It is easy to think that we have been successful in any endeavor before we are tested. Students in college classes, for example, often think that they are doing just fine until they take the first examination. Athletes may think that their team is the best until they lose the first game. Cooks do not know how good a recipe is until someone actually eats the dish. And sometimes the challenges that reveal how well we have done are not those that we would have expected.
In today’s gospel reading, everyone was surprised that how they treated the sick, the hungry and thirsty, the stranger, the naked, and the prisoner—“the least of these” in society—was how they treated Jesus Christ. The ultimate standard of their relationship to God, of their spiritual health, was shown in how they responded to the everyday challenge of caring for those in need. By serving Christ in their wretched and miserable neighbors, some demonstrated that they were in union with the Lord, that His holy mercy had permeated their souls. Others, by disregarding those same neighbors, had shown that they had rejected Christ, that they did not share in His life. Some opened themselves to the life of the Kingdom in which they already participated in this world, while others shut themselves out of an eternal blessedness they had rejected bit by bit throughout their lives. The judgment of the Lord in this parable is not some random decree, but a confirmation of who people had chosen to become through their actions.
If we have been paying attention at all, we will know that Great Lent begins very soon. The Church calls us to weeks of intensified spiritual struggle in which we devote ourselves to prayer, abstain from the richest and most satisfying foods, give generously to the needy, turn away from our sins, and extend and ask for forgiveness from those from whom we have become estranged. We all need the spiritual disciplines of Lent for the healing of our souls as we prepare to follow our Lord to His great victory over death.
Today’s gospel reading, however, reminds us that the practices of Lent are not ends in themselves by any means. If, like a prideful Pharisee, we believe that observing them fulfills what God requires and automatically makes us closer to Him than others, we will do ourselves more harm than good. For the standard of judgment in today’s gospel lesson is not whose religious observance was the most austere or otherwise impressive. No, the key issue in this passage is who we become in relation to the Lord as that is shown by how we treat others, especially those whom we are in no way naturally inclined to help. Remember that all human beings bear the image of God, which means that we are all icons of the Lord. How we treat an image of someone reflects what we think about that person. So if we become the kind of people who ignore and disregard suffering neighbors and strangers, we turn away from Christ. Conversely, if we love and serve them, then we love and serve Him.
The question is not simply what we say we believe or where we spend a couple of hours on Sunday. It is whether we have truly become “partakers of the divine nature” by grace (2 Peter 1:4), whether “it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” (Gal. 2:20) The test is whether we actually live as those who have died to sin and been born anew into a life of holiness. As St. James wrote in his epistle, “Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is this: to visit widows and orphans in their trouble and to keep oneself unspotted from the word.” (Jas. 1:27) And as St. John taught, we are liars if we say that we love God while we hate our brothers and sisters. (1 Jn. 4:20)
In the world as we know it, there is nothing naturally attractive about following Christ to His Cross, burial, and descent into Hades. And there is nothing naturally appealing about serving suffering human beings in their misery and need. But if we serve only ourselves and abandon them, we abandon Him. If we are to become the kind of people who do not deny our crucified Lord and run away in fear, we must learn to bear our own crosses, including the challenge of caring for those whose crosses are much heavier than ours. Our Lord’s sacrificial love must become characteristic of us; otherwise, we will reject Him because, regardless of what we say we believe, we will want no part of a Lord Who reigns from a Cross and an empty tomb.
From Judas Iscariot to today, there have always been those who betray Jesus Christ for money, power, pride, or some other false god. There are those who, even as they call themselves Christians, identify our Lord’s Kingdom with the corrupt ways of worldly kingdoms, who associate the way of Christ with ways that He clearly rejected, such as worshiping wealth and earthly power, judging others self-righteously and hypocritically, or hating people of different ethnic, religious, or national backgrounds. Of course, it is appealing in every generation to think that all we find to be familiar, comfortable, and desirable must be holy—and that whoever we think our enemies are must be God’s enemies. It is tempting to hate and condemn people or groups whom we see as a threat to whatever we may want in life. No matter how attractive that way of thinking is, it amounts simply to idolatry, to identifying our ways with God’s ways and rejecting Him without even recognizing it.
If we are to prepare ourselves for a journey that leads to the Cross, to the sacrificial slaughter of the Lamb of God Who takes away the sin of the world, we must reject conventional and easy ways of thinking about religion that so easily lead us away from Christ. Remember that no one expected a Messiah Who would associate with sinners, bless Gentiles and Samaritans, die on the Cross, and then rise in glory. If we are to acquire the humility and faith necessary to follow such a shocking Lord, we cannot rest content with what is pleasing to us on our own terms. No, we must open ourselves to His strength by humble repentance and obedience.
This Lent, let us use our lack of enthusiasm for serving our neighbors as a reminder that we must pray daily for God’s strength and healing for our own souls. Let us abstain from meat and other rich foods as a tool for learning to control our self-centered desires so that we may put the needs of others before our own. Let us give money, time, and attention to bless those here and around the world who lack what we take for granted. Let us take advantage of the opportunities all around us to serve our Lord in our neighbors. The more that we embrace these disciplines with true humility, the more fully we will participate in the healing and restoration that Christ has brought to the world through His Cross and glorious resurrection.
The Lord said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” (Jn. 14:15) If we call ourselves Christians, then we must obey Him. If we dare to ask for the Lord’s mercy on us, we must show His mercy to others. If we claim to be His followers, then we must learn to put others before ourselves, especially those we are not particularly inclined to help. For as He taught, “In that you did it to the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.” If we use the disciplines of Lent to gain the spiritual health necessary to serve Him more faithfully each day in relation to neighbors and strangers, then we will be prepared to go with Him to the Cross and to enter into the joy of Pascha, to “inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” For as hard as it may be for us to accept, in our small efforts to help “the least of these,” we serve the Lord Himself Who died and rose again for our salvation.