In each week leading up to Great and Holy Lent we are reminded of the key themes of the Lenten struggle. Last week we heard the parable of the prodigal son and we learned of the gracious mercy and forgiveness that God our Father offers. This week we are reminded of the God’s final judgment and the need to care for others.
It is not simply a reminder to care for those whom God has placed directly in our path on a daily basis. God doesn’t need to tell fathers to take care of their own children. He doesn’t need to tell adults to look after their aging parents. He doesn’t need to tell mothers to care for their young. He doesn’t need to tell husbands to care for their wives. These things are instinctual and basic. Even animals and dumb beasts take care of their own.
Instead, we are challenged to go outside our comfort zone and take care of those who are more difficult to love. This is a direct fulfillment of the Lord’s commandment to “love your neighbor as yourself.” What the Lord is asking of us is difficult. It goes directly to the places that make us who we are. It goes directly to our schedules and our pockets. If we take care of the poor or the sick or the stranger or the prisoner it will take more than wishful thinking on our part. It will take a Christian who is energized by the Holy Spirit in his walk of faith.
In the last few weeks during Sunday school we’ve been discussing the ramifications of this word “faith”. Is faith a mental and heartfelt acceptance of the identity of Jesus Christ? Perhaps initially. But as we dig deeper through the New Testament we see that faith is a firm, life-changing conviction that affects every fiber of my being. It affects and informs my every choice in life. It affects the way I use my time and the way I use my skills. It affects the way I choose the company that I keep and the way I spend my money.
The Lord is a judge and as a judge He will weigh out our deeds of faith. This comes as a surprise and those who do not pay attention to the whole of Scripture might come to believe that this is a conspiracy by Orthodox Christians or even Roman Catholics. Mental faith is not enough. God is a judge who will separate us by our faith as demonstrated through our deeds. There is quite simply, no other way to read the parable of the last judgment. What separates the sheep from the goats is that while both refer to Christ the judge as “Lord”, only one of the groups does the things that are acceptable to our Lord. He will judge us not by how we treat our friends or family. He will judge us by the way we love our enemies and those who are difficult to love. Christ wants us to look into the person that we serve and see Him.
What is so amazing in all of this is that Our Lord Jesus Christ is trying to identify with the poor, the sick, the naked, and the prisoner. The Lord actually goes further, He was one of them. He was poor nearly all of His earthly life. He was a stranger in that He travelled from place to place and never settled for long once His ministry began. He was also a stranger as His Kingdom was not of this world. He was a prisoner during the night in which He was betrayed…or rather gave Himself up for the life of the world. He was naked and sick as He hung for our sins on the holy wood of the cross. The Lord Himself was all of these things and He has great mercy on all who are in desperate need.
Another often forgotten aspect of this is that each and every one of us can at any moment find ourselves identifying with one of these types. We can fall on hard times and become poor. We can go to sleep healthy and wake up with illness. We can easily be arrested, justly or unjustly and find ourselves as prisoners. Would you have less worth if one of these events happened to you? Would you want others to judge and condemn you because you had been dealt a difficult hand by life? Would you want others to dismiss and turn away from you and withhold their love because of these things? I think that each one of us will one day fall into one of these categories, how will others treat us? More importantly, how would we like the Lord Himself to treat us?
In all of this it is important to remember that the Lord who asks us to do extremely difficult things in life, never demands anything that He has not already done in a perfect way. I have been sick and the Lord visited me with healing. I have been a prisoner to the sinful life, and the Lord brought freedom. I have been poor, and the Lord took care of my needs. I have lacked everything, and God provided for me each and every time, often through the kindness of others.
As we begin the fast we are likely to think of new recipes and what books we are going to read and what services we are going to attend. We are going to imagine that giving up chocolate or beer or television is a really great sacrifice worthy of sainthood, but these things alone will never allow us to be numbered among the righteous. Who is ready to take on new challenges and new behavior? Who is ready to look outside themselves and search out the needs of others? Who is ready to change the way they live to allow others a chance to have a life worth living? Who is ready to be sent to bring God’s love to those who really need it?
Whoever answers “Send me Lord!” will find that He is precious in the sight of God. He will find that in attempting to love Christ in the poor, it is in fact Christ who will pour out His love on him.