About 6 months ago my mother-in-law went into a home for long term care due to Alzheimers. Every Sunday we make a trip to see “Bea” [That is her grandma name.] As her memories of us have faded, we’ve all been grieving and missing her. After several of these trips Grace asked Doug and I: “Why do we go visit Bea, anyway? She doesn’t even remember us anymore.” There was a measure of both sadness and frustration in her question. In her own way she was grieving the grandmother who used to walk her to the park and snuggle up to read her stories on the couch. When Grace asked this question, I picked up my Bible and read this to her.
(My emphasis added, as when I read it aloud.)
“When the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the holy angels with Him, then He will sit on the throne of His glory. All the nations will be gathered before Him, and He will separate them one from another, as a shepherd divides his sheep from the goats. And He will set the sheep on His right hand, but the goats on the left. Then the King will say to those on His right hand, ‘Come, you blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: for I was hungry and you gave Me food; I was thirsty and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger and you took Me in; I was naked and you clothed Me; I was sick and you visited Me; I was in prison and you came to Me.’
“Then the righteous will answer Him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry and feed You, or thirsty and give You drink? When did we see You a stranger and take You in, or naked and clothe You? Or when did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?’ And the King will answer and say to them, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.’ (Matthew 25:31-40, NKJV)
Then I said: “Gracie, this is why we go visit Bea. Because we love her and we love Jesus and this is what Jesus would have us do. Every time we show care for someone and visit someone in need- like Bea who is sick- even if they don’t see it or know it, God sees it and He knows it, and Jesus says whenever we do these things it is like we are doing it for him. It is precious in his sight.”
This parable from Jesus cuts me to the core whenever I read it. This parable is a representation of the gift of mercy. When the King [God] in this parable says: inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.’ it means the Lord so identifies with the needy, poor, sick and depraved, that whatever we do for them, it is as if we are doing it to Him.
But this parable is more than just representational. It is also an illustration of the quality of mercy that Jesus’ followers will display. This mercy is a gift that will be given by real people, to real people, with real needs, in real time. It means sitting face to face with those who are sick, impoverished or suffering. It means sacrificing my time and money and convenience and sitting with others in their need, no matter what that need might be.
Why do We Give Mercy?
I often hear people’s objections about this passage, as well as the passage where Jesus teaches us to “give in secret” from Matthew chapter 6. Their objections are usually because they are doing the calculus in their minds.
“Well, what if I give and they don’t appreciate it?”
“What if I give and they take advantage of me?”
“What if I give and I don’t see any results or changes?”
“What if I give and they want more and more?”
My response is usually: “What if you just go ahead and give anyway?”
Then I usually hear: “Well, it’s overwhelming the problems of the world. You have to be careful. You can’t give to everyone!”
True. But you can give to someone. Do you love God enough to put that on display? To display for the needy the same mercy He displayed for you on the cross?
How do we display God’s love and mercy?
I believe the thing that strikes me most about this passage is when God’s people ask: ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry and feed You, or thirsty and give You drink? When did we see You a stranger and take You in, or naked and clothe You? Or when did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?’ The people’s love of their King is so deep that their display of mercy to others is second nature. They don’t even realize they’re doing it. They aren’t doing any calculous about their giving, nor are they overwhelmed by the needs of the world. They just love on the people they know need to be loved on in just the way those people need to be loved on because God has loved on them in just the way they needed to be loved on. Their display of mercy is so second nature they don’t even recall it… and so they ask: “Lord, when did we?”
I think it is important to note that we do not “have to” do any of these things for the Lord. We get to. The Lord does not need us to accomplish any of His Kingdom work. Rather, He wants us to be a part of the work because He loves us and we are His children. I think about it like this: Grace loves to cook with me, but I’ll admit, I have not always loved it. When she is involved it takes longer, it is more complicated and it’s a lot messier. But she wants to be a part of the work. She loves me and she wants to be with me and work alongside me. She knows that cooking a good meal is part of my love language, and she wants to be a part of that love language too. The more I have come to realize this, the more willing I have been to involve her in the kitchen- even though it takes longer and gets messier. Why? Because she needs the work. She loves it when she gets to cook with me. It is an expression of her love for me. Likewise, allowing her to take part is an expression of my love for her.
Isn’t this also a reflection of the Lord and our participation in his Kingdom work? The Lord loves us. And He always invites us into the work He is doing. We get to be a part of His Kingdom building, and when we engage with him in it, it is a mutual expression of love. When the Lord involves us in his kingdom work it takes longer, and it’s a lot messier than if he would just take care of it by his own hand, but he knows what a blessing it is to us to show our love by working alongside Him in the Kingdom. In truth, this parable of Jesus’ is not about “works.” It is about love. We are never working for the love of God, we are always working from the Love of God. A huge piece of that is the display of mercy for real people with real needs in our very real and broken world.
Why do we serve?
The ultimate question is: Why are we serving? Is it so we can see results? Or is it so those whom we serve can see and feel and know Jesus? Jesus came from heaven to earth in human flesh to identify with us in our poverty and suffering. He came and got face to face with us and showered our impoverished souls and broken bodies with his grace and mercy. Do we feel his LOVE for us so deeply that we want to pour it back out in the world? Do we love him enough to get face to face with those he identifies most with such that we glorify his name by putting his mercy on display?
I was amazed the next time we went to visit Bea after reading this passage in Matthew to Grace. Grace packed a stack of books to bring with her- Dr. Seuss, Shel Silverstein poems and such. That afternoon she sat snuggled up to her grandmother and read to her for over an hour. The entire time we were there Bea smiled. On a few occasions she laughed. It was a precious moment to witness, but what was even more precious were Gracie’s words to me a few days later.
She said: “Mama, Bea used to read to me… but now I get to read to her.”
“Then the righteous will answer Him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry and feed You, or thirsty and give You drink? Or when did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?’
And the King will answer and say to them, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these, you did it to Me.’ (Matthew 25, NKJV)