Something troubling is happening in the American church culture that needs to be addressed. I realize that not every assembly of God-fearing Christians are guilty, and maybe your congregation is different, but we need to consider Jesus’ words very carefully.
Jesus tells a story, in the book of Matthew, first telling a parable about ten virgins, then he moves on to a story about three servants. You remember the one: They were each given a measure of wealth, or “talents.” What did he call the last servant who buried the gold? “Unfaithful” or some translations, “wicked and slothful servant.”
Then Jesus moves on to the third parable about a king who separates the “sheep from the goats” based on what they did for “the least of these.” He carefully builds a story about those who saw the needs of the people around them and did nothing and those who dove in and met the needs of the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick and in prison.
I believe we have the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick and those in prison all around us. As a matter of fact, many of those in the following stories have unknowingly used those exact words, “I’m so thirsty for love.” Or, “I feel so in-prisoned.”
Let’s let that sit a moment. I’d like to tell you a couple of stories.
Her name is Penelope. She was sexually used and abused as a small child by her step-dad while her mother was in jail. Although she admired her real dad, he also was in and out of jail and prison nearly all her young life for drug and substance abuse reasons. She grew up, bouncing between homes, and usually would stay with the parent who had the fewest rules, or who was out of jail at the time. Each parent demonstrating a revolving door of lovers and illegal substances suppliers.
Home life as a teenager was a daily train-wreck. High school was a pure failure. Her few friends were drug users and partiers. From a very young age she was sexually active with any boy who would be nice to her. Nothing she ever did had any future or hope. Undoubtedly, by the time she was eighteen, she would be pregnant and addicted to various substances.
Ironically, she grew up around a “church” environment. Her mother attended when she could, although often showing up high, at least she would show up. Penelope sat through numerous meetings, and her spirit struggled with the story of hope, but couldn’t wrap her head around the truth.
Shortly before her 17th birthday, she sat with an old friend. An older couple had befriended her family, and chosen to love them as much as allowed. The man, as a friend, spent a tearful and heart-wrenching day with her, crying together and praying together. Finally, as if scales fell from her eyes, a new light came into her world, and something clicked. Finally, she understood the plea of Jesus to come, broken and bleeding to the cross for healing. She and the man prayed, and Penelope came to know Jesus in a real and passionate way, for the first time.
The man and his wife travel extensively and couldn’t stay in the area. But they went to the local church, and with tears, pleading that people from the church would love that little girl. “Please spend time with her.” “Please teach her about Jesus.” “Please show her what a stable and healthy home looks like.” “Teach her to bake cookies. Just show her love and spend time with her.”
“Yes,” they replied. “Yes, we will.”
The man and his wife left the area with hugs and love for Penelope and her broken family.
Days past. Weeks past. Months passed. Not one phone call. Not one visit. Not one word from anybody. Penelope was left to herself, alone, unloved and abandoned. In Penelope’s mind, she was unloved by God and abandoned by God. No one cared.
DIdn’t Penelope qualify for the status of “the least of these?”
Let me tell you another story. This is a story of a young man and his wife and three little children. The small family moved to a new area. They didn’t know anyone but he quickly found a job and apartment. His mother and father came for an extended visit and helped them find a wonderful local church. The church was full of people of all ages, and the truth of the gospel was taught every Sunday. The young man and his family hurt in their hearts for Godly friendships; being new in an area is hard. But friendships don’t come easily for new people. Work required the young man to be out of church about every-other Sunday.
After some time past, the young man’s father came to the pastor and youth pastor and pleaded. “Please love this little family. They can’t always attend, but they need love. Those little children still need to know God, and they need to grow up with Godly friends.”
The pastor and the youth pastor agreed and said they would take this family under their wing and love them.
The pastor and youth pastor, occasionally, would send invitations to Sunday and Wednesday services. But, not once, did either of them come to visit that little family. As a matter of fact, not one person from that assembly has ever darkened the door of that young man’s home after asking for love.
That congregation does not love them. They don't know how to love outside the building they call the church - that's not really love at all, is it? They are welcome to attend when there is a function at the building.
Doesn’t this small family qualify for the status of “the least of these?”
I want to tell you about a single mom with three small children. Let’s call her Nancy. Nancy has a colored background. Drugs, jail, abuse, and more. But she’s a loving mother, as best as she knows how.
She’s struggled with substance abuse for most of her adult years. We don’t need to get into the reasons why; everyone has reasons that are more painful than many of us can imagine.
But somehow, through it all, Nancy came to church and found an anchor in her faith. She raised her children, as best as she knew how. Did she do everything right? Of course not. A woman addicted to pain medications, and other drugs, finds herself making bad choices in relationships, and priorities in her home. Drugs seem to rule the home; they control finances, they control time management, they control attitudes, and they control the decisions about the men who come through the doors. The choices are often wrong but driven only by a force, not of the Holy Spirit, but by the desire for the drugs.
But Nancy loves her children and tries to do the best she can for them. Over time, church became a place of judgment, pain, and conflict. She came to the church and asked for love. A man and his wife, who treated Nancy as their own daughter and her children as their grandchildren, went to the church on her behalf and asked for love. The man and his wife, along with Nancy and her children, invited the pastor and the elder, along with their wives, to a dinner at her house. At the dinner, Nancy pleaded with the pastor and elders to please love her family in their home as well as in the walls of the building. “Please spend time with us and teach us about Jesus. Please take my children and show them what it is like to live normal and healthy lives. Please take my son fishing and spend time with my daughter.” Only when they could find love in their home, then they could return to the meeting place to be loved. The pastor and elders agreed. Everyone prayed together and exchanged hugs and promises of time together and shared love.
Nancy’s kitchen window overlooked the church building. The road to the church passed her front door. Every person who attended the church had to pass by Nancy’s door to enter the church.
Days past. Weeks past. Months passed. Not one phone call. Not one visit. Not one word from anybody. The pastor and elder said they were welcome to attend but never invited her again. They never asked about the children or pulled into her driveway. They never called, they never asked, they never cared.
Doesn’t Nancy and her family qualify for the status of “the least of these?”
Lori is a petite woman, probably in her 50s now. As a small child, she grew up in a sexually, emotionally, and physically abusive home of unspeakable pain. She left home, unloved and abused but legally emancipated at the young age of 14. By the time she was 17 she had been in various relationships that gave her two babies, two more children came later. Her entire life has been one kind of pain after another. Physiological and physical problems have plagued her every step of the way.
She became addicted and dependent on piles of daily prescription drugs, each one exasperating the problems into more problems. However, somehow though the incredible grace of God, Lori found a relationship with Jesus in a way that should inspire each of us. Her day is filled with prayer, Bible reading and a sincere desire to connect with other Godly individuals. Hungry for more of Jesus, she attended church every time the doors where open.
Lori asks a lot of hard questions. “Why would God allow my children. . .?” “What does this passage in the scriptures mean?” “When will God answer my prayer?” “Why doesn’t God answer my prayer?” When the Bible study covers hard sections, she wants to understand, or at least she wants to try.
Lori wasn’t really accepted in the woman’s Bible studies. She asked too many questions. If Lori wasn’t there, they would talk about her drug problems and her embarrassing past, all in the name of prayer, of course. But rumors spread like wildfire and news travels fast to people who don’t need to know the indecent gritty details.
Soon Lori felt separated from the body. The women felt threatened by her, and the men gazed at her. Those who teach from prewritten curriculums couldn’t answer her questions and didn’t want to be intimated by a woman who could quote scriptures from her heart. Slowly she retreated from the church congregation.
Time brought more pain. She desperately thirsted for the love and relationships that the church promised. The “family” she so desperately needed pushed her out and abused her, even took advantage of her sexually, much the same way as her blood family had. She cried out to the paster and elders for love. “Please love me, even when I can’t bring myself to enter the doors.”
She was ignored. Without being inside the walls she was unnoticed and forgotten. Some probably glad she wasn’t there anymore to disrupt their plans.
Lori calls the man and his wife almost daily, asking questions about the scriptures and crying for some kind of family. She only wants an occasional hug. She just wants people who genuinely care with the love of Jesus. She only wants to know she is loved by the people of God. But she is ignored.
Doesn’t Lori qualify for the status of “the least of these?”
I could continue with these stories.
I could tell you about a broken and hurting single lady who’s sin was condemned before she knew the story of Jesus, she never returned.
I could tell you the story about a young man who dated a girl of poor reputation and was criticized and never returned.
I could tell you of a young man, who didn’t dress right and was told to go home and not to come back until he cleaned up his style.
I could tell you of an alcoholic woman who was kept at arms-length and found herself alone.
I could tell you of a drug-addicted young man who killed himself because he felt condemned and unloved.
I could tell you about broken homes, addictions, insatiable sexual appetites, abuse, jail, alcohol, and more, and more, and more. . .
Do these qualify for the status of “the least of these?”
When Jesus talked about the actions of caring for the “least of these,” he was not describing a condition to gain salvation. No, he was describing a condition resulting from salvation. You and I, every one of us, is no more qualified to be accepted by God, than the people in this story. Paul himself, the apostle who wrote most of our New Testament books, called himself the “chief of sinners.” Was he displaying false humility? Absolutely not! He had matured to the point where he recognized the unimaginable, boundless grace of God. He understood that he was equal to the worst of the human race - no better.
Until we see ourselves as filthy rags, we do not qualify for salvation. There are many, in church pews today, who take sides. We look across the aisle at “them and us.” They try not to be prideful, but they don’t suffer from the same battles of sin that “those people do.”
Jesus had some Pharisees near him one day. The Pharisees considered themselves to be nearly free of sin and quickly cleansed through lawful means, as soon as any sin was known. But Jesus spoke of the commandments and said: “But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman to lust after her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” He said something almost the same about murder.
Was Jesus raising the bar of the law and putting all mankind under sin? In a sense, yes. But more than that, he was proving to the self-righteous Pharisees that, they too, were equal to the worst of sinners. They’re no better.
The same is true for me. The same is true for you.
Penelope is loved by God and he has commanded us to “love one another as I have loved you.” Penelope qualifies as the least of these.
Nancy is loved by God and he has commanded us to “love one another as I have loved you.” Nancy qualifies as the least of these.
Lori is loved by God and he has commanded us to “love one another as I have loved you.” Lori qualifies as the least of these.
If Penelope and Nancy and Lori are not worthy of my intense, selfless, sacrificial love, then I am not recognizing the sin in myself.
Let’s go back to the second parable, the parable of the talent. Why was the third servant called, “unfaithful” or “wicked?” It’s because he did nothing. He kept the gold. He protected it and kept it safe for his king. But he did nothing.
How many times do we see a person in need? I’m not talking about some random person on the street corner. I’m talking about somebody who God has put directly in your path in life. What do we do? Have you ever put your hand on their shoulder and said, “I’ll pray for you,” but don’t actually do anything? How dare you! You wicked and unfaithful servant! You’ve done nothing!
Have you ever gone fishing but didn’t think to take that little boy you see on Sunday morning in the front row? Have you ever gone out with your daughter for a girl’s night but didn’t invite the little girl from the back row because you don’t want that kind of influence around your kids?
I wonder how sterile we’ve made our lives, so we don’t have to touch the unclean anymore.
“Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Most certainly I tell you, because you didn’t do it to one of the least of these, you didn’t do it to me.’ These will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”