Jesus’ remarks are central to our understanding of how someone who calls him or herself a Christian ought to act in the world.
Wendell Berry, the wonderful American poet and farmer, said in a recent interview, ʺWe don’t have a right to ask what we’re going to get out of life. The only question we have a right to ask is, ‘What is the right thing to do?’ʺ Berry is a man of deep faith who believes in the Gospels and tries to live in accord with them as best he can. Though he is humble enough to know that he falls short, he knows, too, that they are the core of a good life well lived. I think his statement above is a very accessible way of understanding Jesus’ comments in this Gospel passage.
Jesus’ remarks are central to our understanding of how someone who calls him or herself a Christian ought to act in the world. ʺWhen I was hungry, you fed me. When I was thirsty, you gave me drink…Amen I say to you,whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.ʺ And you will go with Christ into the eternal kingdom. These actions are sometimes called the ʺcorporal works of mercy.ʺ Such actions are done out of love. Because they are rooted in love, they are life-giving and truly just. Our faith, and God’s grace, empower us to temporarily set aside our self-concerns in order to respond to the more powerful needs of the other.
In our culture today, it seems that most people think that life owes them something, just because they are here. But, in the economy of the Gospels, the opposite understanding is true. According to the Gospels, we are not here to be served, but to serve. It is not ʺall about us,ʺ rather, it is about how we respond to the suffering other. Jesus is telling us here that it is this selfless care for the other that makes life worth living, not just for the other, but for us as well. This attitude is so counter-cultural that it is often ridiculed and rejected as ʺfoolish.ʺ It is more common today to hear people arguing vociferously that they have ʺrights.ʺ These arguments take on many forms, but what is universal to all of them is that they seem not to recognize, or even acknowledge, the equal, corresponding responsibilities that are attached to those rights. They forget that what is good for me, because I am human, is equally good for all other human beings.
If our demands, even for what is really good, disturb, or even prevent others from receiving what is really good for them, then we may be guilty of the other half of today’s Gospel message, that is, because we did not feed the hungry, or give drink to the thirsty, or care for the sick, or visit those in jail, we will be thrust out with the goats. In neglecting, or refusing, or in ignoring the needs of others, we have not only done harm to them, but, as Jesus tells us here, we have also neglected Jesus, and for this, we might be in danger of losing the one thing we most desire, eternal happiness.
Somehow the culture seems to have forgotten this. That is why it needs Christians to model the power and the positive effects of that this Gospel passage’s message of love and care can have on others and on our shared society. Jesus was challenging the people of his own times to see this, just as he continues to do with us today. Wendell Berry’s quote above recognizes it too. We don’t have a right to ask life to give to us all that we think belongs to us. But we do have a responsibility to figure out what we need to do in relation to life, and especially in relation to the suffering of others. When we do honor our Christian responsibilities toward others, we are honoring Jesus. This is the meaning of a Christian’s life.
Let us, then, practice the habit of seeing the face of Jesus in everyone we meet. And let us serve them with joy, for when we do so, we make God’s kingsom evident in this bent and broken world. Amen.