Thursday, March 31, 2005

The Least of These

Matthew 25:31-40 (New International Version)

The Sheep and the Goats

31“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory. 32All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.

34“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

37“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

40“The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’”

They seem like such small things, a bit of food for a hungry soul, a drink of water, clothing for someone who is needy, a visit to a prisoner. Jesus called them deeds done for “these brothers of mine,” the fellowship of the “least of these.”

There’s an inheritance for those who do these little things. There are also consequences for those who don’t. Their “reward” is outlined in the second half of this story of the sheep and goats. If you have any interest in reading about their fate it begins at Matthew 25:41.

Terri Schiavo is one of the “least of these” now. She qualifies. No food, no water, no sustenance of any kind for two weeks now. Men in black robes, judges they’re called, have declared this is the right thing to do. They’re more like embalmers anxious to ply their deadly trade on the body before it’s even cold, I’d say.

Last night our men’s group met and we all had an opportunity to express our thoughts about what’s going on in our lives. When it came time for me I spoke about what I’m feeling these days. It was a great comfort to me. “Why do we need a bio-ethicist to decide whether or not starving someone to death is the right or wrong thing to do?” I asked. “Where does Terri Schiavo herself fit into this grisly stream of “pertinent" facts?” My emotions boiled over and the guys listened and understood. They cared.

I needed that. In the past two weeks as I’ve surveyed the blogosphere I’ve felt that I’m swimming against the tide of events and thinking. I’ve tried all the advice. I’ve tried to link more locally and less globally. That didn’t help. I’ve tried thinking rationally, gathering all the “pertinent facts” before getting too emotional about the case of just one woman. That didn’t help either. When it comes right down to it not much that I’ve seen coming across the airwaves lately has comforted me. I’m out of the mainstream, leading with my emotions, and if I’ve learned from this ordeal that one must think rationally about these things. Clear thinking must prevail.

I’m sitting here in the pre-dawn hours, in the shadow of events being cast half a continent away from these gentle, rolling hills. The “least of these” are occupying my thoughts. “Who’s next?” I wonder.

Several years ago Nancy and I spent some vacation time in Washington, D.C. We stayed at on old hotel, the Lombardy, which was situated about two or three blocks from the White House, the seat of the world’s temporal power. On one night of our stay something interrupted Nancy’s sleep. It began with some voices from the street below. Then when she opened her eyes she noticed an orange glow outside the window. “Phil,” she pleaded as she woke me up. “I think there may be a fire.” I sat up for a minute, looked out the window, and sniffed the air. “It’s alright Coach. Everything’s fine, go back to sleep.” I slumped back down and turned over, a signal to her that my sleep was important. She refused to be comforted. “I lived in an apartment complex once where one of the buildings caught on fire in the night. Three people were killed.” I sat up once more. She took my hand and pleaded once more. “Can we just go downstairs for a while, get a cup of coffee, and talk for a while?”

About ten minutes later we found ourselves in an all night Burger King two doors down from the hotel. On the surface it had the look of any Burger King in the country, the sameness we Americans have come to know and expect over the years. But there was something very different about this place. Once you got past the sterile sameness it was evident that something very important was going on.

We got our coffee and sat down at a table against the wall. As I sipped cautiously at the scalding coffee I couldn’t help but notice a strange looking man sitting diagonally across from us, about three or four tables away. He seemed to be tall, although it was a bit difficult to see for sure with him slouched in his chair. His face was long and thin, covered with a dark, scraggly beard. He was wearing, of all things, a suit. At one time it might have been a really nice suit, but he’d changed all that. It was painted white, decorated in what appeared to be some cheap flat ceiling paint. As I looked down to survey the outfit fully I noticed that there must have been some paint left over when he’d finished working on the suit. His shoes, loafers as best I could determine, were also painted white. I scanned back from his shoes to his head and saw that the regal outfit was crowned with a blue beret. On the table in front of him was a tin of water colors, the kind we get our kids at Christmas. They were open and he was holding a tiny paintbrush in his hand. On the floor next to him was a briefcase of some sort.

I sat transfixed for a few minutes, observing this vagabond of the night from a safe distance. Then a tall, muscular African-American man came over to him and bent over. “You doin’ okay?” he asked. The man nodded. “You still takin’ your meds?” The man nodded again. “Been doin’ much painting lately?” The man seemed to perk up with this question. He bent down and picked up his briefcase and began to display the contents. I couldn’t seem them from where I sat, but as he displayed them one by one, the African-American man would nod his head and say, “Nice.”

When he was done complimenting our would-be artist, the African-American man, who I now assumed was the night shift manager, made his way to another table. There sat a man who appeared to be in his fifties. Like the artist a few tables away, the man was unkempt. He was sitting with his elbows perched on the table, his head buried in his open hands. There in front of him was a stack of papers. The manager patted him on the back as he arrived. “Something I can help you with.” The man lifted his head out of his hands and said, “Damned VA. I gotta’ fill out all this paperwork for them and I don’t know how.” The manager pulled up a chair and sat down next to him. “Lemmee’ see,” he said as he picked the papers up. “I think I can help you. Just give me a minute, I’ve got a few things to do first and I’ll be right back.” As he got up two more men made their way through the door. The manager greeted them by name and asked if they were hungry. “Yeah,” they responded in unison. “But we got no money.” The manager then trotted into a back room. A minute or so later he came back with two mops and a bucket. “Here,” he said. You guys mop this place up a bit and I’ll get you something to eat.”

Nancy and I stayed there for about an hour watching this angel of mercy do his appointed work. The more we watched, the more we saw that this was a man who loved his little flock and he loved his ministry to the “least of these.” He saw something in them that few of us ever do. He saw their greatest gift, their humanity.

Wouldn’t you know it; God gives this greatest gift even to the “least of these,” sometimes even to idiots. Some of them occupy enormous amounts of our time, energy, and resources. Some of them don’t think rationally. It’s difficult to break through the barriers and defenses they’ve set up. We try to talk to them and the message never seems to hit home. We converse with them over and over and over and they steadfastly refuse to get off the psychiatric treadmill they’re running their lives on. Some of them can only be fed with our help. Some of them can’t see a thing, but their fingers are so nimble that they can sculpt pieces that Frederick Remington would envy. Some of them can’t read a word of music, but they can play a Bach sonata or Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony from memory. None of them have ever earned a PHD in mathematics. Not one of them can tell you how a quadratic equation works. But you can ask them what day August 13th, 3908 falls on and quicker than you can say “abacus” they’ll tell you that it’s a Wednesday.

The big problem that the learned and wise have with these “folk” is that in between masterpieces they just seem to sit around and drool. According to them there’s no one home. There’s no quality of life to be had in these drooling shells, there’s no possibility of an on-going dialogue with the illuminati. Therefore, the only real worth they have is as objects of study and round table discussion. They’re really nothing more than monkeys on the end of the organ grinders’ leashes.

And so these wise and learned men sit, like Madame Defarge, offering their opinions. A head is lopped off so to speak, some poor unsuspecting soul is dehumanized, and it’s “Knit one, pearl two.”

This night shift saint stands in stark contrast to the wisdom of my day. He was working his little miracles at a twenty-four hour a day Burger King. The idiots, the infirm, the homeless and shiftless, the schizophrenic would be Picassos all passed through his door and no one was turned away. Each got a Whopper, a cup of coffee, a pat on the back, a listening ear, and a hug. He was simply an after hours angel of mercy busily ministering to his flock. He was so busy in fact that could never find the time to accept an invitation to attend a round table discussion with the “wise and anointed” about what constituted quality of life.

Today as I sit with the dawn now rising, I sense that we need fewer Michael Schiavos and Judge Greers. We need more like this night shift saint!

My emotions are overwhelmed. Clear thinking is going to win the day. After all, this is not a time to be emotional. The questions posed at last night’s meeting come up once more. Where are we going? Who’s next? Some would be artist sitting at a table in twenty four hour a day Burger King? A couple of bums without the financial resources to rescue themselves? Some “idiot” who sculpts and drools?

I try to think “rationally,” but I cannot make it happen. “It must be something in the way God fertilizes the tallgrass out here,” I muse. “I’ve taken a healthy dose of sweet sanity and will not be comforted by the wisdom of the day?”


James Fletcher Baxter said...


Pandu das said...
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Pandu das said...
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weniki93 said...

Wow, those are some long and bizarre comments. I am guessing that 1. the God you serve allows you to eat animals. Lev 11:1-3
2.That the point of your post was completely lost on the poor soul who offered such lengthy comments.
I liked your post. The world is filled with secret servants who store for themselves treasures in heaven. If we look around we can find them in the most ordinary of places, not looking for glory or applause, just doing the work of the one who sent them.

Pandu das said...

While I am certainly a poor soul, the point I was trying to make is entirely valid, based on scripture, and received through disciplic succession. I'll reiterate in terms that you may more easily understand.

Beneficial actions can be divided into two categories:
1) those that meet an immediate goal, and
2) those that support an ultimate good.

Some actions may fit into both categories, but generally what's thought of as beneficial in society is in category 1 but contrary to category 2. The scriptural arguments I provided, but were deleted, supported that premise.

One of the most prominent examples of an action which provides immediate gross satisfaction, but is contrary to one's ultimate good, is the consumption of slaughterhouse products, especially of cow slaughter; and as an extension of this, charitable giving of such impious foods may satisfy the belly for some brief time (and provide a more subtle satisfaction to the giver), but weighs both souls with sin. Such charity is in the material mode of ignorance.

Regarding Lev 11:1-3, if the quote is indeed accurately portrayed in the Bible, it must be admitted that God was speaking to uncivilized people who needed to be told, "Thou shalt not kill." God spoke to Moses through an impersonal representation (the burning bush) and would only show Moses His backside, which represents impiousness. Countless people, including my humble self, have had the benefit of seeing the Supreme Personality of Godhead face to face.

Jesus strengthened God's commandments in the society of meat-eaters and emphasized showing mercy to the helpless. Charity, however, must be given according to pure religious principles (not consolations for barbarians), if it is to ultimately be beneficial.