By Larry Short
If you knew exactly what you could do to make Jesus happy, would you do it?
I think the answer to this question is much clearer, and simpler, than most of us realize. We think: Oh, I know. I need to read the Bible more. Or pray more. Or share Christ with my neighbor more.
All these things are certainly needed. But Matthew 25 gives a very different twist in answer to this question. And I think it’s one that makes us a bit uncomfortable. (At least it makes ME uncomfortable!)
In this chapter, Jesus is telling parables about the Kingdom of Heaven. But suddenly He stops speaking in parables and begins to give a very direct prophecy about a phenomenally significant event that will surely occur at the end of time. “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne,” Christ tells His disciples. “All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.”
To the sheep Christ will say: “‘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.’
This apparently surprises both the sheep, and the goats. They sheep say, “But Lord? When did we see you hungry and gave you something to eat?”
You know the story. Christ responds: “When you did it to the least of these, my brethren, you did it unto me.”
And, in case you’re wondering … you don’t want to be a goat. You want to be a sheep.
Who are “the least of these?” The question is a little like the rich man’s question, “Who is my neighbor?” The “least of these” are anyone who is vulnerable. Children, for instance. Anyone who suffers injustice, anyone disempowered. Anyone who is poor! Scripture assures us, over and over again, that the poor occupy a special place near God’s heart.
At Elim we are rejoicing because this week this church took a huge step forward in serving the poor, in serving Christ. You probably remember Monday night as a night of wild weather. We listened to the wind howl as we tried to sleep, and many of us experienced hours of power outage. Fortunately, though, we all remained warm — and indoors.
Many here on South Hill aren’t so fortunate. Due to economic and other pressures, we have a growing homeless population in our midst. Imagine spending Monday night out sleeping under a bridge, or under a makeshift tent (with branches coming down all around) near the river?
So, Monday night we were privileged to partner with a local organization known as “Freezing Nights.” Starting November 1, this organization arranges churches who are willing to host homeless guests, under very controlled circumstances. More than a dozen Elim volunteers helped turn our facility into a warm, welcoming and safe environment for local homeless, participating in the program, to spend the night. These volunteers spent time listening to and getting to know these people better, helped them set up and tear down cots, and prepared and served snacks, a hot breakfast, and sack lunches.
Several of these volunteers say that the experience was life-changing, and that they will never look at the poor the same way again.
Our participation with Freezing Nights was a pilot, or a test, and we are currently debriefing with the Outreach Team and with the Puyallup Homeless Coalition to determine whether there will be any ongoing involvement for us. But one thing is clear: Reaching out to and serving the community around us is something that God is calling us to do, here at Elim! Living the Gospel is not simply sending missionaries to the furthest corners of the earth. It is also about making life sacrifices so that we can build relationships with and share Christ’s love with people who need Him, here at home.
I realized how important this relationship-building was when I watched a young man named Greg (and I’m changing his name to protect his identity) interacting with Brian Holthe. Greg was newly homeless, only about two weeks on the streets. A victim of severe depression resulting in a prior suicide attempt, he had been recently cast out by his family and by his fiancee. He was clearly very troubled. Brian, who himself has survived a near miss with homelessness and relational disappointments in his past, sat and listened to Greg’s story, and shared with him the hope that Christ had brought into his own life situation.
It was clearly a divine appointment. What Greg needed was the hope that Brian had. And fortunately, Brian was there! And he was eager to share.
I don’t know whether we will continue to host “freezing nights,” or not. I hope so. But I do know that we need to continue to share Christ’s love and hope with people like Greg. In so doing, in reaching out “to the least of these,” Christ’s brethren — we are in truth doing it unto Christ.