Jesus, in that last week of His earthly life – spent in Jerusalem – said and did many things before He was crucified. He told parables there, and one that perhaps had the most impact on the future was the one I just read a part of – in which Jesus compliments those He calls “the sheep” for doing the following: feeding the hungry, giving something to drink to the thirsty, welcoming the stranger, giving clothing to those without clothing, visiting the sick and visiting those in prison. He compliments these helpers by saying, “I was hungry and you gave me food,” etc., and they respond that they never saw Jesus when they did those things and He responds, “Truly, I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to Me.”
Please note that the other group of people who did not do any of those things seem to give to Jesus the excuse that if they had actually seen Jesus, they would have done all those good things for Him. I believe this parable Jesus tells to be a devastating attack on religion in general. Christ knew the power of sin in the human heart – not just the immoral peccadillos we sometimes take part in, but the major sin of doing seemingly good things just to get ahead. As Jesus proclaimed in Luke 6, “If you love [only] those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners to the same.” You see, common everyday ordinary religion is often simply “good advice to use to get ahead in the world.” It doesn’t involve real suffering. Jesus went on to say, “If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again” (or, I might add, to receive more due to interest). Jesus concludes: “But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward is great, and you will be children of the Most High; for God is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your [heavenly] Father is merciful.”
Now to help me get to the point of my message this evening, God told me to put together two things that I have never explicitly put together before – Jesus telling us to help “the least of these” and Jesus also telling us to “love our enemies.” You see, the problem with loving “the least of these” – or just other people in general is this: we say “yes, of course I’ll help people” until, sometimes, we get to certain actual people. It’s like the old saying, “I love humanity; it’s people I can’t stand!” It’s harder to give someone food or drink or clothing or doing other good things for them if they are your enemies. Jesus Himself “loved His enemies” – sometimes to the dismay of His followers. He helped several Roman soldiers – men who were part of the Empire’s tyranny over Judea. He loved and healed the mentally ill even though it was thought at the time that either they were born in sin or that they allowed a demon to take them over. And then, on the cross, Jesus prayed to God the following: “Forgiven them, Lord; they don’t know what they are doing [to Me].”
Jesus put the best construction on what His enemies were doing at that moment – He told God the Father that they were just ignorant. It reminds me of how Luther explained the eighth commandment – “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.” He wrote, “We should fear and love God so that we do not tell lies about our neighbor, betray him or her, slander them, or hurt their reputation, but” – and this is the most amazing part! – “defend them, speak well of them, and explain everything they do in the kindest way possible.” Now, if we’re honest, we might say “That’s hooey!” to that advice. Our cynical world tells us to scrap such trust in someone else – trust, at least in their motives. But, you know, as we wonder why we DON’T help others as much as we could, we need to dig deep to find out why.
We are both afraid of running out of supplies for ourselves if we supply others – which is the topic of another sermon – and we somehow feel superior to the people we could help. It’s hard to admit that we feel superior. But Jesus knew us well. When He said to not judge others, Christ counseled that we take the log out of our eye first before we take the speck out of another’s eye. Notice that both log and speck are made of the similar woody substance. When we start judging someone else from on high, it’s good to let the Spirit guide us away from that by reminding us that we have probably done something similar, if not the same, as the people we are criticizing. When I have used this method to correct myself, it has never taken the Spirit very long to remind me of something I have done or some bad attitude I have taken in the past that is the same or similar to the deed or attitude taken by the person I presently don’t like. Then I say to myself, “Oh, I see.” Then I begin to see the situation from the other person’s point of view – not an automatically RIGHT point of view, remember, but using this method is a way for me gain understanding instead of wallowing in rejection. Notice the bottom line: get off your “high horse” and join us sinners. You might say at this point, “Pastor, what does this have to do with helping other people?” I’ll get to that in a moment.
The Apostle Paul – former chief persecutor of the early Christian church – got off his “high horse” in a big way on the Road to Damascus. After that incident, the next few steps for Paul were not easy; when Paul returned to Jerusalem, Luke writes that Paul “attempted to join the disciples [there but] they were all afraid of him, they did not believe he was a disciple.” But one way in which Paul convinced them of his sincerity when he readily admitted the sinfulness of his persecutorial ways. He even wrote Timothy, “The saying is sure and worthy of full accetance that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners – OF WHOM I AM THE FOREMOST.” Why did Paul consider himself the foremost or “chief” of sinners? Well, earlier he told Timothy that he had been “a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence” against the church. Why, late in his life, did Paul keep making mention of his sinfulness? And now we finally get to the key point.
Paul knew that the more he realized that he was still a sinner, the more forgiven he was, and the more inspired he would be to help his fellow sinners. When Jesus told the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector, He made note of how the Pharisee felt himself superior to everyone else; later Jesus would say of the Pharisees that, other than spouting their interpretation of the law, they “would not lift a finger” to help anyone. Jesus told a parable in which the elder son told his father that he should be treated as the superior son – superior to the younger, prodigal son.
One day Jesus was invited to a Pharisee’s house for dinner. A woman who had previously led a terrible, sin-laden life entered that house. Apparently she had just previous to this moment felt forgiveness from Jesus. Bowing to Jesus, this woman came in and washed the feet of Christ with her tears. The Pharisee judged her, and Jesus replied, “Do you see this woman? I entered this house of yours, but you gave me no water to cleanse my feet, but she has bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. Therefore I tell you,” Christ concluded, “her sins, which were many, have been forgiven, HENCE, she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.”
There, there is the key. We cannot be truly alive in the Spirit of Love if we allow ourselves to not recognize our own sinfulness and receive grace and forgiveness. It is this grace and forgiveness that inspires us to be more compassionate toward others and love them, serve them, feed them, welcome them, and visit them when they are suffering. Paul always reminded himself of his sin, so that grace toward others would abound in his life.
The first verse of the song Amazing Grace reveals this truth: “Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, that saves a WRETCH like me! I once was lost but now am found; was blind but now I see.” It is only wretches that can be a big help to fellow, beloved wretches; it is when we bend low that we can get under and lift others to new heights. And this is a very joyful thing, to remember that all have our own struggles, and God has placed us near each other to help each other struggle through. We know that the best friends we have no us, warts and all, and yet they still give us aid. Let us be friends to all, just as Christ was and is the greatest friend to us. Amen!