By Jeremy Fox, December 30, 2007
I. Upon my arrival at Campbell University, the first thing I noticed was the many gorgeous females (this was all before I met Megan, who is above and beyond the females at Campbell). So immediately I came up with a plan to meet some of the females. I went and bought a huge golfing umbrella (enough room for 3 people) and waited for rainy days. Anytime it did rain, I would have my umbrella to escort a few women wherever they needed to go. To them, I was being a chivalrous religion major doing what was right. Little did they know that my intention was to actually meet several of them in hopes that a date would follow. Even though the umbrella didn’t work on others, all it took was just one look and Megan was smitten. And now karma has a funny way of doing things: whenever it rains, she gets the umbrella and I am left in the rain. We all carry umbrellas waiting for people who need help and at one time or another, our intentions might not be the best. Even now as a spouse, not all of my deeds are done out of love. I sometimes have expectations…like video games. At some point, we all have strings attached to our deeds. It is in our nature to do so, we live in a culture that trains us to make the best possible decision based on what we get in return. That’s why this passage strikes at the core of who we are.
It is easy for us to distance ourselves from this passage; we might feel more comfortable if we did. The needy in the text can symbolize the needy in the church or the church itself, with the sheep and goats symbolizing how the world reacted to the church in different ways. But what if we read this text literally and placed it within its appropriate context. What if we allowed this story and our story to begin a dialogue, how would this text transform us? What if we decided that from now on, our deeds would be done out of love with no conditions and no strings attached?
Jesus talks about this way of thinking in his apocalyptic speech. The people who Jesus calls the sheep, the ones on the right side of the king, met the needs of others without expecting something in return. Their nonreciprocal giving is what makes them stand out among the rest and ultimately provides them an eternal reward. They didn’t even realize what they were doing, or even that they were meeting the needs of the embodied Christ.
II. The context of this time period needed people like the sheep in the story. Take a city such as Antioch a metropolis and cultural hotbed of this time period. The city had unsanitary and overcrowded living conditions, inadequate and uneven water/food supplies, limited sewage disposal, epidemics and infections, and the general misery of poverty, lack, and debt. 90% of the population were peasants and had a third of the wealth, while 10% were ruling elites and had 2/3 of the wealth. The wealthy hardly provided any service other than an army for warfare – which was able to protect the interest of the wealthy citizens.
There were people with needs. Some of them were likely a product of the discriminating system and some needs might have been a product of bad choices, but that is not a factor. The righteous simply gave without questions or expectations. They were people who decided to use their limited resources to meet basic human needs. Their actions were contrary to dominant cultural practices in that they were nonreciprocal and concerned for the needs of others and had no concern for honor and social status. It’s easy to say they did so with a hope of eternal reward, but in the text, they had no idea that what they had done would grant a blessing.
III. This is not unlike our own situation. We live in a culture where the disparity between rich and poor is increasing at a rapid pace. Today, the wealthiest 20% of the world’s population receives almost 83% of the world’s income, while the poorest 20% receives less than 2%. We also have unsanitary, and in some places, overcrowded living conditions. There is an unequal distribution of food supplies. There are people who lack adequate clothing – and I’m not talking about the occupants at the Playboy Mansion – although a clothing ministry for them would be very popular. Over the past few months we have all caught a small glimpse at what it is like to have limited access to water supplies, but I can’t imagine what people with no clean water are going through. If we updated the list, we could add people who are bullied, picked on, abused, or mocked because of who they are. The needs of others are not limited to physical needs alone, but social, psychological, and spiritual needs. We should not be concerned about the benefits we receive in helping others. Not even simple “thank you’s”. If we help others and expect a “thank you” in return then maybe we are not doing it with the right motive. That kind of behavior doesn’t distinguish us from the rest of the crowd.
There are people who live the lives that MLK, Mother Theresa, and Ghandi lived, giving to others and expecting nothing in return. It is easy to look at their example and think, “There is no way I could ever do that.” But it does not take a superhuman. These people had their limits and met needs within those limits. They gave what they could with love and grace, expecting nothing in return and changed the world without knowing it.
The actions of a loving parent comes to mind when I think of someone who practices nonreciprocal giving. (Although I have yet to find out if parents give in order to receive at later stages of life – but I highly doubt that is the case). A grandparent, or as I have recently discovered, an uncle or aunt, who spoils a child does so out of love and expects nothing in return.
Some people give in order to receive. Maybe they expect money, love, honor, or even the blessing of God from their giving. If we give because we expect God will bless us beyond our giving, then maybe we don’t have the proper motive. The people in the story had no clue they would receive a blessing for their actions. While all of these things may happen and put us in good moods, I cannot help but wonder if an expectation of something in return would place us with the goats. And they didn’t even get a chance to defend themselves.
IV. This text is very disturbing. We have to be good Protestants and ask, does this mean that we are judged by our deeds and not beliefs? Not exactly. Both the people on the right and left of the king called him “Master.” They both affirmed his superiority, yet received different judgments. It was the nonreciprocal giving out of love that distinguished those he called sheep.
What about limitations? How am I supposed to meet the needs of others with my limitations? I’m just one person, and that doesn’t do much. Well, as the saying goes, two heads are better than one, and just imagine the possibilities with 150+ heads. This is the problem today with issues like immigration. We have limitations and are struggling to figure out what they are and how we can work within them. It’s frustrating trying to balance limits and grace.
But, notice that both the sheep and goats are plural, they are not being judged individually, but collectively. Collectively, we can do a lot of good. After all, when we pray the Lord’s Prayer, we do ask for our daily bread.
I realize that this idea of nonreciprocal giving can be taken as acts of charity. Yes, I do think that charity is necessary for eliminating short-term needs, but not long-term. You have heard it said, “Why give a person fish when you can teach him or her how to fish.” But why not do both? When we help others, not only are their lives changed, but our lives are changed too. Think about any mission trip. My first mission trip was in 7 th grade to New Orleans. While there, we helped build a church in an impoverished area – it was the first time I had seen a bath tub as a baptismal pool. This experience is my first memory of real poverty, and I have not been the same sense. While meeting the needs of others, I was also changed. Yet, I realize that charity only lasts so long. We are not called to be our sibling’s keeper, but we are called to be his or her family.
If we take this passage literally, the apocalyptical judgment is going to happen, but we shouldn’t be concerned about the details. We should focus on the present situation and figure out how to live what we believe. We are all ordinary people – but we can be ordinary people doing deeds with great love and no strings attached. We all want to be sheep, but the reality is that sometimes we are sheep who are doing the right things with the right motive. Sometimes we are the needy who need to experience love and sometimes we are the goats who have no clue what is going on around us. There are many opportunities to minister to others without strings attached, and there will be many times others do the same for us. This is where grace can become truly amazing.
There are many things that we can expect to see during this time of the year. Traffic is one thing, if your driving anywhere, then add about 15 minutes to your drive. I don’t know how many drivers I’ve seen either cussing or giving the middle finger to others. Nothing expresses the holiday spirit better than a “Merry Christmas” with an adjective between the two words. On the positive side, one thing that happens every year is people coming together to help those who are in need of many different things. It’s as if this alternate way of thinking kicks in and people start giving with no strings attached. In fact, this congregation has sent gifts and toiletries to a battered women’s shelter and will not even know the people receiving the gifts. Every year people donate food and money to the Salvation Army as if it were instinct. I mean, this is one thing I really like about this church, we are willing to give to others in need, no matter what, simply because that is the command Christ gives us. We do not give because the rest of the congregation is doing it, because it feels good (it does, but that is not the reason to give), nor for political reasons (although there is a strong political element to giving). We give because we serve Christ by serving others in need. We give because people have needs and we, as the church, are called to help them, no strings attached.