“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’
“They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’
“He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’
“Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”
Jesus said a lot of hard things, and these words may be the hardest of all. He seems to be telling us that some people will reach the Judgment believing they are good, faithful people only to be condemned to eternal punishment for failing to show enough love to people in need. Could that happen to me? Could I miss out on heaven because I didn’t care for a stranger?
On one hand, Jesus’ words should motivate us to love well, to care for people in need and to show compassion to those who suffer, because in doing so, we prove the genuineness of our faith and express love for Jesus. Don’t discount the challenging, motivating aspect of this parable, especially with so much hardship and suffering in our world today. On the other hand, we know from the wider counsel of scripture that salvation is a matter of God’s grace and our faith. You are not saved because you are good enough or because of the quantity of your loving compassion toward other people. You might be a kind person, but no one is good enough to earn her way to heaven, much less atone for his own sin. Jesus died on the cross exactly because we aren’t good enough, precisely because none of us will live up to the standard of perfect love to which God calls us.
So, where does that leave us? What do we do with this parable? First, we don’t ignore it. We don’t say that love and compassion aren’t really required of Jesus’ followers. Instead, we embrace the calling of Jesus’ words. We set our hearts on loving as well and as often and as generously as we can. We love family and friends, neighbors and strangers, people like us and people not like us. We love people as though they were Jesus himself. And for the times we fall short, we fall on God’s grace. My guess is that when we stand before the judgment seat of God, there will be plenty of surprises. We may be shocked by just how sinful and selfish our lives have been and by how desperately we need God’s grace. We may also be amazed by how many little acts of kindness God noticed in our lives and by how deeply Jesus changed our hearts to reflect his goodness.
Thank You, Lord, for showing me perfect love and for calling me to share Your love with others. Forgive me for all the ways I fail to love perfectly. Help me to be more like Jesus. Amen.____________________________
Pastor Mike Mirakian