I spent a lot of time talking about food in the context of feasting last week, and a lot of folks said they left church really hungry, so I don’t want to belabor a food metaphor. But the Sunday after Thanksgiving certainly is a time when we have leftovers on our minds, isn’t it?
Jesus always has leftovers on his mind. Our Scripture reminds us today that Jesus’ primary concern is how we as his followers treat people who feel like society’s leftovers, put aside as marginally useful or destined for the scrap heap.
This text is something of a theological puzzle. We know from a broader understanding of the Bible that our salvation is dependent not on our works, but on our belief in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. We look to the cross, believe that what happened there is effective, and we are saved.
And yet, when Jesus gave us images of the judgment to come, he described it as being based on what we do for others, in particular those people who from a worldly perspective don’t play a major role in society. Somehow, the idea of God’s unmerited grace and the idea of good works aimed at society’s least have to be reconciled.
As I consider all of this, I have to rely largely on what I’ve learned from trying to follow Jesus’ dictates in Matthew 25. I’ve not always done these acts of service well, but experience has been a good teacher.
Let’s look first at helping the hungry, the thirsty, and the naked. I group them together because I once was able to volunteer regularly in a rural community relief center that focused on helping people meet these very basic needs for sustenance and dignity. I know many of you have worked in such places, too.
What stays with you after working with people who are so poor they cannot get enough food or proper clothing? For me, it’s the look so many of them have in their eyes, a mixture of desperation and shame. People’s sense of worth can drop to almost nothing when they no longer can acquire what they need to keep themselves and their families alive.
I wish I could to tell you a simple, happy story where people get food or clothing and the transformation in their eyes is instantaneous. That story seldom happens, however. People volunteering for the first time in such relief efforts are often surprised by the lack of gratitude they see from the people receiving help. The desperation may be temporarily alleviated, but the shame remains.
If you stick with such work, however, you occasionally get the opportunity to form a relationship—maybe even a genuine friendship. When that happens, the look in the poor person’s eyes will change. Food is important, and clothes are important, but you begin to realize that relationships are deeply important. People need to know they remain worthy of love regardless of what they have.
The idea of reaching out to the stranger works in a similar way. In the Old Testament and on into Jesus’ day, people traveling or trying to live in a place where they had no relationships were in constant danger. Who would stand up for them when they were attacked or cheated in some way? A culture where people deliberately reach out to strangers is a culture that makes people safer.
As a pastor, I also have had a lot of opportunities to spend time with the sick. The sick need much, but if I had to sum up their needs in one word, I would have to choose “restoration.”
They usually want to be restored physically, of course. Sometimes physical healing happens in unexpected ways, and that’s always wonderful to see. But even without physical restoration, remarkable events can happen when someone is sick.
Often, sickness becomes a path to restoration with God, and the presence of other people can become a very important part of that restoration. I’ve seen people work through their fears and find tremendous peace before dying simply because others were there to pray with them, to comfort them, and to make them feel loved.
Now, not so many of you may have worked in prison ministry. The idea can be a little repulsive. I remember the first time I was volunteering in a federal prison and realized I was sitting next to someone convicted of trafficking in child pornography. It took me a few minutes to warm up to the guy. The whole time, I’m wondering, “Jesus, is this really what you meant?”
I’ve also sat with and even dined in the prison cafeteria with killers and rapists, not to mention the thieving accountants who cost people their life savings. I’ve preached to these people in worship services, I’ve taught them in small groups, and certainly, I’ve prayed with them. The only way you can become comfortable doing these things is to realize that Christ died for them, too—that their sins are just as forgiven as our sins.
And as I consider all these experiences, I begin to realize how the truth that we are saved through simple belief is so closely tied to Jesus’ expectation that we do good works for the least among us. It all goes back to grace; God loved us enough to save us even though sin had rendered us worthless, and we’re expected to model his behavior.
By going to the least, we open the door so God’s grace can better reach them. We also open another door, the one to our own hearts, and God’s grace is better able to reach us. Serving the least works very much like a sacrament, changing all involved.
That’s why it is so important to do some or all of these outreach efforts, to be there in body as the work is done. We can give money all day to support such ministries, but to experience the change, we have to be present.