Mike stopped by last night. I hadn’t seen him for a few years, though we don’t live that far apart. Life had taken him one direction, me another. So we do what guys do. We walked around, talked about work, big bucks, and finally, life. Back in the day, we had a lot of fun working out of the same barracks of the Maryland State Police. He was the one always keeping in touch, which is fortunate for both of us.
As we caught up, Mike told me about losing his father to cancer not that long ago. I’ve read that guys never really become men until they bury their father. I know it to be a fact in my life. While mine died quick, Mike’s had time to linger. Some might call it suffer, and though I’m sure he did, Mike told me how his father lived his final days. Helping others. Comforting others. Witnessing the goodness of God in Christ for his family and friends to see.
Mike was with him when he passed – a blessing. He told me how his dad opened up his eyes wide, his face brightened as if seeing something he’d been longing for, and then slumped back and died. At first Mike thought his father was excited to see him, but then the Hospice nurse told him, no. He wasn’t seeing Mike at all. He was seeing his final destination, Christ.
Mike’s dad was unique. He left a high paying job as an industrial engineer to work in children’s homes run by the United Methodist Church in West Virginia. He explained to Mike that he never felt he could really touch anyone’s life being an engineer, but he could working with people. Apparently he did, for over 3,000 people came to the viewing and the funeral. Mike’s father was a giver.
I’ve come to believe that we fall into one of two categories in this life – we are either givers or we’re takers. That not to say that a giver never takes and a taker never gives. But these are the two dominant themes people have in life.
When Jesus was explaining the final judgment to his disciples, he talked about dividing sheep from goats. One of the fascinating details of this story is that at the time Jesus spoke these words, sheep and goats were grazed together. In fact, the term “sheep” was a generic term covering both species.
So the picture is like this – at the final judgment a division will occur over a group that had up to that point been together – the righteous and the unrighteous. And the dividing point is not what you’d expect it to be. A theological quiz is not given. A statement of faith is not asked for. Political parties are not mentioned. Rather, the dividing point is very solid and fixed – how did you treat “The Other.”
“The Other” in Christ’s story is the poor; “the least of these” for Jesus identifies himself with them to the point of no separation. What we do (or didn’t do) to the least of these, “The Other,” we did directly to Christ.
The interesting part of this story is the ignorance of both the righteous and the unrighteous as to when they did (or didn’t) do these things. In fact, the unrighteous said they were looking for opportunities, and never found them. And that’s the heart of the story. While the unrighteous were looking (so they could be noticed?!) the righteous were doing. In fact, their actions were such a habit of life; they were unaware of their eternal significance. The unrighteous were too busy with life to notice. Givers vs. Takers.
The easy thing here would be to say one group is selfish, while the other group was selfless. I’ve come to believe these are two sides of the same coin, and it’s bad currency.
The command is to “love your neighbor as you love yourself.” The first understanding here is that I love myself. If I do not know how to properly love myself, I’m probably going to mess up loving my neighbor too. Instead of concentrating on being selfless, or fighting selfishness, perhaps the better way is to be able to fully embrace who God has created us to be. We are not a mindless blobs running around to be everyone else’s doormat, nor are we God’s singular gift to the world to whom every owes allegiance. We are created to be partners with God in his creation. We are far more than the sum of our parts. We need a full sense of ourselves image-bearers of God.
It is only when we are striving for that full sense of ourselves, when we hit the “Goldilocks” moment of just right, then we can give without being drained, without the martyr syndrome. Then we can live out of a sense of calling and into our truer selves. It is the truer self that will be most near the heart of God, reaching out to “The Others” in our life with the comfort and blessing we all desire.