Choose At Your Peril

I almost never agree with anything that Governor Rick Perry has to say. But in defending his state’s program to assist kids in getting college educations, he insisted that when children are present in the state, brought there by parents as children, it is wrong for a state to deny then access to higher learning because they or their parents may not be “legally” there.

For this, his polls and support among rank and file conservative Republicans plummeted.

Speaking to conservative Christians often comes to this: Jesus no where advises that governments should take care of people. They read the bible to suggest that churches should. Unfortunately, over 2,000 years later, they have proven unable to put a dent in poverty and if anything, those living in poverty world-wide, has grown.

But clearly the Religious Right’s most serious argument is to quote Saint Paul who admonished a local house church in Thessalonica not to feed those who lazed idly around depending on the food of the rich patrons. They see this as their call to winnow out those who truly need help from those who do not.  We will leave it to another day to dispute this conclusion, which is taken wholly out of context, but the point is made–plenty of conservative Christians believe that there they have a duty or right at least to decide who is entitled to help.

Yet today’s lesson could not make it more clear that they are utterly wrong.

Today, Jesus ends his long teaching in Matthew with what is called the discourse on The Last Judgment (Mt 25:32-46).

Most Christians are familiar with the phrases repeated within it:

For I was hungry and you gave me no food,
I was thirsty and you gave me no drink,
a stranger and you gave me no welcome,
naked and you gave me no clothing,
ill and in prison, and you did not care for me.’
Then they will answer and say,
‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty
or a stranger or naked or ill or in prison,
and not minister to your needs?’
He will answer them, ‘Amen, I say to you,
what you did not do for one of these least ones,
you did not do for me.

Some refer to this as the Great Command. It advises us that at the final judgment, this is precisely what we will be judged upon. Not upon whether we were for or against gay rights, or choice in family matters, for or against contraception or remarriage, for or against, prayer in school or universal health care. No. We will be judged on how well we cared for “one of these least ones.”

We are not advised by our Savior that we are to decide who these least ones are. No where does he give us a blueprint with a list of standards. We aren’t advised to check nationality, or physical capability, level of education, country of origin, gender identification, or family history. We aren’t told to require a tax return, or a certified copy of indigency, or pay stubs, or proof of seeking work. We are not told to ask any question at all.

We are told to heal, feed, clothe, visit, and welcome all who come before us. Simple.

And the shocking thing about this, is that Jesus makes it clear–those who had done this won’t have any clue that they have done it. For those on the “right”, the sheep, will be as astonished as the goats. They will ask as the goats do, “When did we see you hungry. . . ”

They simply did as they believed their Master would have them do. They listened to all the stories of Jesus, all the parables, all the confusing endings where those they thought would be upheld were not, and those they thought would not, were. And they realized, correctly I believe, that the Hebrew Testament writers were correct when they warned:

God’s ways are not your ways. His thoughts are not your thoughts.

And so, the sheep, tried to do the Master’s will without interjecting their poor human concepts of who that will should be directed to or for. They simply did it, trusting that God could and would judge it aright.

The goats? Oh they wanted desperately to do the Master’s will as well. But they, you see, decided that by shouting that they were chosen disciples of the Master, assumed that they were given some special abilities to judge who were worthy of the Great Command. And so sure were they, that they are astonished to find themselves on the left, ironic as that may in fact be.

So we choose at our peril when we decide to choose who is deserving of our help. We risk the very real possibility that here, as in so many other instances, we will not think as God does.

Yet we are guided in all this. We are upheld, cared for, forgiven our mistakes and given a new chance again and again. Ez 34:11-12 tells us this so clearly:

Thus says the Lord GOD:
I myself will look after and tend my sheep.
As a shepherd tends his flock
when he finds himself among his scattered sheep,
so will I tend my sheep.
I will rescue them from every place where they were scattered
when it was cloudy and dark.
I myself will pasture my sheep;
I myself will give them rest, says the Lord GOD.
The lost I will seek out,
the strayed I will bring back,
the injured I will bind up,
the sick I will heal,

God does leave us alone ever. If we listen to that voice, calling us gently and with love, we will find peace, comfort, safety. We will be the sheep. We will not separate ourselves from the ground of our being, as goats.


3 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Tim
    Nov 20, 2011 @ 15:19:15

    How beautifully you capture the spirit of this lesson, Sherry! And how clearly you explain its essentials.

    I think Christ’s message makes a lot of people nervous because its set in the stark black-and-white contrasts of final judgment. Either you cared–or you didn’t. Either you understood what you’ve received was to be given to those who have less–or you didn’t. Either you offered yourself with no self-aggrandizing pomp and desire for favor–or you didn’t. The verdict falls so hard, so clearly, and with such finality we’re tempted to soften its severity by supposing Jesus is exaggerating the consequences of not doing what we should do. But nothing He says remotely suggests He’s using hyperbole. Not one “should,” “would,” or “could” enters this teaching.

    Look at how it ends. He basically tells those who neglect the least–whatever their reasons may be–to go to Hell. And people who try to downplay that look for a loophole by arguing the horrible sentence doesn’t square with a compassionate, merciful God. Yet because God is compassionate and merciful there are grave, irreversible costs attached to withholding or apportioning compassion and mercy as we see fit. Your title says it all: choose at your peril.

    So splendidly have you reframed this vital message in contemporary terms that we’ve now been twice-told, giving us no excuse for falling short. That alone is an act of compassion of mercy. Thank you.



    • Sherry
      Nov 21, 2011 @ 11:02:08

      Each time I read it Tim, I find the stark reality of it even more compelling. I simply can’t figure out where some people who are always warning us to “get right with God” ignore this so obvious statement of what judgment will really be based upon. They are like Martha, who worry about all kinds of unnecessary things. Have a great and beautiful holiday dear friend, and give my best to Walt.


      • Tim
        Nov 21, 2011 @ 20:31:24

        Although it’s truly sad, your comment brings a smile to the face of one who grew up hearing “get right with God” said with frequent regularity–and eventually figured out that it’s code for “do as we say.” 😉

        Happiest of holidays to you guys, too!

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