By Poulson Reed
In the name of God: who was, and is, and is to come. Amen.
We’ve all been in this situation: you go to Target or Costco or somewhere else for some grocery shopping. You’re in a hurry. Maybe you have a couple of children or grandchildren in tow, and as you are getting out of your car, a man comes up to you.
He asks for money, and you’re not quite sure what to do. Maybe you tell him you are not able to help him that day. Our usual practice in my family is to decline such requests, for a variety of reasons, and instead to support the church and local agencies who help the poor.
It’s a logical position to take, and I have justified it in my mind countless times. But what if, as we walk away from the man and towards the store, our child or grandchild asks, “why didn’t you help him?”
We’ve all had those moments when a child’s question has cut us to the bone and revealed our hypocrisies. Children have a way of asking just the right questions we need to hear.
Perhaps that’s why Jesus said we need to be like children if we want to enter the kingdom of heaven.
Our gospel reading today is almost childlike in its simplicity and its capacity to challenge our justifications and excuses. This is not one of those complicated parables, with multiple interpretations.
Jesus is crystal clear: we are to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, take care of the sick, and comfort those in prison. To do so is like helping Christ himself. To refuse to do so is like refusing Christ himself, and threatens us with judgment.
At the end of our life, Jesus says, we will not be judged by our fame or fortune, nor even solely by what we believe, but by our response to human need. By that criteria, who among us would feel comfortable being judged this morning, if this were the last of our days on earth?
We notice as well that these are simple things that anyone can do. No great wealth or ability is required to aid the hungry, thirsty, sick, cold or prisoners. What is required is an open heart and the constant willingness to respond, when asked.
None of this is a partisan issue. Republicans and Democrats disagree about the best ways for our government to maintain our social safety net and protect our most vulnerable citizens.
But Jesus is not talking about what someone else ought to do for the needy. Jesus is talking about what we are required to do as Christians. We may not know what Jesus would say about taxation or specific social programs. In the gospels, Jesus has little to say about the role of government.
But he has a lot to say about the role of Christian individuals and communities. We know he would draw our attention to the 15%: the percentage of our country that lives in deep poverty, and what we can do for them.
Over the past decade or so, the non-profit world has been shaken by the publication of a controversial book, called Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help (And How to Reverse It).
In it, a 40-year veteran of urban ministry named Robert Lupton argues that much of Americans’ charitable giving to agencies that help the poor “is either wasted or actually harms the people it is targeted to help.” Lupton explores the seeming contradiction that billions of dollars of charitable giving has barely made a dent in national or international poverty.
He doesn’t suggest not giving. But he does suggest a commonsense approach in which giving builds the capacity of the poor to help themselves, instead of a handout. It’s not a new idea, that it is better to teach someone to fish than to give them a fish.
Direct aid with no strings attached can increase dependency, and non-profits need to be smart about supporting efforts that provide a hand-up and not a hand-out.
But here is the beautiful part of Jesus’ teaching: we are to help the poor not just because they need it, but also because we need it. However often we screw things up in life, still we are made in God’s image. We are made to give. Like God, we need to give.
We are born with some measure of innate generosity, however much we may suppress it with greed and selfishness. To give of ourselves to help the poor and the sick is to put ourselves in a position in which we might see Christ himself in another person.
That’s what happened to Saint Francis. Before he was a saint, he was a wealthy but unhappy young man. Riding one day he came across a leper, despised by everyone. Moved by pity, Francis got down from his horse and embraced the leper. As he let go, he saw that the leper’s face had changed into the face of Christ.
That moment changed Francis’ life. The leper needed Francis. But even more so, Francis needed the leper. He found his purpose.
On this day we celebrate the feast of Christ the King. In so doing, we recognize that Jesus Christ is Lord of all. The battle between good and evil has been won. In Jesus’ resurrection, hate is vanquished by love. Eventually, when Jesus comes to earth again, the final vestiges of evil will be washed away, and the kingdom of heaven will reign supreme.
Whether we follow Jesus’ command to help those who need our help, or not, God’s kingdom will come just the same. But as we wait for it to come, we can live those values that will, but have not yet prevailed.
We need to do so if we are to encounter Christ. You see, in the end, we are the poor ones. We are spiritually poor. We need to give, in order for our spiritual poverty to be eased by the humble King who owns all but gives it all away. Amen.
The Rt. Rev. Poulson Reed is Bishop Coadjutor of Oklahoma