“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’” Matthew 25:34-40 (NIV)
Church didn’t prepare me for this.
Oh sure, the Church taught me this scripture, drilled this parable into my head with marked intensity. My evangelical church organized monthly “serve days” at our local food pantry, collections of toiletries and basic care items for halfway houses, a coat drive the the cold that served double duty as both “ministry” and “cleaning out the closets before Santa fills them with more stuff.” To be fair, these efforts were always well-intentioned, the projects often championed by those who were deeply committed and connected to the benefitting organizations. I can’t deny that thanks to these events, canned goods got rotated, men and women transitioning from incarceration had clean hair, and children were kept warm with snuggly-soft-from-wear coats church kids had outgrown. But by and large, Church gave me a list of projects to complete, boxes to check off my to-do list for being a good Christian.
Jesus’ famous sheep-and-goats parable, however, isn’t about doing the right things. This would have frustrated my younger self, because obviously Jesus has just given a list of things to do! It’s right there in black and white (and red, if you’re old school like me): feed the hungry, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, visit the sick and imprisoned. Boom, boom, boom, boom, now I’m a sheep (baa baa baa baa), not a goat (nope, nope). I can collect canned goods for VBS (always cans of corn because they weigh more than boxed macaroni for half the price apiece), make cookies for a new neighbor, donate my old/worn out/dated clothes to a charity, call my grandma when she is sick, and… prisoners, hmm, they’re dangerous and probably a bad influence, so maybe I’ll just visit a nursing home or something for extra credit instead.
Earlier in Matthew, Jesus told another story that used to terrify the version of me who thought like this:
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’” Matthew 7:21-23, NIV
Jesus clearly says that there are people who follow him, who do great things because of him, even perform miracles – real miracles! – in his name, but somehow they are excluded from his kingdom. People can be doing the right things, but that’s missing the point. Church taught me all the right things to do, but it didn’t teach me how to love my neighbor. It was more worried about how to fix them.
Truthfully, and by God’s grace, I learned love from my parents, my neighbors, my 3rd grade Sunday School teacher and my 5th grade public school teacher. These are people whose names you will never see in lights, who probably won’t win any awards for their service, and many of whom don’t even realize what an impact they had on me. Because Church has taught us we have to “do something BIG for God,” we often feel like nothing we do matters if it doesn’t at least earn a 2 minute segment on the local news channel. I spent years addicted to these grand events, meanwhile paralyzed by a sense of inadequacy in the everyday moments, but in truth:
- Love is volunteering to teach CPR classes on weeknights so maybe someday someone might save a life
- Love is walking up to someone’s door for a conversation rather than texting
- Love is playing board games with the shy kid in youth group who doesn’t want to play basketball with everyone else
- Love is making dinner and remembering your friend really likes this dish, so you make an extra one and take it over
- Love is calling a single mom and inviting her teenager to come over while you’re changing your oil so he can learn to do it for her
- Love is reading a book your mother-in-law loves just so you can engage with her over something she finds important
- Love is holding a baby while her mom takes a much-needed nap
- Love is spending 20 minutes listening to a kid geek out about Minecraft/dinosaurs/parakeets/baking/whatever thing they are immensely passionate about, even if you have zero interest in that subject
- Love is inviting people into your messy house to eat hot dogs off paper plates, because hospitality is more important than presentation
- Love is showing up
- Love is doing something you don’t have to do
- Love is not actually that hard. You just have to say yes.
The last few years, it has been incredibly difficult for me to go to church, but I have found serving Jesus is remarkably easy. To be certain, it’s almost never convenient, almost always means saying no to something I wanted or planned on, and oftentimes there is no immediate payoff or reward. Loving my neighbor doesn’t fit into a 2-hour block every 5th Sunday of the month, it usually doesn’t involve an Instagram reel of highlights, and if I’m doing it right, almost no one will notice at all (Matthew 6:3). But when we pray for Holy Spirit to open our eyes to opportunities around us, it turns out she is incredibly willing to oblige.
The heavily programmed and strategically marketed projects churches put on do give people chances to connect with organizations and individuals in need. The best case scenario [that pastors repeat to themselves when repeatedly working these into their church calendars] is these events spark passion in participants to continue serving beyond that one-time event. But let’s be honest: most of the time people use church-sponsored events to pat themselves on the back for doing a good deed – usually with a strong bent toward privileged white saviorism – and then get back to the regularly scheduled busyness of raising money for expensive overseas mission trips, attending worship conferences more ostentatious than a Lady Gaga concert, and planning grandiose church festivals complete with carnival rides, helicopter egg drops, and door prizes like the latest gaming system or semi-automatic rifle. Church gave me a list of chores that consumed so much of my time and energy I didn’t have time to notice my literal neighbors that live on my street or in my community. It taught me that a Big God deserves Big Love, so I couldn’t waste time on little things like being present to notice the needs around me. This way of serving Jesus led me straight to Matthew 7:22, doing many impressive works in his name while completely overlooking actual obedience.
To be sure, the big things bring much glory to God as well. Founding justice organizations and spearheading policy change and making a difference on a large scale matter. But all of those great accomplishments are the culmination of thousands of small ones – single guns turned to garden tools, individual phone calls made to legislators, initial conversations with stakeholders, moments listening to the marginalized. It all began by someone opening their eyes to the people around them and saying yes to love.
Lord, when did we see you as someone in need and offer you simple love and kindness? The King will reply, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these, you did it for me.”