Whatever you do for the least of these, you do for me. (memory paraphrase of Mt 25:40). A few verses later he says even more- and whatever you did NOT do, you did NOT do it to me. When we refuse to help somebody in need, we are refusing Christ.
And that line- whatever you do for the least of these? It presupposes that if we love the Lord, *obviously* we are doing something for ‘the least of these,’ the dregs of society, the little ones without a voice, the frail, the sick, the weak- but are we? REally? Each of us, as individuals? What did you do last week that you could say fits in the perimeters of Mt. 25? Don’t tell me. I’m not the judge (but yes, if your kid was sick, I do think comforting and caring for the child counts).
2 Kings 4:10 Let’s make a small room on the roof and put in it a bed and a table, a chair and a lamp for him. Then he can stay there whenever he comes to us.”
Proverbs 14:31 Whoever oppresses the poor shows contempt for their Maker, but whoever is kind to the needy honors God.
Proverbs 19:17 Whoever is kind to the poor lends to the LORD, and he will reward them for what they have done.
Matthew 10:42 And if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones who is my disciple, truly I tell you, that person will certainly not lose their reward.
Mark 9:37 “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me.”
“Christ was always showing interest and respect for others, and often for the least likely people. He stopped for children, for blind men, for lepers, for demoniacs. The odd thing is that it’s hard to make progress in the company of such people. … If anyone could stand alone, without any outside help, it was Jesus. But from the very beginning, he gathered twelve men to be his community and he traveled at their pace instead of His own. Something more important than his own independence was at stake.
Such love is difficult love. It doesn’t just happen. It is built, one painful step at a time.”
From Tim Bascom’s 1993 book The Comfort Trap: Spiritual Dangers of the Convenience Culture
This reminded me of a small thing that happened years ago, but I hadn’t thought of it in forever. I was a young mother, on my way into the convenience store to buy, oh, I don’t know. Probably bread and milk. I was stopped by a weeping black woman. She was disheveled, and her weeping wasn’t restrained. People were staring. She asked me to pray with her, but she also asked me to buy her a bottle of beer. She had a sad, sad story about sick children, being up all night, a mean boyfriend, a lost or stolen ID card, and she assured me she was a good mother- I don’t know- she smelled of liquor and her story smelled worse. “I’m sure you love your babies,” I said. “I can’t buy your beer,” I told her, “but I can stop and pray with you.” She hugged me, and we prayed. I asked her to wait for me while I bought whatever I was there to buy. The clerk had watched us (as had all the customers in the store and out- it turned out she’d made a scene before I got there). He looked askance at me and asked what I’d said to her, and suspiciously demanded, “You’re not going to give her any booze, are you?” I said no, I wasn’t, and that I hadn’t said anything much, I’d just prayed with her.
“Oh.” he said, taken aback. “Well, uh, I guess that’s good. She could sure use prayers I suppose.”
I said something light and noncommital about how we all could use prayers, and I left. The woman was gone before I returned to the parking lot.
Nothing dramatic happened. I don’t know if anything I said or did to anybody made any impact at all. I do know this- that if I had been too busy, too embarrassed, in too much of a hurry, too distracted, or in any other way too unavailable to stop and pray with a dishevelled drunk in the store parking lot, then it would be even less of a story and is pretty much guaranteed to have made no meaningful impact. And there have been other times. some of them years long, where I would have been and have been toooooo…. all of those things to notice or take the time to stop and pray with a dishevelled drunk. I also know this- I was spending a lot of time in prayer asking God to lead me, to give such opportunities, and He did. Things like that happened to me all the time back then. Strangers frequently stopped me and asked me to pray for them. They don’t so much any more.
Later Bascom tells the story of staying with a family living in the slums, on a garbage dump in the Philippines. They were believers.
He says it was a strange event for a western materialist like himself, but First Worlders have our own icons which we rely on to free ourselves from risk, to keep us safe:
“A salary to cover all needs, insurance for every imaginable problem, credit cards to cover unexpected costs, a home in a safe neighborhood, enough cars to avoid inconvenience, all the comforts that money can buy.”
I wouldn’t say these are all, every single time, for every person, icons. But I would say that we are all probably more unwilling than otherwise to admit that they are our own icons far more often than we recognize. We don’t call them icons. We call it ‘being responsible,’ ‘not being a burden to others,’ or other such euphemisms for ‘relying on these things rather than God.’
We’ve gone without all of these at one time or another, sometimes all of them at once. And yet, here we are, alive and well, able to tell the story. We have them all now- except for the credit cards and *all* the comforts that money can buy (we have a ton of comforts, just not ‘all’ of them). We are not spiritually better off than we were when we were a one rusty jalopy family who lived paycheck to paycheck in a two bedroom house on very much the wrong side of the tracks in a high crime neighborhood where we were one of only two white families on our street. The entire time we lived there, btw, we only ever experienced one ‘crime.’ The other white neighbors? The husband got drunk when his wife told him she’d been unfaithful and wanted to live with her boyfriend and her husband, and he went outside and started throwing things. Some of them hit our house. We did not know who he was (he’d just showed up that week), and called the police. The next day he came to apologize and my husband sat on the porch and prayed and studied the Bible with him. Later we’d babysit his son on a regular basis.
Interestingly enough, we sublet our house to another young military couple while my husband was temporarily on another job where we could join him. During those two months, they had tools stolen from their front porch and their car windshield broken. We never felt uneasy or unsafe for a single minute in that neighborhood.
People warned us about renting in *that* neighborhood, too. I meant ‘the wrong side of the tracks’ quite literally. They told us we could rent on Thornton road so long as it was the north side of the tracks, but the south side was bad news. Our house was what we could afford, and it was on the south side of the tracks.
Incidentally, that military family we sublet our house to? They didn’t have anywhere else to go and they were broke, so they moved in with us into that two bedroom house. They took one bedroom, and we and our then two kids took the other. The house had one bathroom, and the only other rooms were the kitchen, dining room, and living room. We lived paycheck to paycheck. We were the least financially stable family at our congregation. I’m not judging what the others did with their wealth compared to our poverty. More than one well to do person there quietly took my husband aside and handed him cash, telling him not to worry about paying it back, just pay it forward some day later, when we were more stable. That in itself was an encouragement to become more stable, so we could help others that way, too.
We lived there because we liked the house and it was affordable, but mostly because it was affordable. We did not dismiss security concerns, but they were not high on our list because we felt this was being responsible and we could trust God for the rest.
But others, and we ourselves at times, have put safety, security, including financial security, above other concerns.
Sometimes it’s not our physical safety we are fearful about, it’s our financial security. So we have credit cards, just in case. We skimp on the offering or other charitable outlets this paycheck, because we want to be ‘safe,’ (and we tell ourselves this is ‘responsible’). We won’t open up our home to that just released prisoner (with no history of violent crime at all) because he might steal our stuff. We don’t don’t have the family of unruly kids over because they break our stuff, and that’s poor stewardship, and we’d have to pay to replace it and that’s a poor financial decision. Etc.
Sometimes there is a high cost to that financial security.
“letting go of possessions breaks the bonds of comfort. But if I want to be freed all the way, in the biblical sense, if I want to go beyond giving up what isn’t needed, the next step is for me to prayerfully listen to my conscience, then to take risks. Not just any risks, but the risks that God demands.
Sometimes we are too safe to be alive. Stripping onself of wealth takes away the numbness only for a while, if the soul is not transformed. For wealth itself is not the problem. It’s my attitude- an attitude of fear that makes me protect mysefl excessively, that demands comfort. It’s that attitude that determines whether or notI stay trapped inside the cocoon, trapped in soft and sleepy blindness…. there is no better remedy than simply doing the difficult thing.
It may be as small as stopping to help a stranger stranded on the highway. It may be driving into the city one night a week and parking in a rough neighborhood so I can serve at a soup kitchen. It may be even larger- taking in a rent-free boarder who needs a safe home, changing my job, adopting a child. …
Without listening to God, I don’t know what is truly healthy for myself. Risking for risk’s sake is not the answer. But risking for God’s sake is. “
We all have seasons in our lives, and needs we are responsible for taking care of. It maybe that right now the riskiest thing for you to do, what you are called to do, is sacrifice some time and read your toddler a bedtime story and teach him about God, while giving part of this week’s milk money to the homeless person you pass on the way to the grocery store. Maybe it’s including the annoying neighborhood child in your family dinners and game night. Maybe it’s selling everything and moving overseas. Maybe it’s living next door to frustrating family members and inconveniencing yourself for their good. Maybe it’s just getting up, even though you are exhausted to the bone, and making one batch of muffins for the new mom on your block, or getting on your knees and lovingly, sincerely praying for the neighbors, even the one who insists on sunbathing in a bikini in the front yard. The season you are in right now, and perhaps will be for all your life, might be that kind of season, where the risks you take, the sacrifices you make, seem small from the outside, but they are more meaningful than you realize.
On the other hand, sometimes I think we miss all the signs that the seasons of our lives have changed. We never noticed that the winter’s gone, and spring has come. In between those seasons, we got stuck in a rut. We withered away, and grew accustomed to the doubts and the fears that hold us back. *
Many Christians, especially those who ‘grew up in the church’ imagine that all that’s required is that they sacrifice things they never did and don’t want to do anyway- drinking, swearing, dancing, ho, hum, if that’s your church stance; If it isn’t substitute with the shoe that does fit, the easy stuff.
Much harder is to give up what we *want,* to give up comfort and convenience through the pursuit of loving God with *all* our hearts, minds, and souls, and loving our neighbors as ourselves.
P.S. I shared this elsewhere and a friend who is a young mother with children at home explained how she becomes ‘radical;”
Whenever I need an opportunity to do good for the helpless, I can go to a nursing home. Nursing homes have plenty of miserable, lonely, frightened, vulnerable people who can benefit from having their hand held, a prayer said with them, even a little errand run for them. A smile and a look into their eyes is a comfort. They spend so much of their time “invisible.” The only time some of them are not invisible, they’re made to feel like a nuisance. Because of the shallowness of society, the loneliest ones are often those upon whom age has wrought the most physical ugliness.