You Are What You Do

11/20/05
Matt. 25:31-46

I recently read an article in the New Yorker about C.S. Lewis, scholar, writer and Christian apologist. The essayist makes the comment that “As for faith, well, a handful of images is as good as an armful of arguments, as the old apostles always knew.” (P.93, Nov. 21, 2005 issue.) The apocalyptic images of the last judgment are vividly presented by Jesus in today’s lesson from the Gospel of St. Matthew. People and nations will be gathered before the King (God/Jesus) and divided into “sheep” and “goats.” On His right hand will be the sheep who are blessed. They fed the hungry, gave drink to the thirsty, clothed the naked and gave shelter to the homeless and strangers. Moreover, they were apparently unaware of the importance of this. For in so doing the aforementioned, they tended Christ Himself. Those who did not take care of the hungry, thirsty, naked and homeless will go to hell, or at least to a very uncomfortably warm place. This pericope, this passage, is vivid and underlines the importance of compassionate behavior. The reading also comes right before our Thanksgiving holiday and just before the season of Advent. Unlike the secular year, for the liturgical year the season of Advent is a penitential season in which we consider our failings.

Now some time ago I suggested that when we look at passages like this we ask three questions. The first one is, “What is the point of the passage?” It seems to be to be quite clear that the point of the passage is that there is an ultimate accountability in our lives. Not everything is relative. We really are the net result of what we do. If we have not been charitable and compassionate we are (probably ultimately) estranged from God. There is not only “a dress code in the kingdom of heaven,” there is also “a standard of conduct” that is acknowledged. If you remember the Beatitudes, it is the “pure in heart” and the “merciful” who, among others, are blessed. So, yes, there is a judgment day. There is an ultimate accountability. (The issues of justification by grace and of works righteousness, or Palagianism, can be dealt with elsewhere.) So the apocalyptic images make for a sense of urgency in Jesus’ message and work to remind us that “we are what we do.” we are ultimately accountable for our lives.

As to the second question, we ask, “what is the emphasis of the passage?” We have an intriguing answer. In the prophets and in Judaism there is a strong ethical demand for righteousness, compassion and mercy. That demand is really heightened here. It is heightened because it is directly linked to Jesus Christ. When one is merciful to one who needs mercy, when one feeds the hungry or clothes the naked, THEN Jesus Christ is the recipient! When a charitable action is done with a pure motive towards one of the least in society, Jesus Christ is the recipient. The face of Jesus is seen in the face of the outcast and less fortunate.

It is tempting to water this passage down and to make a universalism out of it. “All people who do good will enter the kingdom of heaven.” A friend of mine made that connection when he had been a prisoner of war in Japan. He said that the guards treated the prisoners as equals and shared their food and supplies with them. The prisoners were Christian and the guards were Buddhists. My friend (who is, ironically, Roman Catholic) decided that ethical behavior was all that mattered. Well, maybe yes and maybe no. But that is not what this passage is saying. This passage is addressed to Jesus’ followers. It is addressed to Christians. When a follower of Jesus out of purity of motive feeds the hungry and shelters the homeless, THEN he/she is ministering to Jesus. When the Christian does not do that, THEN he/she is in big trouble. It is not simply a matter of having right theology or right doctrine. By our deeds we are known.

In reflecting upon my actions as a Christian and growing up in a Christian family, I pondered for a long time about where there had been instances of pure grace, of pure, genuine charity — feeding the hunger, giving water to the thirsty, clothing the naked, etc. I was shocked to discover that I could not think of any occasions of our doing this. My father had chaired the United Fund. My mother helped out at church and school. Yes, Faye and I supported St. Luke’s Life Works, Bread and Roses, etc. But most of our charitable actions, then and more recently, were primarily institutionalized, or at least not personalized. It was then, to my surprise, that I discovered that those instances in which persons were fed and clothed and sheltered all took place within the family. Pure motive of giving, or hesed (loving kindness) has and tends to take place within the family.

Here then is the essential connection to our faith. Jesus says, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” The emphasis is that we are to show compassion and charity to others as members of our family. Just as in the baptismal ceremony we introduce the newly baptized as to “our brothers and sisters in Christ,” so we are to live in relationship to others as “brothers and sisters in Christ.”

Finally, the third question that we ask of a passage is this, “What is the action dictated by the passage?” What are the ethical implications? I think we are asked by Christ to look carefully at our actions. What do they say about us? Do we really look at those in need as our brothers and sisters in Christ? Do we see them or treat them as “family?” This is an important matter of perspective or inclination (in the sense of the term as used in physics). I am daily besieged by individuals asking for money for food, clothing and shelter. It is tempting to be indifferent, self righteous and dismissive. It is tempting to allow myself to become hardened because I am overwhelmed with guilt.

Let me make a personal observation from my own experience. When I was at student at Yale in the 50’s we always had panhandlers or “down and outers” who worked their way through the campus. They lived at and were helped by the Yale Hope Mission. Every day they caged quarters and dollars from us and there was an easy truce or rapport between the students and the down and outers. Things changed in the 60’s. Thanks to drugs and to some sort of social shift the campus was populated with beggars who were mean spirited and skillfully worked to embarrass the students and faculty. With the emptying of the mental hospitals in the 70’s and 80’s many more of the homeless and hungry were mentally ill and hostile. I worked in the early 60’s in parts of Chicago that I wouldn’t dream of going into now. I feel that with the increase in immigration as well as the permanent racial underclass that it is much harder to respond to someone as my brother and sister in Christ. But the sad truth of the matter is that unless I do respond that way, Christ does not live in me and I in Him.

As a parish and as a society you and I are challenged to see others as brothers and sisters in Christ and to stop polarizing classes and solutions. The media and politicians encourage us so to do. But unless we drop the “blue state/red state” mentality in society, and the “real Christian/secular Christian” attitude in our denomination and in the greater Church as a whole, we will not be able to see one another as brothers and sisters in Christ.

This Thanksgiving give thanks for the blessings that you have received. Share your love and generosity with your family, friends and neighbors. Be open and generous in big things as well as in little things. Our tasks as Christians on a journey of faith are not easy. But in the face of those in need there lies the face of Christ. By our actions you and I are known for who we are. One action is worth a hundred words. We are what we do. Let us go in peace to love and serve the Lord. Amen. - Fr. Gage