Sunday, November 20, 2011

Richness as a Reflex

The righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” (Matthew 25.37-39)

For thus says the Lord GOD: I Myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out… They shall lie down in good grazing land, and they shall feed on rich pasture. (Ezekiel 34.11, 14)

The Issue of Lives

The Occupy Movement has taken a ribbing from TV pundits and late-night comedians. Yet—other than those pathetically enslaved by neoconservative, me-myself-and-I doctrines—no public sector has cried out against its ingenious strategy to change the economic conversation from tax policy to social justice. Pitching their tents on financial centers' doorsteps forced us to face the ugly realities of thousands done in by soulless graft. With dispossessed, unemployed, and other beleaguered citizens tucked away in outlying tent cities, welfare motels, and overcrowded shelters, the nation’s wealthiest percentile felt no shame in whining about potential tax increases. They tried to divert accusations of greed by posing as “job creators”—thus, deserving special protections in order to fix a crisis they contributed to and profited from.

By voluntarily existing as economic refugees, Occupy activists awakened public consciousness to the issue of lives, not dollars; morals, not money; people, not power. A society that coddles the mightiest at the expense of the weakest invites crippling instability and certain decline. A nation that subjects many to hardship while succoring a few denies its greatness. Leaders who tout freedom to justify socioeconomic inequities are neither freedom and justice’s guardians nor equality’s champions. (All they are is living proof there’s more to patriotism than pinning a flag to one’s lapel.)

Participation in a just society begins by denouncing the right to choose who is and isn’t worth attention, or when it’s right and wrong to come to another’s aid. Such choices are pre-decided for the community’s welfare and stability. Attention must be paid to everyone who needs it. The time to help the less fortunate is all the time. The Occupy Movement confronts Americans with their civic duty to oppose favoritism that undermines national stability and the common good. In the final public discourse before His arrest (Matthew 25.31-46; Sunday’s Gospel), Jesus charges us with the same responsibilities, for the same reasons. But He raises the stakes by stressing that failure to honor His principles exposes us to grave personal risk from which we can never recover. His gist boils down to this: the issue is lives. Morals. People.

Rich Enough to Care

Since arriving in Jerusalem for Passover, Jesus hasn’t stopped talking about His imminent departure and telling stories about people entrusted with great wealth and responsibility. Most of His followers get it by now. More perceptive disciples may even gather the theological implications, understanding Jesus’s Messianic role centers on establishing God’s kingdom and entrusting it to us. In case they missed this in His parables, however, Jesus uses His last preaching opportunity to paint a dramatic vision of how it will work.

When the Son of Man comes as Earth’s Supreme King, Jesus says He’ll gather the nations and, like a shepherd does with sheep and goats, divide the people into two groups. He’ll commend the sheep, saying they fed Him, gave Him drink, welcomed Him, clothed Him, cared for Him when He was sick, and visited Him in prison. Those He praises are befuddled. “When did we do that?” they ask. The King replies, “Just as you did it to the least member of My family, you did it to Me.” (v39) He turns to the goats and says they failed on all counts. “What do you mean?” they protest. “We saw You never wanted for a thing!” The King answers, “But you ignored the least. So you ignored Me.” The story ends with both groups in shock. One can’t believe it’s rewarded with eternal life; the other can’t believe it’s sentenced to eternal punishment.

I always get a kick out of the sheep’s consternation. Their response explains why the King honors them so highly. It’s as if they ask, “What’s the big deal? We had it, they needed it, and so we gave it away, knowing there’s more where that came from.” What made them rich enough to care was not caring about riches. By calling them “sheep,” Jesus evokes Judaic respect for their virtues: faith in the shepherd, obedience, humility, and so on. Most of all, sheep exemplify community. The tiniest threat to the littlest lamb endangers the entire flock. When pasture is plentiful, all are fed. Otherwise, all suffer, because the flock’s stability relies on its ability to share. In contrast, goats are fiercely territorial, acquisitive creatures that lock horns the instant they sense one of their own encroaching on their space. (That’s why we associate gentleness with lambs and brutishness with goats.)

Stability and Growth

In Sunday’s reading from Ezekiel 34, we’re once again reminded God is our Shepherd. “I Myself will search for My sheep, and will seek them out,” God says in verse 11, vowing we will “lie down in good grazing land” and “feed on rich pasture.” (v14) God goes on to say in verse 16, “I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice.” The prophecy gets us to the essence of what Jesus wants us to see. It’s not ours to decide who merits our attention and when we should reach out to the least. Instead, we’re asked to choose how we regard the riches of God’s provision. We can either turn God’s goodness into a crippling burden or use its richness as a reflex. Either we obsess about hanging on to what we’ve got or we intuitively give it away, knowing there’s more where that came from.

Offering compassion, hospitality, and concern to those in need demands tremendous discipline and, often, staggering emotional sacrifice. But it costs us nothing. And in the end, it prospers communities we serve and us with enduring stability and growth. It should come so naturally we do it without thinking or talking about it. That’s difference between the sheep's “What did we do?” and the goats' “Look what we did!” Jesus teaches that true goodness isn’t defined by its doers’ abilities, but by its recipients’ inabilities. The least capable among us gain our highest attention because their needs are greatest. It’s that simple. And if that upsets and surprises us, Jesus tells us we’re in for a really upsetting surprise.

Free us, O Shepherd, from selfishness and insecurities and competitive streaks that endanger our communities and ignore Your commands. You’ve provided more than we need, enabling us to give it away without hesitation, knowing Your goodness is inexhaustible. Instill that truth so deep inside our being that it becomes instinctive. May we be counted worthy in Your sight. Amen.

The richness of God’s goodness to us enables us to give it away without hesitation or thought, knowing there’s always more where that came from.


Sherry Peyton said...

My favorite passage. I love your explanation of the difference between sheep and goats in the field. That really is meaningful. Also the puzzlement of the sheep? What have we done so special? I had a slightly different take, but it all comes down to the same basic rule: just do it! Thanks Tim for another great reflection. I never stop loving the utter simplicity of this teaching.

Tim said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Tim said...

Just do it!

How very true, Sherry. Jesus makes it so simple that we can't pick this teaching apart. Not only is His command to care for the least unconditional. It's immune to situational analysis!

This morning, our associate pastor explained our charge with such poignance, I found myself wishing I'd waited and wrote this post after hearing her sermon. She said the King's indictment of the goats implicitly asks them, "Why didn't you see Me in the faces of the least? Because that's where I was."

So often we speak of spiritual illumination as a sort of luminescence--light we reflect that, in turn, reflects well on us. Yet this story reminds us illumination also enlightens others, revealing the Christ in them and alerting us to their needs. Not seeing Christ's face in the faces of the poorest, most helpless, and least understood is simply choosing not to see. It's self-imposed blindness of the darkest, deadliest kind.

I'll leave it there, so I can scurry your way and get your take on this astounding passage. Thanks for underscoring the heart of the message!

Blessings always,