When I consider how my light is spent
Ere half my days in this dark world and wide,
And that one Talent which is death to hide
Lodged with me useless, though my soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, lest He returning chide,
"Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?"
I fondly ask. But Patience, to prevent
That murmur, soon replies, "God doth not need
Either man's work or his own gifts. Who best
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state
Is kingly: thousands at his bidding speed,
And post o'er land and ocean without rest;
They also serve who only stand and wait."
Today marks the end of the Church Year. It is Christ the King Sunday and is kind of like a liturgical New Year’s Eve. Next Sunday is the beginning of Advent and we begin our pilgrimage once again as Christians on a pilgrimage of faith. Today we hear the last parable told by Jesus before he would enter Jerusalem and face the cross. This parable is commonly known as the parable of the sheep and the goats. It speaks to the reality of there being a final judgment where the sifting of good from evil will happen before the throne of God. At first read, there is an admonition that what we do to the “least of these” sisters and brothers is what we do to the King of Kings. It reminds us that Christ comes to us in unexpected ways and through the people the world would rather ignore or throw away. We are bidden to attend to their needs as in doing so, we attend to Christ himself.
But there is a troublesome twist in this story. We can get become obsessed with the aspect of what we “do to the least of these.” We live in a culture which values doing over being and our first impression of this parable could leave us thinking the emphasis is on being those who are “doers” of ministry. When we do that, we separate ourselves from ever being “the least of these.” There is a sense that the “least of these” is always someone else and not us.
A few weeks ago, we gathered to discuss our youth and adult formation programs. In so doing, Kathy Brown talked about the ebb and flow of our lives and the need for balance. Too much flow and we burn out. Too much ebb and we withdraw. This is the description of the balance between doing and being. Unfortunately, the values of our culture emphasize the doing over the being – and we end up over-stressed, under-rested, and over-caffeinated. This is not what God intends for us.
While there is merit in the surface reading of this parable and we are called to reach out to the “least of these” – those whom we and the world would rather ignore – we are also called to recognize when we ourselves are the “least of these.” In truth, we would rather not be the “least of these,” would we? We hate to ask for help or depend on others – this makes us vulnerable and we hate it! I hate it too. But all of us, in various times and places, are the “least of these” in some way. And the question is how do we respond to our own vulnerability? Do we graciously accept the help and care of others or do we lash out in anger and drive them away? One of the most common things I heard from my patients when I was a hospice chaplain was they felt useless and without a sense of purpose. I had to remind them that they still had a purpose – to teach their families how to die well and gracefully accept the ministrations of their loved ones. I would ask them, “If you cannot accept the ministrations and gifts of others now, how will you ever be ready to receive the grace and glory God has prepared for you in the life to come?”
As we think about the words of Jesus, we need to remember that for every one of those who are doing the clothing, feeding, and visiting, there is a recipient of that ministry who is being clothed, fed and visited. It takes both the doer and the receiver for the relationship to blossom and the love of Christ to be fully expressed. As Milton expressed, there is grace in being the one who "stands and waits" when one does so in the context of relationship and allows others to minister to their needs. I truly believe that the ones who will face the harshest judgment in the final analysis are those who cut themselves off from others – those who believe they do not need to be doers or receivers. Those who isolate and refuse to give to others or refuse to receive from others will relegate themselves to live in a hell of their own making.
We are all sheep … and we are all goats. We all have times when we are the doers ministering to others and times when we need to be on the receiving end of other’s ministrations. It is when we engage in the relationships of feeding, clothing, visiting, welcoming, and caring for each other that Christ enters into the space between us and the Kingdom of God gets a little more real and just a little bit closer.