In a Monday-morning bible study, we have been reading the story of Abraham. (If you haven’t gone back to read it in a while, I highly recommend it. There’s a lot more to it than “look at the stars of heaven” and “take your son Isaac and sacrifice him.”) There are several moments in the Abraham story when heavenly visitors pay a call on earthly attendants and the hosts bend over backwards to welcome them. For example, when the three men come to Abraham at the Oaks of Mamre, he goes to great lengths to wait on them personally, serving them his very best. We’ve discussed the importance of hospitality in a nomadic culture—it could mean the difference between life and death—but I’m still amazed at how elaborate the expression of welcome was.
To quote Hebrews 13:2, there’s a sense, I think, of “entertaining angels unawares” that fills out this Sunday’s gospel lesson (Matthew 25:31-46). In it, Jesus describes the last judgment in terms of separating the sheep and goats along terms of whether they provided for those in need. Those who gave food, drink, clothing, welcome, and care to those in need were, in fact, doing it to their Lord without even realizing it. Likewise, to their surprise and horror, those who denied assistance to those in need were, in fact, denying the same to their Lord. “When did we see you in need and fail to help?” they ask as they are being sent to the place of torment. Jesus replied, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” On the surface, it’s pretty scary.
People come into our office all the time asking for assistance. Sometimes it’s as easy as a cup of coffee or a warm place to sit for a few minutes. More often, though, it’s utility bills and extended-stay motel costs. Every once in a while, Matthew 25 or Hebrews 13 comes to mind, and I feel this irresistible urge to ask them, “Excuse me, ma’am, but, by any chance, are you Jesus?” It’s silly, I know. But this shallow reading of Jesus’ sharp words sticks with me.
Jesus isn’t hiding behind the faces of those in need. When we get to the day of judgment, Jesus isn’t going to say, “Do you remember that 35-year-old Hispanic man who came by asking for some gas in his car on February 13, 2012? Well, that was me. You didn’t help him out, and now you’re going to hell.” Of course not. That’s not how it works—because this passage is a lot bigger than that.
Instead of hearing these words of Jesus as a warning, I’d like to hear them as an invitation. Would you like to give your Lord and Savior a cup of water on a hot August day? Would you take delight in sharing a meal with Jesus? If you heard that Jesus were being held in the County Jail, wouldn’t you drop everything to run and go see him? Well, guess what. That’s the invitation Jesus is offering. Any of us would celebrate the opportunity to minister to the needs of our Lord. And Jesus tells us that by ministering to the needs of each other we are doing exactly that.
Maybe tomorrow’s post will talk about judgment. Maybe at some point this week I’ll get around to the question of what happens if we fail to help those in need. For today, though, I’m more interested in the fact that there’s no difference between helping someone out in Jesus’ name and helping out Jesus himself. How might that shape my next encounter with someone in need?