This past week at McMurry University, we had a visiting lecturer who spoke about what it means for Christians to remember the poor. One of his insights was that we should be thankful that the Lord said that “the poor will always be with you” because that means that He will always be with us. As today’s gospel reading makes clear, He is with us in the hungry, the stranger, the naked, the sick, and the prisoner. To the extent that we serve needy people, we serve our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ. And to the extent that we neglect them, we neglect Him. Christ says to the righteous, “In that you did it to the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.” And He says to those headed for punishment, “In that you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.”
The truth about our relationship with God is not simply a matter of what someone believes or where someone goes to church. How we treat others on a daily basis, especially the weak and inconvenient, manifests where we stand in relation to Him. If we truly participate in the life of Christ, we will become living icons of our Lord’s love and mercy in the world as we know it in relation to real people with real problems.
St. John wrote in his Epistle, “If someone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen?” He also writes, “But whoever has this world’s goods, and sees his brother in need, and shuts up his heart from him, how does the love of God abide in him? My little children, let us not love in word or in tongue, but in deed and in truth.”
It is easy in our time a place to be Christians in word only. We may even become prideful at times about being Orthodox, thinking we are better than others because the teachings and practices of the Church embody the fullness of Christian truth. To profess in humility that our faith is true is one thing; it is quite another, however, to think that we as particular people have scaled the heights of holiness so high that we may judge others. That is the way of the self-righteous Pharisee and brings only condemnation. We must avoid it at all costs.
Given what we believe as Orthodox Christians, the Lord will hold us accountable to the highest standard, for the more we have received, the more will be expected of us. He expects us to become so fully united with Him that we convey His love and mercy to everyone, especially those who are miserable and isolated. Before that high standard of holiness, there is no room for self-righteousness, but only for humble repentance.
Did you notice that the righteous people in our gospel text apparently were not even aware that they were caring for the Lord when they cared for those in need? They did not think, “I need to treat this person well because in him I serve Jesus Christ.” Instead, they simply showed love and mercy because they were so united with the Lord that His characteristics had become theirs.
Even on our best days, most of us are surely a long way from meeting that standard of holiness. Instead of overflowing with Christ-like love and mercy toward the needy, inconvenient, and annoying, we look for excuses not to help them because we have more important things to do. We say were are too busy and do not have enough time, energy, or other resources. We blame other people’s problems on them, but still think that others should cater to us. Of course, these are simply excuses and lies that we tell ourselves due to our laziness and self-centeredness.
Even as our Lord’s original followers were common people, we do not have to be rich in the world’s resources in order to serve Him by visiting the sick and lonely, helping a child learn to read, or mentoring a refugee. Every one of us can have a conversation, send a note or email message, or make a phone call to someone who needs a friend. We can all find a way to be a blessing to someone who suffers. Most of us have old clothes to give to the Salvation Army or Good Will; many can donate blood and literally save someone’s life. We will soon start the “Food for Hungry People” drive for Lent when we put spare change into containers for the poor. No matter how young or old we are, we interact with people who need our attention, our encouragement, and our prayers. Instead of ignoring them, we all have the ability to treat them as we would like others to treat us, especially if we were sick, unemployed, alone in life, or in jail.
It sounds so easy, but we all know hard it is in practice to be considerate of the needs of others. That is precisely why we need the spiritual practices of Great Lent, such as fasting, prayer, almsgiving, forgiveness, and reconciliation. For when we humble ourselves before God and our neighbors in these ways, we open our lives to His strength, power, and healing. When we turn our attention from self-centeredness to God-centeredness, we gain experience in saying “No” to ourselves and “Yes” to Him. We wake up at least a bit from the deceptive illusions we have accepted about ourselves and other people, and begin to see ourselves and them more clearly.
As much as we do not like to acknowledge it, even those who irritate and annoy us bear the image of God. That group of people whom we are inclined to ignore or hate or condemn is made up of those for whom Christ died and rose again; they too are living icons of our Lord. The world will not end if our plans and preferences are replaced by those a Kingdom not of this world. We participate more fully in that Kingdom when we put the needs of others before our own desires, especially when it is a bit of a challenge to do so.
St. Paul was right that “food does not commend us to God; for neither if we eat are we the better, nor if we do not eat are we the worse.” He was responding to the question of whether Christians in his day should eat meat from animals that had been sacrificed to pagan gods. St. Paul thought that the relevant consideration was how eating or not eating that meat affected other people. If recent converts from paganism were scandalized by the sight of a Christian eating meat from a pagan temple, then the one who ate sinned against his weaker brother and against Christ. “Therefore, if food makes by brother stumble, I will never again eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble.”
We fast and undertake other spiritual disciplines in Lent so that we will not cause others to stumble, so that our spiritual diseases will be healed by our Lord’s mercy and we will become better channels of God’s love to our neighbors. Every one of us needs this kind of spiritual therapy. Anger, pride, envy, lust, self-righteousness, gluttony and other passions distort our relationships with other people, even those we love most. We tempt them to sin because of our infirmities and corruptions. None of us is fully healed; no one is free of the distortion and weakening that our sins have worked in our own lives; none of us may disregard Lent as though it is a season simply for other people.
As we prepare for our Lenten journey, we should keep in mind that fasting is not first of all about food, but a tool that can help us fight deep seated passions that keep us from seeing and serving Christ in our neighbors. A bit of generosity to the poor will not change the world, but it will change us by giving us practice in attending to the needs of others in how we use our resources. Prayer is not magic, but in order to grow in union with Christ we must get in the habit of at least giving Him our attention. Otherwise, how can we hope to share more fully in His life?
If we want to become like the righteous in today’s gospel passage, so filled with the love of Christ that we share His mercy with everyone we encounter, we need to take our medicine; we need therapy for the healing of our souls. Great Lent will soon invite us to turn away from everything that keeps us from recognizing Christ in our neighbors and to learn to love Him in them. As our Savior said, “In that you did it to the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.” Yes, Christ is with us in every needy, miserable, and inconvenient person. Let us use the practices of Lent to grow in our ability to serve Him in them. That is how, by God’s grace, we too may enter into the joy of the Kingdom.