By Joel A. Hess –
Let’s not kid ourselves. We love to give to the “poor.” Throw an anonymous picture of someone suffering on a poster or TV screen and dollars and coin quickly fill up the collection bucket. There is nothing wrong with that, of course.
I’ll bet the goats in Jesus’ prophesy about Judgment Day were great givers to whatever charity came their way. They may have even skipped a church service or two to serve at the food pantry. So they were a little surprised when the King threw them out.
Too often, people have interpreted Jesus’ sheep and goats end times prediction as a reminder to feed the hungry, start prison ministries, and do a winter coat drive once a year. All those things are good, by the way, and Jesus is definitely all for loving our neighbor, taking care of the weak, and even praying for our enemy.
But in his discourse on Judgment Day in Matthew 25:31-46, Jesus surprises even the most generous and bleeding-heart Christian. He tells the sheep that they took care of Him and the goats that they did not take care of Him. Both are surprised, because they never saw Him. Then he says, “Whatever you did to the least of these my brothers, you did to me.” The key word that qualifies who “these” are is brothers. “Brothers” is not a term for the general public. That would usually be neighbors. For sure, Jesus tells us to love our neighbors. But here He says brothers, which means believers. He says it earlier in Matthew 12:46-50, “Whoever does the will of my Father is my mother and brother.” Also, the description of being hungry, thirsty, stranger and in prison describes the persecuted Church well. Jesus knew that the Church will need to hang tight with one another. Of course, He also says, “Where two or three are gathered, there I am” (Matthew 18:20) and “As the Father has sent me, I am sending you” (John 20:21).
Jesus aligns himself time and time again with His Church, that is, people who trust in Him. In fact, that is how He is physically and ministerially present in this world! The Church is the hands and mouth of Christ bringing peace and hope, light and rescue in the world.
We have a problem with that. Oh, everyone loves Jesus. If He were here right now, we would drop everything and hang with him, right? And I suppose that if He told us to go hang with that orphan kid half way across the world we would do that too. But the least of these my brothers? Well, we know them too well. They sit across from us at church. He’s kind of bitchy in the voters meeting. She likes that contemporary music and wants screens. That couple went through bankruptcy and now they want help? She doesn’t come to church too often. She probably just does it to look good. That family only comes on Christmas and Easter. Boy, don’t talk to that guy. I helped him a couple months ago, and now he needs more. Why doesn’t he just work like the rest of us?
Jesus not only directs us to see Him in the best of our brothers, but also in the least! He isn’t just referring to cute little Suzy who was baptized last week. He’s talking about the weak in faith, the former public drunk, the divorcee. Hey, maybe he’s talking about me!
These are my people! Jesus says. Every last one of them. In fact, Jesus has a special place in His heart for the last ones. You mess with them, you mess with me, He tells Paul, who was going to Damascus to hang ‘em.
He’s talking about you! He made you His sheep through other foolish sheep in the waters of baptism. He forgives you of all your sins. He kissed you with life eternal and put you in His motley crew. He did that before you proved yourself to be His disciple. He will watch over you against your enemies, let alone death and the devil, who keep reminding you that you are just the least or tempt you into thinking you’re the best!
Jesus knows exactly how hard it is to love Christians. It takes a cross and grave.