The Good Samaritan, Netherlands, circa 1530
Near the end of his life, Jesus gave several parables to His disciples in answer to their questions about His eventual return. The last of these tells of the sheep and the goats. It begins,
When the Son of man shall come in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then shall he sit upon the throne of his glory:
And before him shall be gathered all nations: and he shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats: (Matthew 25:31-32)
He then goes on to define the sheep and the goats. To the sheep, set on his right hand and invited to partake of all the blessings of the Father, He says:
For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in:
Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me. (Matthew 25:35-36)
The sheep are apparently confused by this, not remembering having served the Lord in any such way. Christ clarifies: "Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me." (Matthew 25:40; emphasis added)
The goats, who are dismissed and cursed, do the exact opposite. They ignore the hungry, the stranger, and the sick; they live their lives heedless of the needy or those in prison. And Jesus takes that personally, too.
Taking care of those in need is the only criterion Jesus gives for judging the nations. He does not mention whether we're on time for church or how many scriptures we've memorized. Also not mentioned are the size of our savings accounts or what our personal accomplishments are. Christ's recipe for eternal success is simple: take care of your neighbor.
But who is my neighbor? Jesus answered that question with the parable of The Good Samaritan, recorded in the tenth chapter of Luke. Since Samaritans were hated and reviled by Jesus' initial audience, I think that this is a safe modern interpretation: my neighbor is anyone I encounter, particularly someone whom I may not like. The sullen teenager. The tattooed guy across the street. The bad driver in front of me at the intersection. The homeless man begging on the corner. The abused and/or neglected child. The mentally ill.
"Love your enemies," Jesus commanded in the Sermon on the Mount (recorded in Matthew chapters 5-7). Love the unlovable--that's not easy. It's easy (sometimes) to love our families and friends. It's not easy to love the disruptive kid with the runny nose; the smelly drunk man; the obese, hoarding shut-in who never thanks us when we stop by to say hello. The person who has brought his troubles on him or herself through poor choices. Yet we must love the unlovable, unless we wish to be judged a goat at the end of this life.
As a mother, I often feel like my hands are full with daily, hourly clothing the naked, feeding the hungry, and tending the sick. But when I consider things honestly, there is much more that I could do--and I vow to do so, today and going forward.
I am struck, though, by Jesus' wording in that first quote above: "And before him shall be gathered all nations." Nations obviously are comprised of individuals--but the definition of "nations" also includes the governments and social contracts those individuals enact. As a Christian doing my best to live up to the weighty responsibility implied in the name, I look to my society to augment my efforts in taking care of the poor, the needy, and the sick. I look not just to my church (which does a lot of humanitarian aid); not just to my community group. I look to my government. And when I do, I find a great lack.
Take the mentally ill, for example--often some of the most unlovable among us. They need care, not just because they are also God's children (which should be reason enough), but because taking care of them helps keep us all healthier and safer. The events of last Friday's shootings in Newtown, Connecticut should be enough impetus for citizens to demand that our government make taking care of our mentally ill neighbors a priority--precisely because doing so is often beyond any one individual's capacity.
They need our help. Read this post by my friend, the talented writer Robison Wells. Read this post by the angry and frustrated mother of a troubled 13-year-old child. I read them both as calls to action--the kind of action Jesus has been requesting for a long, long time. At Christmastime, in the New Year, and always, let's find concrete, helpful, compassionate ways to help.