On the other hand, I am not Mother Theresa. I do not spend all of my days helping the poor. I have some other duties at church, and sometimes I like to go home, make myself a cup of hot chocolate, and curl up with a book.
So the question comes into my mind: “How many?” How many hungry people do I need to feed in order to get that fancy piece of paper certifying me as an authentic sheep. How many thirsty Jesuses do I need to provide clean water in order for me to avoid that great eternal barbecue.
Is it enough if I give a couple of bucks to one of those folks standing on the street corner with the signs? How about those gentlemen with the five gallon buckets at the stoplights that say “Help the Homeless?” Or the Shriners with their fezes, those crimson felt hats with the tassels? Is five dollars enough? How about ten?
What about that eight hundred and fifty million Jesuses in the world who don’t have enough food? Or those Jesuses in Flint Michigan and Puerto Rico who still don’t have clean running water?
How much is enough?
Or, perhaps, according to another interpretation of this passage, we don’t have to worry so much about people who are hungry or ill or in prison, because these “Members of my family,” as Jesus calls them, are limited to people who are Christian. Maybe if you’re not Christian, we don’t have to worry so much about you. Maybe we only have to obey the Ten Commandments with you, and not the law of mercy.
But you tell me. Is that what this passage is about? Saving our own sorry hides? Is it really about who is in and who is out, who is important and who is not? I don’t think so.
This passage is not about how much mercy we are to show. It’s about the nature of mercy itself. This passage is not about whom we should show mercy to. It’s about the nature of mercy.
Let me pull back the lens a bit here to look at this passage as part of the whole Gospel of Matthew. Near the beginning of Matthew, an angel quotes Isaiah’s prophesy about Jesus, “Look, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him “Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.”
At the end of the Matthew, the very last line of the gospel, Jesus says to his disciples, “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
So God is with us.
Back at the beginning of Matthew, the magi bring gifts from far away to the newborn king. But Herod the tyrant tries to kill the baby Jesus because he sees Jesus as a threat to his own power. Mary and Joseph have to flee to Egypt. This is our king. This refugee. This is the emperor of God’s realm, this homeless child.
If you are a refugee, God is with you. If you are a homeless child, God is with you.
Sometime later, Jesus goes up on a mountain like Moses went up on the mountain to give the Ten Commandments. Now Jesus gives the rules of God’s coming reign. Not Rome, not Herod, God’s. Here is what Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are the meek. Blessed are those who mourn.”
So if you are not brimming with God’s Spirit, overflowing with confidence, if you are not rich in spirit but poor in spirit, God is with you. If you do not get what you want by pushing people around but rather are meek, lowly, God is with you. If you grieve, God is with you.
Blessed are the pure in heart, blessed are the peacemakers, blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. So if you do your very best to be honest with yourself and others. If you seek to make the words you say with your mouth match the best truth you can discern in your mind, and act that truth out with your hands, God is with you. If you work for people’s safety and security and ability to live, free from threat an injury without fighting, God is with you. If you hunger and thirst for people to live in healthy relationships where they do not use or despise one another, but rather respect and challenge and care for one another, God is with you. Those are the rules of the new empire.
God is with us when we are like the scribes and Pharisees and Sadducees, various groups and parties fixated on their own little agendas and desires and points of pride, forgetting the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. God is with us unpleasantly then, challengingly. God does not leave us to die in our own comfortable hatreds and idolatries. God drags us out.
And God is with us in those people, out there who need our help. God is with us in them. “As you did to the least of these, the members of my family, you did to me.”
Here’s my point: God’s mercy for us is not just for us. It always makes us a part of God’s mercy for others. God’s love for us does not just stop with us; it sweeps us up into God’s love for others. To be Christian and to do Christianity are one and the same thing.
God loves us more than we can possibly imagine. We love others, not because we are so holy or righteous, but because God loves them more than we can possibly imagine, too.
So here is just a brief example. Chuck Colson was the hard-nosed special Council to the Nixon Administration. He was called Nixon’s manager of dirty tricks, and is famously quoted as saying he’d run over his own grandmother if that’s what it took to get President Nixon re-elected. Ended up in jail from the Watergate scandal.
Everyone, of course, immediately distanced themselves from him. No political advantage there. Except Al Quie. Al Quie grew up Lutheran in southern Minnesota, became known as someone who works across the aisle for education and impartial justice system. He was, at that time, a Republican congressman from Minnesota, and he contacted Chuck Colson. Colson said, “Why are you getting hold of me. Everybody else has disavowed me.” Quie told him what Jesus said, “I was in prison and you visited me.” This was part of a major conversion for Chuck Colson, and the beginning of a lifelong ministry in the prisons.
To be touched by grace and to be a part of God touching others with God’s grace is one and the same thing. Jesus is with us in many ways, including in the presence of people who need help. We watch for him, so that we can be a blessing to the least of these.