[Jesus said:] “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left.
“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’
“Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’”
(Matthew 25:31-40, ESV)
Ah, yes. The parable of the sheep and the goats from chapter 25 of Matthew’s Gospel—historically, a favourite sermon text in the United Church of Canada (and, I’d wager, a favourite in most of the so-called “mainline” churches).
Using this passage, it’s easy to forge a manifesto on how to live out the “social gospel” in today’s world, declaring that the mission of the church is to overthrow all oppressors and wipe out all injustice, by active engagement in political and social reform.
“Social justice” is a huge part of what my own denomination has always been about, and I’m glad for that. I celebrate it. Over the years, I have taken part in outreach programs for disenfranchised and excluded people. I have said “Amen!” to campaigns against nuclear proliferation, against logging in old-growth forests, and against the continuing marginalization of the poor. Every one of those causes achieved significant victories in the name of Christ—and I’m not ashamed of my association with them.
However, there is another side to this whole thing.
If you wanted to parody typical mainline responses to our “sheep and goats” passage, I think it would go something like this:
- “I was hungry … and you petitioned the government for better social programs …
- “I was a stranger … and you recommended funding new community initiatives …
- “I was in prison … and you urged the Minister of Public Safety to review the penitentiary system.”
Yet, the people who are rewarded in Jesus’ description of Judgment Day are not commended for running programs or writing to politicians—they are commended for personally extending hospitality:
- “I was hungry and a stranger and you welcomed me to your own table …
- “I was in the hospital, and you came and sat with me …
- “I needed a warm winter coat, but couldn’t afford one—and you bought one for me …
- “I was in prison and you came to visit me; you went through the security checks and emptied out your pockets and got frisked and scrutinized … just so you could see me.”
Just so you could see me. Just because you cared about me. Wow. That is “do-it-yourself” social action! It’s much smaller in scale, but it can have a profound impact. Inviting one person to dinner may not seem very significant—but love and hospitality are what heal people’s souls and turn their lives around.
Of course, things are never as simple as they appear. If you operate as an isolated individual, trying to recognize Christ in the face of every needy person you encounter, and responding—every time—by opening your own home and your own heart … The truth is, that is arduous. And it will very quickly wear you down.
Before you know it, you’ll be hiding! You’ll be intentionally avoiding contact with needy people, in order to reduce your workload; and—more than likely—you’ll find yourself weighed down by guilt, as a result.
Here’s the thing: Christian hospitality should be a community effort. At the Lord’s Table—and at our banquet tables—we share food and drink. Corporately, we share in worship, and in fellowship afterwards. That’s all good. However, we must also share—corporately—the responsibility to care for those who live and move outside our sanctuary walls. If we take Jesus seriously, hospitality requires us to expand our definition of community.
How can we accomplish that? From my own very small congregation, I offer two examples.
First, I want to hold up our “Advent Bassinet Project,” which aims to support the clients of the Calgary Pregnancy Care Centre. The idea is simple. During Advent, we seek to honour the Christ Child and his mother by caring for babies and moms in our larger community. Throughout the season, we collect gift items (and necessities) for babies and mothers—anything from diapers and formula to children’s clothing and toys to photo albums and makeup kits and bubble bath to gift certificates for restaurants or groceries or …
I’m sure you get the idea. Anything you yourself might enjoy finding under the Christmas tree, you can place in the bassinet on display at chancel front. Near to Christmas, all these items are packed up and delivered to the Centre, for distribution at their Client Christmas Party. Personal gifts, with a personal touch.
Second, we have a dedicated group of volunteers who convene regularly to make loaves of sandwiches—many loaves of sandwiches—which they then deliver to one of our city’s homeless shelters. Like the Bassinet Project, this is outreach with a personal touch.
The folks who take part in these and other compassionate ministries will tell you that they find this sort of direct action infinitely more satisfying than merely signing their names to a petition or participating in a focus group. I suspect it is also—spiritually—an infinitely deeper experience.
And these things are doable precisely because … many hands … make lighter work.
May God grant us wisdom for the living of our days, as we await the coming of his kingdom. Amen.