Sunday, November 23, 2014

The Least

There is a word in the King James translation of the Bible that no other version uses. And that's because we just don't call people “froward” anymore. Not that there aren't people who fit the definition, which is “stubbornly perverse.” but the word has just fallen out of usage. But it would be a good way of to describe the process Stephen Colbert uses to craft his soon-to-end show The Colbert Report, in which he plays a TV pundit whose opinions are so comically the opposite of common sense that they expose their own logical flaws. On Terry Gross' NPR show, Fresh Air, his head writer said that first the real Stephen had to work out his actual point of view on whatever news story he was covering. Then he had to figure out how his character would see the same news and then how to have him express it in a way that makes plain the folly of the people involved. You might say The Colbert Report is a satirical exercise in frowardness.

Many of his viewers may not know that the real Colbert is a Roman Catholic who teaches Sunday School. Which explains this line which concluded a Christmas message on his show. He said, “If this is going to be a Christian nation that doesn't help the poor, either we have to pretend that Jesus was just as selfish as we are, or we've got to acknowledge that he commanded us to love the poor and serve the needy without condition and then admit that we just don't want to do it.”

A prime example of this is the current political crisis in Fort Lauderdale. The city has made feeding the homeless, if not actually illegal, at least extremely difficult, by imposing all kinds of special conditions. As a result the police have cited 3 people who violated the ordinance. They include 2 clergy, one of whom is Fr. Mark Sims, a colleague of mine, and 90 year old Arnold Abbott, who has been feeding the homeless for decades through his organization Love Thy Neighbor. The World War 2 vet started his charity with his late wife and has successfully fought the city before on similar charges. The mayor of Ft. Lauderdale has been caught in face-saving lies that the city has dozens of feeding sites when in fact there are only 4. He has said the ordinance was for public health and safety and then admitted it was for the sake of tourism. The real problem is that because a percentage of the homeless are mentally ill and because a percentage abuse drugs and alcohol, they might act inappropriately in public. Wondering if the city is just as hard on the Spring Breakers, tourists who also tend to behave badly in pubic, I went to only to find the page has been removed.

Are Colbert and the critics of Ft. Lauderdale's draconian rules on feeding the homeless right? Is our treatment of the poor and needy a top priority in Jesus' eyes?

Judging by our gospel passage (Matthew 25:31-46) the answer is a resounding “Yes!” Jesus paints a memorable picture of the last judgment. He, the Son of Man, is the judge. And the criteria used does not include the behaviors that a lot of people think are God's most hated sins. There is no mention of homosexuality; in fact, there is no mention of sexual sins at all. There is no mention of doctrinal heresies. There is no mention of denominational distinctives and practices that some prominent preachers make sound like matters of eternal life and death. Jesus focuses on 6 categories of needy people and how we treat them: the hungry, the thirsty, the alien, the naked, the sick and the incarcerated. Why these specific 6 and not other sins?

The first five of these are typically found in Jewish lists of virtuous behavior. And that is no surprise because caring for the poor and needy is also commanded numerous times in the Hebrew Bible. Deuteronomy 15 says, “ must not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward your poor brother.” If you do, it goes on to say, God will consider you guilty. On the other hand, “You shall give to him freely, and your heart shall not be grudging when you give to him, because for this the Lord your God will bless you in all your work and in everything you do.” (Deuteronomy 15:10) In Isaiah 58:6 & 7, God says, “Is this not the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked to cover him, and not hide yourself from your own flesh?” In Jeremiah 7:5-7, God says, “For, if you truly amend your ways and your deeds, if you truly practice justice between a person and his neighbor, if you do not oppress the foreigner, the fatherless, and the widow, and do not shed innocent blood in this place, nor follow after other gods, bringing harm upon yourselves, then I will allow you to live in this land, in the land that I gave to your fathers forever and ever.” So Jesus is in line with the same concerns his Father makes clear in the Torah and through the prophets.

What Jesus adds is interesting: “I was in prison and you visited me.” I can tell you from experience that the thing prisoners miss the most is contact with family and friends. Letters and pictures are good; phone calls are better, though they are more expensive than you can imagine because they handled by a for profit company; but visits are the best. I have seen inmates go from despondent to resilient after a visit from a spouse, a sibling, a child or a friend. It assures them that they are not forgotten or unloved. It keeps them involved in the lives of those outside whose lives are going on while the inmate's life is on hold. It gives them something to look forward to in an environment that generally crushes hope.

This does lead some commentators, however, to combine this commandment about prisoners with Jesus' saying that “If you do it to these, the least of my siblings, you do it to me,” and say that Jesus is not talking about all unfortunate people but only his disciples. They point out that the first missionaries, carrying the good news, were dependent on hospitality for food and drink and a place to stay. They also might be foreigners to those they were evangelizing. And, like Peter, John, Paul and Barnabas, they often got arrested for disturbing the peace. So is the last judgment based merely on how one treats Christians in distress?

I don't think so. 2 conditions are hard to tie only to missionaries. How often would an evangelist find himself naked? And sickness is a condition way too broadly experienced among all people and not specifically tied to preachers. True, the passages from the Hebrew Bible we quoted above seem to apply primarily to Jews. But in the books of Jonah and Isaiah we see that God is also interested in the welfare and salvation of Gentiles. And Jesus commissions his disciples to preach the good news to all nations. Nor did Jesus limit his own ministry to Jews. He healed the centurion's slave and the Syro-Phoenician woman's daughter and the demoniac in the Decapolis, an area so pagan that they were raising pigs. He revealed his identity to the Samaritan woman.

Christianity cannot be exclusive. Unlike Judaism there is no ethnic component to being a Christian. Anybody is a potential Christian. And most people did not come to Jesus already convinced he was the Messiah but only followed him after he met their needs. So how do we convincingly bring the good news of God's love to others if we do so only with words and not also with works of compassion?

But if the last judgment depends on social action, what about role of grace? Is Paul in conflict with Jesus on the basis of our salvation? Does this mean that if Ted Bundy had just cut a hefty check to the United Way or Habitat for Humanity, he would be in heaven?

No. And it is instructive that in the case of Bundy the only such contradiction I've found in his life is that he volunteered at a suicide hotline. But given his M.O. who's to say that he didn't get a kind of vicarious thrill out of having some power over those contemplating their death? Certainly nothing else in his biography indicates any concern with helping the helpless. Quite the contrary. He preyed on helpless women.

Nor does the apostle who wrote nearly half the books in the New Testament contradict Jesus. In Ephesians 2:8-10, Paul writes, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God; it is not from works, so that no one can boast. For we are his workmanship, having been created in Christ Jesus for good works that God prepared beforehard so that we may do them.” In other words, we are not saved by good works but we are saved so that we may do good works.

In the same way, exercise will not fix a person in heart failure, but after receiving a heart transplant, the doctor will want the person to eventually increase his exercise to keep the new heart healthy. In fact, doctors use exercise to diagnose your state of health. Just as being able to pass the treadmill test shows your physical health, helping the unfortunate shows your spiritual health.

And remember we were created in the image of the God who is love. If we let the Holy Spirit restore that marred image in us, we should naturally be drawn to show that love concretely to our fellow human beings whom God loved so much that he sent his Son to save them. And we can't just love those whom it is natural and easy to love. As Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount, “For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your siblings, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” In other words, since God loves all so should we. (Matthew 5:46-48)

And since we are talking about the image of God, remember that image is seen most clearly in Jesus. As it says in Colossians 1:15, “He is the image of the invisible God...” So if we are made in the image of God, we are also made in the image of Christ. It may be hard to see at times and in certain people; it may be marred by sin but it is there. God told Noah that murder is wrong because humans are created in God's image. (Genesis 9:6) Murder is symbolic deicide. And neglecting or mistreating others is neglecting or mistreating Christ.

Look at it this way. The last judgment is like a diagnostic test. Those who supply the needs of the hungry, the thirsty, the alien, the naked, the sick and the imprisoned are spiritually healthy. The transplantation of Christ's Spirit has obviously been successful. They are trusting the Great Physician and are following Doctor's orders. They can be released into the general population of the kingdom of God where the love of God and love of others need not be commanded; it is now second nature to its citizens. Those who don't show the signs of spiritual health—a demonstrable love for all others who were created in God's image and for whom Christ died—are spiritually dead. They go into quarantine. They cannot be allowed to infect others with their apathy toward or hatred of other human beings.

Will they ever be released? Can they ever be released? One thing is for sure. If they do not change, they cannot enter the kingdom of God, no more than a TB patient who refuses to take his or her meds can be allowed out of quarantine and into the public. It's not a matter of whether they are nice or not. Hitler loved dogs and children. Ann Rule, a former cop and true crime writer, worked alongside Ted Bundy at the suicide hot line. She even thought of introducing the handsome, charming Bundy to her daughter! It's not a matter of whether they can be pleasant but whether they are cured.

Ultimately it is up to Jesus Christ. As the one in whose image we were made and the one who lived and died as one of us, you could not ask for a fairer or more merciful judge. But his kingdom is the kingdom of those who love. And love must be voluntary. We tend to think that people being excluded from the kingdom is terrible but to put into God's kingdom someone who will not love or reciprocate love is as bad as forcing someone into a marriage with someone they do not love. It would be tantamount to rape. As it says in 1 John 4:7 & 8, “Beloved, let us love one another for love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God for God is love.” Anyone who cannot love the poor and needy and homeless, who cannot see past the dirt and the uncouth behavior and the mental and physical illnesses, who can't be bothered to look for the image of Jesus buried in the least of his siblings, would never be happy in the kingdom. It will be too full of those kind of people—you know, the ones who care about others.

Those people are annoying, aren't they? The ones who feed the hungry and run clothing drives for the threadbare poor and who volunteer at hospitals and at prisons and who work with immigrants. They show the rest of us up. They make us feel like sham Christians. They leave us other Christians with 2 options: we can envy them or we can emulate them. Nor need we do exactly what they do. You may be squeamish about sick people; choose some other ministry. You may be frightened to go into a jail or prison; it's really not at all like it's depicted in TV and movies but you can help the hungry. And there are always positions in any ministry for organizers, for improvisers, for gofers, for drivers, for handymen and women, for people who can do legal things, or medical things or who can raise money or who speak different languages or who can just listen to people.

Never done anything like that before? You know what—everything you've ever done in your life you didn't know how to do at some point. You just learned what you could and then you did it. That includes the biggest ever responsibility a person could have which we still leave to amateurs: parenting. And if you can learn to take total responsibility for someone who is completely unable to take care of themselves, you can take on the limited and shared responsibility of a ministry.

The first person to smart off to God was Cain. God asks where Abel is and Cain says, “Am I my brother's keeper?” A better translation of the Hebrew is “guardian or protector.” Since he had just killed Abel, the question is moot. But the implied answer found in all the rest of the Bible is “Yes!” We are responsible for each other. You do what you can to help people. There are some you can't help because they won't let you but that doesn't mean you can conveniently write off everyone in that circumstance. Everyone in this world was created in the image of our Lord. We serve him by serving them. And if we look for that image in them long enough, maybe they will find it in themselves as well, and turn to the One whose image it is. And one day Jesus will welcome you both into the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.

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