Jesus said, “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers or sisters of mine, you did also for me.”
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be always acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our rock and our redeemer.
For many summers in my life, I have been blessed enough to spend time in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. This is a national wilderness area on the border between Minnesota and Canada, composed of many lakes and rivers, dotted with granite boulders, and connected with vast stretches of evergreen trees. The primary method of transportation through the wilderness is the canoe.
I worked at a church camp near the Boundary Waters, and most of my canoeing and camping experience has been through that organization. My camp had a “wet foot” policy for trail. This means that when we got in and out of the canoe, we would do so in water, while the canoe was still floating, so that we didn’t scrape the bottom of the canoe or puncture holes in it by sitting on rocks or tree roots. As you can imagine, sometimes it was an adventure to be stepping out into water rather than onto solid ground.
There are two things I look for when I’m about to step out of a boat into the water. First, how far down is it to the bottom? It’s much safer to step out into water eight inches deep rather than four feet down. Second, how solid is the bottom? If there is rock down there, it could be flat or sloped, stable or loose, or even slippery and covered in algae. If the bottom is sand or mud, will it be solid enough to hold my weight?
These questions are pretty easy to assess if I am in the first boat coming in to a landing. I will have clear footing and will be able to safely disembark from the canoe without toppling either myself or the boat into the water. So, coming in first, I’ll get out of the boat, unload the gear from the canoe, and carry it up to land.
The people in canoes following me have a harder time of it. They are left with the sand or mud or algae floating in the water that I stirred up. They come in and cannot see to get firm footing, and are more likely to tip their canoe, landing both themselves and their gear in the water.
In this sense, when I go canoeing, I am sometimes like the fat sheep in Ezekiel’s story. I have used the clear water for my own purpose and muddied it up for those who follow me. Maybe you can relate, having been either the one who muddies up the water or the one who comes after and is left struggling, trying to find the sure footing. I know that I can often be like the sheep who eats from the good pasture and tramples the rest, without leaving anything else for those who come after me. I focus on myself instead of the good of the whole flock.
So, I’m in trouble:
God, in the reading from Ezekiel, warns against people like me. We push the chosen ones out of the way to get the good stuff for ourselves, and God wants no more of it! The time has come for the separating of the fat sheep and the lean sheep, or for the separating of the sheep and the goats.
The Gospel reading today also addresses the separation of God’s chosen ones from those whose actions deny God. Jesus reminds us that when we do good things for other people, we are serving him. When we fail to think of others, we have fallen away from God.
It’s really a matter of attentiveness. When we are attentive to the needs of others, Jesus says, we are serving him.
When we miss seeing another’s need, we have passed up an opportunity to serve Christ.
That is to say, when we see that someone is hungry or thirsty or lonely or cold or sick or imprisoned—when we see that need, we have a duty to fulfill it. Jesus expects us to fulfill it. And our reward is eternal life.
This sounds a little bit—or a lot—like works righteousness, I know, but let’s try to ignore that fact for the moment and focus on Jesus’ words.
Jesus is describing a scene that is coming, when all the nations are lined up before him, and he lets the sheep pass on the right but sends the goats off to the left. The sheep are those people who have followed his example in serving others. The sheep are those people who have taken stories from the prophets to heart, like today’s from Ezekiel. The sheep are those people who have helped their neighbor in times of need.
The goats are the ones who haven’t done so. Notice that the goats aren’t the ones who caused the hunger or thirst or loneliness or cold or illness or imprisonment to begin with—the goats are not people who actively harmed other people. The goats are just the ones who didn’t bother to pay attention to the needs of their neighbors. They allowed suffering to continue by their apathy and inaction.
So who do I want to be?
Well, obviously I want to be the one on the right of the judge. I want to be the sheep. I want to be the one earning eternal salvation.
But my actions betray me.
For, as Paul writes,
“what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. ... For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing.”
Or, to summarize,
“I don’t understand what I’m doing!”
I try to be the good follower of Jesus, but I get in the way of myself. My own sinful nature won’t allow me to do all the good things I wish I could. I try, but my personal desires get in the way and I fall short. I waste my time on computer games instead of volunteering in the community. I forget to bring in donations when my church is having a particular drive. I spend money on luxury teas and coffees instead of the fair trade variety that many churches have available.
And I’m guessing that I’m not the only one in this situation. Usually—no, always—we humans fail to live up to our God-given potential for doing good. We sin and fall short of the glory of God. We forget to put others first, and instead focus on our own needs.
This is where the good news happens. Just when I’m about to give up and give in to sin, because I can’t seem to find a way out of my own selfish actions, Jesus comes along with my salvation. He comes, offering himself. He takes care of the debt I owe to God.
I have tried to help others and to put them before myself, but I have failed. I still get out of the boat first and muddy up the water. The difference—the good news—is that God keeps the water clear for the next boat coming in. Despite my muddying up the water, God makes sure that all the boats get in to the landing safely.
Jesus’ grace takes care of my shortcomings, and yours, and praise be to God! This is not to say that we should “sin more, that grace may abound,” but it means that when we can’t find a way out of our sinful nature, grace will shine a little light through. Grace will clear up that muddy water. Jesus himself fills in where you and I fall short.
With Jesus’ actions, our eternal salvation has been assured. I no longer have to worry about earning it. Grace, and not works, proves me righteous before God.
So we are freed! We are freed from the need to earn our way into heaven. We are freed to see the needs of our neighbors, without any guilt attached to the seeing. Because of grace, when we see that someone is hungry or thirsty or lonely or cold or sick or imprisoned, we are able to respond in joy. It is not out of guilt that we serve others, or personal ambition for eternal life. We serve others out of joyful desire to serve Christ.
We don’t need to serve! But Christ has given us the opportunity to serve him by sharing a little love with our neighbors. If we so much as offer another person a blanket or a drink of water, we are serving Jesus himself. But even before we serve, our salvation has already been secured by the grace of the Judge; by the actions of Jesus.
Thanks be to God!
Shout for joy to the LORD, all the earth!
Worship the LORD with gladness; come before him with joyful songs.
Know that the LORD is God. It is he who made us, and we are his; we are his people, the sheep of his pasture.
Enter his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise; give thanks to him and praise his name.
For the LORD is good and his love endures forever; his faithfulness continues through all generations.