that way and besides, emptying your pockets may not be the right thing to do.
The only way to tell if they are really Jesus’ eyes is to look into them, to risk that moment of recognition that may break your heart, or change your mind, or make you mad, or make you amend your life. Whatever effect it has on you, that seems to be one thing the sheep know how to do that the goats have never tried: to look, to see, to seek Christ in the last, the lost, the least. I am sure Matthew would not agree with me, but if you ask me, that is enough to start with. The food, the drink, the welcome, the visit-all those things will follow in their own good time. They are necessary for life; they are not optional, but by themselves they are just quarters in a cup. Charity is no substitute for kinship. We are not called to be philanthropists or social workers, but brothers and sisters.. We are called into relationship, even when that relationship is unlikely, momentary, or sad. We are called to look at each other and see Christ, who promises to be there when our eyes meet, and in that glance to teach us something we need to know.
These are all things we need to know-about Jesus, about our brothers and sisters, about ourselves-but we cannot know them if we will not look. The goats are not condemned for doing bad things, remember, but for doing nothing. They bore the hungry, the thirsty, and the stranger no malice; they simply did not see any relationship between their lives and the lives of the least. There is a relationship. That is both the good news and the bad news today and the last day, when we will all stand before Christ the king and find out who we are. There is a relationship, and it is up to each one of us to decide what we will do-or will not do-about it.
Mr friend Deana just got back from three weeks serving with an organization in Uganda that cares for AIDS orphans. When we sat down and she told me about her trip (which was not her first trip like this), the things that stood out in her story were the people she related to. It was so incredibly evident that there was a real relationship with those people, not that they were people needing to be saved by Super American Christian, but that she connected with some amazing people.
Every day we are confronted by many opportunities to relate with people. People we are close with, people we know but don’t really like and people we’ve never met. Buying a coffee today, I could have just bought my coffee with minimal contact with the cashier or barista (you know how to do it, we all have at one time or another) or I could have acknowledged them as people, really being present and interacting with them face-to-face and eye-to-eye. For the last week, I’ve been focused on giving people my attention and looking in their eyes as I interact with them. I’m looking for Jesus and honestly trying to connect beyond simple charity.
So where are you seeing Jesus? Are you looking for him in the right places? Open your eyes and you might be surprised by where you run into him.