Jesus saved his most important parable; the one that sums up what is implied in all the rest, for last. The setting is the final judgment. At the end of it all, God divides the nations, not just individuals, but also the nations and decides who will be invited into the kingdom. It’s sobering to be confronted by the notion that our nation is being judged by God on the basis of how well we care for the poorest and most vulnerable people in our country.
The parable describes how all nations are divided into two groups. On the right side are the sheep (those who did the will of God) and on the left are the goats who did not.
Jesus tells the sheep that he came and was hungry and naked and imprisoned and they helped him out.
The people are surprised. “You came back? We didn’t see you. When did we see you like that?” When you did it to the least of my brothers and sisters you did it also unto me. The sheep are stunned. But we weren’t trying to be religious or anything. “Aw, I just had a little left over time so I threw in some food in the baskets when you come into church. And yeah, I called on some folks who were sick, but the truth is, I didn’t have the slightest idea what to say. It was even worse for the grieving people. When I went to the house with a casserole, I prayed that it would be enough and I wouldn’t have to actually talk to anyone.
God says, “Surprise. That’s the way that it works. In the end you are judged not by the amount of your faith or by the purity of your thoughts and actions, but by whether or not your faith drives you to do some good for the least and the lost.”
The goats, are equally surprised and monumentally disappointed. These are the people who thought they were going to heaven, but find out at the last minute that they are going to be on the outside looking in. They get rejected because they did not respond to human suffering. “Lord when did we see you? We were waiting for you to come back. Look at my faith: I read went to Bible study, tried to impose morals on others and I even put a bumper sticker on my car, In case of Rapture, this Car will be Unoccupied. I kept my nose clean and didn’t do many really bad things. Look over your sheep list again, there are folks over there who’ve done way worse than I’ve ever done.”
But the Lord says, “Dude, don’t you get it. I said I’d return and you used that as a reason to feel smug and superior to others with that arrogant bumper sticker. Hoping to see the cars and planes crash when their drivers and pilots were snatched into heaven at the rapture, that’s just sick. Well, do I have news for you: I came back already and you missed it.” But the goats had not been able to hear what the Lord told the sheep. “When did you come back? We didn’t see you!”
“Whenever you passed by human need, you passed ME by.” Can’t you just hear their response? “No fair. You never said you would be so sneaky about it. Give us a do-over!”
Jesus tells them faith is much more than what you believe. It’s what you do with your life. It is more than trying not to break the Ten Commandments. It is about how you align yourself in the world. Do you align yourself with the lost and suffering, does your faith make you roll up your sleeves and get busy, or do you align yourself with those who would just make up excuses why you shouldn’t help people. Salvation is not automatically granted to those who have faith, but to those who do faith, says David Mosser. (http://www.ucc.org/worship/samuel/november-23-2014.html)
Sometimes we can look at folks and say, they got themselves into their problems through their own bad choices. My helping just helps people abuse the system, and doesn’t teach them personal responsibility. Often there is truth to that, but it isn’t true for everybody who is hurting and it doesn’t give us a pass on trying to reach out and do some good. Jesus seems to be saying in this passage that if you worship God and somehow are indifferent to the plight of those around you, then you are not worshipping the Bible’s God, you are worshipping a false idol, a cheap knock-off that isn’t going to do you any good at the final judgment. What matters is who is standing right in front of us.
It’s hard and we don’t always get it right. More than any other, I suppose, this passage has been at the heart of my faith from the day I first heard it and I’ve been trying to get it right ever since. When I went to seminary in Connecticut, I had my first encounters with homeless people. A guy on the street asked me for money for food and I remembered that my grandfather told me not to give out money, but if they are really hungry to buy them a meal. That way you know they won’t be buying booze with the money
So, I take this guy to a convenience store and he asks if he can get a hot dog, an orange juice and some chips. As we approached the counter to pay for it, I was feeling like a sheep. I could just hear the words of the Lord ringing in my ears, “Well done, good sheep, Dave. Enter into the joy of the Good Shepherd.” But those are not the words that I heard. The words I heard came from the clerk who glared at me and chastised me. “This bum gets a sucker in here every day. You spent more money giving him a handout than I make in two hours working this job. Thanks, idiot.”
I was confused, hung my head and walked sheepishly out of the building. I was discovering that it is hard to do the right thing. It’s hard to know what to do. When are you enabling people and when are you genuinely helping? Throughout my ministry, I’ve had tons of experience in dealing with homeless and hard-living people. People with needs. Those who’ve been in prison, those who are sick, those who are lonely. Those who are needy.
Often they come in as an annoyance or major inconvenience. They have a way of showing up when I’m occupied with something more pressing, important minister stuff, like making sure we’ve ordered enough toilet paper or figuring out which font we should use in the bulletin. And then they show up. And sometimes I think, “Jesus Christ, is it you again? This is important, help me not to mess it up.”
Many of the most honest and profound and holy moments of my life have occurred in these interactions. A little light or hope or kindness shines through and I find that my life has been enriched.
It’s easy to demonize people. To blame them, to look down upon them—especially if it’s their own poor choices that led to their circumstances. But Jesus doesn’t let us get away with demonizing them. He humanizes them. No he divinizes them. When you did it to them you did it to me, the Son of God.
The question isn’t whether we should respond to human need. The question is how we should do it. How do you get into that model where it teaches someone to fish rather than just giving him a fish? How do you make sure it isn’t some patronizing system where the people with means winding up feeling superior and congratulate themselves for having done something for someone else? How do you help without enabling? How do you do it in relational a way that retains everyone’s dignity?
We’ve been having this conversation a lot at Bay Shore Church. We want it to affect how we are in mission in general and especially what role we should have when homeless people come to us at the church. We’ve consulted lots of people with different perspectives. It’s complex and real help and solutions are going to require a multi-faceted approach. But there are a few generalities that may help guide how you respond.
- When you see someone in need, above all, treat them with dignity and respect.
- If you are certain of your safety, engage with them. It’s hard to believe in yourself enough to make life changes if you’re always told how worthless you are.
- Don’t give panhandlers cash. There are resource guides that can guide people to services. Some folks make up little baggies with a water bottle and resource guide they give out instead.
- Refrain from making big assumptions and lumping all homeless people in sweeping generalizations. These are individuals with their own stories. Although many are, they are not all dangerous “bad guys”. A good practice is to refrain from saying “the homeless.” Try saying “homeless people” instead. It’s not about being “politically correct.” It’s a reminder to humanize not demonize.
- Give to services that help people. That is a big part of what the church does.
Although it’s difficult, this passage has to be in the forefront of our minds. It is tough, and we won’t always get it right, but we have to keep responding, we have to keep trying and not get discouraged.
On the American frontier, they took this passage seriously. They formed little support groups to help people be true to this passage. They’d get together every week and John would say, Tim, you say you want to help the disadvantaged, so how did you do this week? Did you feed anyone who was hungry this week? Sue, did you visit any one who was sick this week? The point was that it’s easy to think we are doing more than we are, to rest on a few good deeds and think we’ve done enough.
God gives us many opportunities to extend the blessings for which we gave thanks on Thursday to the rest of the world on Sunday. God expects us to share our time, talent and treasure for the up building of the kingdom. So, when you see that offering plate on Sunday mornings, it may help to think, “Jesus Christ, is it you again?”
For when you give, you give, you are giving to hurting people. Through the ministries of our church, hungry people are fed with literal food and people hungry and thirsty for a new start or hope can find it here every week. The naked are clothed, and those who feel they have nothing to offer are given a chance to serve. The prisons are visited, not only the ones with literal bars, but the prisons that are about how people feel trapped in life. The sick and bereaved are visited. Jesus keeps coming. The only question is, how are we going to respond? I hope it’s something that helps you hear God say, Come, you that are blessed by the Father. Amen.