–May of 2007
The Least of These My Brethren
If you have ever walked through the dark slums of Cairo or Calcutta, then you know the deep inner pain of beholding some of the most destitute people in the world. Maybe you have visited a hospice in South Africa where AIDS babies lay dying, or an orphanage in Romania where “touch starved” babies appear almost inhuman. If so, you know that inner ache that defies language. For most Americans, the closest contact to anything remotely similar to this is passing a homeless person on the street or looking into the empty eyes of a nursing-home patient who has been abandoned by his family, or coming into contact with someone who is severely retarded. The emotions you feel are only a small reflection of how our Heavenly Father must feel when He looks down upon those He calls the “least of these my brethren….” He describes who they are in Matthew 25:34-40,
“Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: For I was an hungered, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me. Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungered, and fed thee? Or thirsty, and gave thee drink? When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? Or naked, and clothed thee? Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee? And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.”
God reserves a special place in His heart for the socially disenfranchised, the economically disadvantaged, and the physically disabled. As a matter of fact, this group is so close to His heart that to serve them is to serve Him, a service that brings the reward of eternal life. On the other hand, a failure to serve Him by serving them carries the sentence of eternal wrath. This should not surprise us. In the book of Deuteronomy we see a God that, “executes justice for the orphan and widow, and…loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing.” God also institutionalized a system of compassionate justice for Jewish civil life through such things as the law of gleaning and the Year of Jubilee. He became angry with Judah when she failed to “share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house” (Isa.58:5-7).
Jesus made it very clear in Matthew 22:37-40 that love for God compels us into compassionate love for our neighbor, and then carefully defined who our neighbor was in the story of the Good Samaritan. Social compassion is extremely high on God’s agenda.
Historically the holiness movement has had a very clear understanding that true holiness had a strong social dimension. Wesley said, “All holiness is social holiness”; that is, we cannot think that we are holy in our personal lives if that holiness does not motivate us to practice justice, mercy, and compassion. In the holiness tradition, social compassion is where the central issue of holiness—love—meets the road. The power to live a virtuous life doesn’t stop within ourselves, but extends outward into our relationships with others. We feed the hungry. We help the helpless. We reach out to the orphan, the widow, the weak and the shoved aside. We look for those who are excluded or neglected because of their social status, or their race, or their background, or their age, or any number of other things, and do all we can to bring them into the social and spiritual network of the community and the Church.
Our civilization will be judged by how we have treated our most helpless citizens. If we turn away from them, we will extinguish our own light. If we fail to understand that loving and serving Jesus means loving and serving them, we will be destined to hear these words, “Depart from Me, you cursed, into everlasting fire…for inasmuch as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not unto me.”