Whatever You Did for the Least of These
One of the best things about being a pastor is simply the opportunity to hear people’s stories, and to see the many and varied ways that God has of drawing people to himself and his purposes. Yesterday I was in conversation with a person who is on the journey from a dark and destructive past to a more hopeful future. This person continues to have struggles and has many unresolved issues and unanswered questions, but they are walking in the right direction. It was good to hear their story and to be able to offer a bit of encouragement.
It was also good to receive some instruction. Our visit over coffee was, ostensibly, about my providing care and instruction for someone seeking to know more about God and our church. That’s the way things work, right? People are supposed to come to pastors for insight in these areas. And that’s all well and good, I suppose. I think I was able to point this person in some helpful directions, to encourage them and plant some questions in their mind. But right near the end of our conversation, things took a very interesting turn. In a sense, the roles were reversed and I became the beneficiary rather than the provider of insight.
“What can I do to put God first in my life?” this person asked. “I find it hard to make time for God.” I was initially unsure as to how best to respond, but I ended up making remarks something to the effect that I didn’t necessarily see life in terms of “time for God” and “time for everything else”—that I saw all of life as an opportunity to see God and to hear his voice. “The main thing,” I said, “is that whatever we are doing, we think about how this situation is offering a chance to better love God and neighbour.” This seemed to strike a chord, and it led to what I would call something like a holy moment.
This person begins each day watching a religious TV program that, for a variety of reasons, I would probably not be inclined to watch. But the religious leader on this program had once said that if you are feeling bad about yourself, one of the best things you can do is to help someone else. The person I was visiting with told me the story about how they thought of this comment one day while they were feeling bad about themselves. They decided, based upon the TV person’s advice, to call up an acquaintance (who happened to be a prostitute) and see if they could take her son out for the afternoon to hang out and get a haircut. A child in a desperate and bleak situation was given a carefree afternoon of fun and relaxation with someone who cared about them. For a few hours one day, light and life replaced the darkness that was such a familiar part of this young person’s experience.
The story was told in a kind of nonchalant way—as if it wasn’t a very significant thing in the grand scheme of things. But it was significant. Hugely significant. So many of us are so busy with “religious” activities yet barely consider the kind of self-giving, concrete expressions of love demonstrated by the person I was talking with. I did my best to communicate to this person that in this one simple action, they had heard and responded to the voice of the risen Christ. And that they had, most definitely, put God first.
The words of Matthew 25:40 were ringing in my ear long after our conversation—”whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” One of the most basic lessons of the gospel is that service offered to the weak and the poor, the helpless and rejected, the forgotten and ignored, the inconvenient and neglected is service offered to Christ. It is a lesson that is virtually impossible to miss when you read the gospels honestly, yet it is one that is also incredibly easy to set aside or reinterpret or spiritualize for those of us on the right side of the socioeconomic divide.
Yesterday, my reminder of this gospel truth came from an unlikely source—a person taking halting and unsure steps back to faith, a person who is carrying a fair amount of guilt and shame, a person who has always felt like they didn’t fit or belong in the church, a person with a history of addictions and pain, a person who watches religious programs that many of us in the Christian intelligentsia would be inclined to scorn…
Come to think of it, maybe it’s not such an unlikely source for a reminder of the truth and hope of the gospel to come from after all.
The connection between loving God and loving others is clear and strong in the Bible and in Christian and Jewish traditions. The connection is found before, as well as after, the time of Christ.
At the same time, I don’t think all acts of kindness that occur reflect this theological connection, and I am not sure the one you have described here does, even while it reminds us of the connection. I have known people who have no faith at all (as well as those who do) who enjoy helping people in greater need than themselves because it builds their self esteem; and that, rather than the theological connection, can be the motivation. That seems to be what the TV minister was saying: do this and it will make you feel better about yourself. Perhaps, kindness is still good, unless the self esteem motive comes through the act in a way that harms the recipient as it sometimes does.
In the religious tradition that formed me, kindness is believed to flow from faith, to flow from God through us. When this happens, self esteem is not involved. (I am thinking of Luther and others, including Simone Weil, who have written about this.)
Is it the same in your tradition?
I didn’t say that all acts of kindness reflected a theological connection, nor do I think that people who profess no faith do not possess the capacity to help people in need (indeed, I think it would be very odd if either of the preceding was true). I am also neither optimistic enough to believe that building personal self-esteem is never a motivator for kindness, nor cynical enough to believe that it always is. I didn’t hear any more from the TV preacher than I communicated in the post, so it’s not possible for me to make a judgment on his motives.
Re: the origins/outcomes of kindness, I suppose my tradition—to whatever extent it explicitly addressed these matters—would have occupied the kind of middle ground I allude to above. Kindness is a gift of God through faith. Kindness toward others can also make us feel better about ourselves. They are not mutually exclusive. Or something like that. It sort of makes sense, I think…. No reason to expect or demand that doing good for others couldn’t or wouldn’t or shouldn’t lead to good for ourselves.
What I hear that is different in the Reformed tradition is perhaps more skepticism towards humanity than is associated with your tradition. Simone Weil was, of course, Jewish, but with Roman Catholic interests. While those traditions are less skeptical of humanity, perhaps, than the Reformed tradition, with respect to the ways of kindness I think they are the same.
On the other hand, the historical tendency of Anabaptists to separate themselves from the main culture (if the historians I have read are right) does also indicate a certain skepticism towards humanity. Do you believe that is true?
Re: “No reason to expect or demand that doing good for others couldn’t or wouldn’t or shouldn’t lead to good for ourselves.” I don’t think the Reformed tradition expects or demands this, nor do Catholics or Jews. I think what they are saying is that sometimes acts of kindness are motivated by self-interest and when that happens it can lead to the helper harming the ones helped. (Which is not to say that it always leads to that.)
I would say that some Anabaptists have, at times, exhibited an unnecessarily skeptical view of humanity. At our best, though, I think Anabaptists are realistic—they see the obvious truth that some skepticism about humanity is warranted, but the equally obvious truth that there is goodness and love in us as well.
The image of God in us is tarnished, perhaps, but not destroyed. And it finds expression in all kinds of wonderful and unexpected ways, as I think the story in the post shows.
Is it possible, Ken that you are missing the story in this analysis? To me it feels like you are trying to understand a rose by isolating its chemical content. Maybe I’m not understanding you.
Yes, I think you are not understanding.
This story is a good example of God as a Verb. (August 10th post). Thanks, Ryan.
Thanks Renita—good to hear from you.