Today we hear Jesus’ last words to the crowds before his death. It’s a familiar passage. In the context of a parable, the righteous are invited into paradise because, the fictional king says, “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” Likewise, the unrighteous are cast into hell because they did not feed, water, welcome, clothe, care for or visit the king.
(I know. That “eternal fire” language makes us uncomfortable. Just remember that this is a story and not a factual report. Hear the words in the context of the story.)
This passage often is held up as a to-do list. Want to get on God’s good side? Want to help establish God’s kin-dom here on earth? Here’s your check list. Get cracking!
As spiritual checklists go, it’s a good one. It’s a whole lot better than: Stop dancing, drinking, and cussing, right? And it’s obvious the king in the story more highly values the actions of the sheep than the goats.
But here’s the thing. While the righteous do good things and are rewarded for doing them, in this parable, they are just as clueless as the unrighteous. “When did we feed, water, welcome, clothe, care for, or visit you?” they ask. “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these, you did it to me.” Except for the insertion of one “not,” the unrighteous ask Jesus the same question: “When did we NOT feed, water, welcome, clothe, care for, or visit you?” Jesus’ response also is similar: “Truly I tell you, just as you did NOT do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” See? Righteous, unrighteous—in this parable, everybody’s clueless.
Don’t you think if Jesus were trying to pat the righteous on the back for doing good, they’d know why they’re doing it? Don’t you think they’d have a clue that feeding the hungry and all the rest is the best way of meeting God?
But they don’t know. They’re doing all the right things…they’ll even receive a reward for the good they’re doing… but they don’t know why doing good is good. They’re engaging in THE activities that, more than anything else, will draw them closer to God, but they’re missing the point! They’re caring for the least of these, but they’re missing God.
Yes, of course, it’s important to act the least of these into well-being; that’s a key part of establishing God’s kin-dom here on earth…but it’s not the only part. The goal of everything—of everything Jesus taught, of all the prophets said, of every hope God has for every living thing—the goal of it all is for us to throw ourselves into God’s outstretched arms, to rest in God’s presence, to take God’s love into the deepest parts of ourselves, and to let it make us whole.
Remember, these are the last words Jesus speaks to the crowds before the events that lead to his death. This is his last lecture, the one where he says what he most wants his students to remember. And the one thing he wants to say is this: the goal of it all is to meet God, to experience in your deepest self the reality of God’s love. Doing good is great…but knowing why you’re doing it? Understanding that serving the least of these is the best way to draw close to God? That’s what I’ve been trying to teach you, Jesus says. If you get that, you’ll have everything you need to keep going after I’m gone. If you get that, you’ll have everything you need to establish God’s kin-dom here on earth.
All this sounds good—do good, act the least of these into well-being, and meet God in those actions….it sounds good, but it’s not always easy to do, is it? Sometimes, it takes work—sometimes a lot of work–to get clued in to why doing good is good.
You’ve probably heard the story of first grader Ruby Bridges. In 1960, Ruby integrated the Frantz School in New Orleans. She was the first African American child to attend the all-white school. Outraged, white parents kept their children out of school for months. Each day, they protested outside the school, spewing venom at the 6 year old as she climbed the steps–surrounded by guards–to work with her teacher.
Awed by her resilience, psychologist Robert Coles interviewed Ruby several times. In one of those conversations, he asked Ruby about the time she stopped and addressed the crowd before she entered the school. “What did you say to them?” Coles asked. “I was praying for them,” Ruby said. “Praying for them?” he asked, incredulous. Ruby looked at him and said, “Well don’t you think they need praying for?”
The story of how Ruby integrated the Frantz School is well-known. Less well-known is the story of what got the white students to return to the school.
The boycott was broken when a woman who once had spewed as much venom at Ruby as anyone else, brought her children to school one day. When Mrs. Conner and her children showed up that first morning, the crowds turned their venom from Ruby to them. “Her children were so loudly threatened and insulted that Mrs. Conner began going from home to home in her white neighborhood, pleading with parents to stop the protests and return their children to the Frantz School. She became a community organizer. Perhaps more than anyone else in the city of New Orleans, except for the federal judge who’d ordered the desegregation in the first place, she was responsible for the actual school desegregation.”
Coles got to know the Conners. One evening at a party, he asked Mrs. Conner what had happened that morning when she sent the boys back to school. “Oh. I don’t want to talk about that,” she said. After Coles pressed her, she finally told him the story of that fateful morning and her motivation for sending her children back to school.
“I never intended to send them,” she said. But “I woke up one morning at 6:00, a little earlier than usual, because I heard something break in the living room. So I got out of bed and found that my two oldest children–8 and 9 year old boys– were squabbling and had knocked over a lamp, a lamp I had just bought. I was furious! I shouted at them to go back to bed. I cleaned up the mess and went back to bed myself.
“Ten minutes later they were up again, now fighting in the bathroom. In the midst of the fighting, one boy dropped a glass that shattered on the floor. Now I had to go in there and clean that up. This time I screamed at them to go sit at the kitchen table.
“As I started preparing breakfast for everyone, the two boys started in with the drone of ‘You’re this’ and ‘You’re that.’ One of the boys punched the other. While moving his hand away it somehow got into his eye so the boy’s eye got teary and he claimed he couldn’t see. I was making French toast. I left the stove to attend to the boy with the hurt eye. I determined it was all right and went back to cooking. They immediately started squabbling again, whereupon I picked up the frying pan, slammed it down on the stove, turned to the boys, and said, ‘That’s it! I know what I’m going to do with you two. You are going back to school!”
Sometimes it’s the small, seemingly inconsequential moments that can change the world. The morning Mrs. Conner took her sons back to school was just such a moment. Though it was hard and scary for a while, “eventually other families followed the lead set by Mrs. Conner and began to initiate a shift of behavior on the part of many whites in New Orleans. By returning to the Frantz School and by talking to others about their experiences and those of their children, they helped others start to think about themselves—what they thought, what they wanted out of life,” what they thought about a little girl and how they’d been treating her. “Indeed, now they could identify with Ruby, because their own children were going through what she had gone through.” (Robert Coles, Handing One Another Along, 131-134)
Though Mrs. Conner did a good—and brave—thing by taking her children back to school, initially she didn’t have a clue why she was doing it. “When did we feed the hungry? When did we integrate the schools?” But as she lived into the new reality she’d set in motion, the full impact of what she was doing sank in. That’s how it goes for us, too, sometimes. Sometimes we do good things and—only in the doing of them—do we discover the reason why the thing we are doing is good.
Today is the last day of the church year. It’s the “The End” to the Christian story. We’ll begin the telling all over again next week when we start Advent. But before we say “The End,” we, too, have one more lesson to learn, the same one Jesus taught in his last lesson: serve the least of these—feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, visit the imprisoned. And in your serving, prepare to meet God…because that is where God chooses to dwell: with the least of these.
by Fritz Eichenberg
In the name of our God, who creates us, redeems us, sustains us, and hopes for our wholeness. Amen.
Kimberleigh Buchanan © 2014