“Lord, when was it that we saw You hungry and gave You food, or thirsty and gave You something to drink? And when was it that we saw You a stranger and welcomed You, or naked and gave You clothing? And when was it that we saw You sick or in prison and visited You?”
How often has any of us tried to apply these verses to our own daily lives? Do we let ourselves off the hook by remembering a time long ago when we actually went out of our way to help someone less fortunate than ourselves? Are we inclined to bask in that distant memory, thereby shutting out altogether the needs that surround us daily? Do we support Anglican Relief efforts instead of pondering the deplorable plight of countless persons in North Chicago or Waukegan or Milwaukee or Chicago?
2015 is being called by many “the year of the refugee.” Has that touched our own lives any more closely than through our reading the newspaper or the internet? Probably not. What could we have done to translate our detachment or our fear or even our hatred into compassionate action? Have we spent any time at all pondering that?
“What would Jesus do?” We know that line so well that many are able simply to “Tweet” it as WWJD. But, seriously, what would Jesus do? Would He be as indifferent as we are? “Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me.”
I visited an elderly woman in an assisted care facility in Wheaton a few weeks ago, and I took her a copy of a gospel hymn I have known since childhood. It’s titled, “Does Jesus Care,” and one or two of you might know it. The chorus repeats again and again, “Oh yes, He cares, I know He cares, His heart is touched by my grief.” Do we condemn ourselves when we sing such a song? “Oh yes, He cares;” but do we?
Let’s think about Jesus for a moment: the incarnate God Who willingly surrendered all that it meant to be equal with God in order to become a servant, to suffer an excruciating death, even the death of a Cross. How did He enter this world? He was, in every sense of the title I saw in an internet post this past week, “Jesus the Refugee.” Even while He was still in the womb of the Virgin Mary He made an incredibly difficult journey from Nazareth in Galilee to Bethlehem in Judea.
We think of such “old wives’ tales” as driving over the railroad tracks in order to induce labor, but how about a 100-mile journey on a donkey? That certainly worked. On arrival, the woman of this pilgrim family was ready to bring the Messiah into the world. Yet there was no room for them in any inn. A stable place sufficed the Lord God Almighty, Jesus Christ. No one in Judea was interested in housing Galilean pilgrims, least of all those from Nazareth, apparently a town with a very low reputation. They arrived as refugees and were treated with disdain, contempt, or at the very least, indifference. Who would not go out of his way to accommodate a pregnant woman who was about to give birth? Who would not give up his own room for her?
Their sojourn in Bethlehem did not last very long. In no time at all Joseph was alerted in a dream that Herod’s henchmen were on their way for the “Slaughter of the Innocents,” the day we observed on December 28. For Joseph and his recently delivering wife and her recently delivered Son, this meant yet another arduous journey as refugees to a hostile country, Egypt, where they we assured by the angel of temporary asylum.
Once Herod died, Joseph had another dream in which he was informed that a return to Nazareth was safe. Nazareth! What sort of reception were they likely to encounter there? It was “home,” but this “Holy Family,” as we innocently call them now, would have met with ridicule and disgrace back in Nazareth, where Jesus might have been regarded as illegitimate and Mary would have been the object of contempt. Yes, they were “home,” but in a sense they still were refugees.
Maybe this was okay for Jesus, the Son of God, to handle. But things never got any better for Him personally. When a scribe came to Him and said, with all earnestness and sincerity, “Teacher, I will follow You wherever You go,” Jesus simply replied, “The foxes have holes and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head.” Still, He was the refugee, even after John the Baptist had acclaimed Him as the “Lamb of God,” both Andrew and Phillip had identified Him as the Messiah and Nathanael had declared Him to be “the Son of God, the King of Israel.” How could such a Person still be without a place to lay His head?
Did it ever get any better? Not as far as the Gospel records tell us. Every home in which He stayed was a temporary dwelling, and every room He occupied was a borrowed room, including the one where He celebrated His “Last Supper” with the disciples and where He greeted them as their Resurrected Savior. When He wished to find a place to be alone for prayer, He could not slip into the prayer chapel of a nearby cathedral or synagogue. He prayed on hillsides and in gardens and on mountain tops, regardless of the weather or any degree of physical discomfort. He truly was “Jesus the Refugee.”
“Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.” How many times have we wished for the opportunity to embrace Jesus, to take Him in our own arms of love, to give Him shelter in our comfortable homes with central heating, air conditioning and a guest bedroom? How often have we wished we could have prepared a meal for Him when surely He must have been incredibly weary and hungry? “Lord, when was it that we saw You hungry and gave You food, or thirsty and gave You something to drink? And when was it that we saw You a stranger and welcomed You, or naked and gave You clothing? And when was it that we saw You sick or in prison and visited You?” Never? Was it nothing more than our pious wish, never translated into action?
What exactly is our attitude towards the refugees of our world? Shall we stand with one of our most prominent political voices and say, “Send them back?” Send them all away, back to wherever it is from whence they came, regardless of the squalor, the crime, the slaughter, the oppression, the incessant danger to life and limb; back to hunger and want, to grief and pain. Why not? Otherwise they may prove to be an inconvenience to us at best or perhaps a threat to us at worst or at least a drain on our unstable economy. Never mind that our economy, about which we speak incessantly, remains the most stable on planet earth, and that our standard of living is without parallel and cannot even be compared to the economies of third world nations. “Send them back.”
“Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.” What would Jesus do? What would “Jesus the Refugee” do? He told stories about such persons as a Good Samaritan or a young lawyer who was instructed to sell all his possessions, give his money to the poor, and come follow Him, to give up his considerable wealth to follow the Guy Who had no place to lay His head.
We speak glibly about compassion as though it were a natural human trait that we all possess. It might surprise you to know that the OT word for compassion rarely occurs in reference to a human being: it is reserved almost exclusively for God Himself. No, despite our most genuinely altruistic moments, compassion is not a human trait that we possess, exhibit and exercise in our daily lives. But surely this is OT stuff and, when we turn to the NT where Christians are motivated by the indwelling Holy Spirit, God’s compassion will rub off on us, will become internalized in us, will become a fruit of the Spirit that bears eloquent witness to God-with-us in Christ Jesus.
Alas, this is our spiritual fantasy in a world where we are surrounded by narcissistic persons who are enamored of their own self-worth and inherent goodness. The NT word for compassion occurs c. 22 times, and more than 2/3rds of the occurrences refer to the compassion of Jesus or of God the Father. Only a few are applied to the disposition and actions of Spirit-filled believers. No, compassion is not a natural human or even a common Christian trait, and all it takes is an international refugee crisis for us to be exposed as persons frightfully lacking in compassion. Few of us have stood on the shore of the Rio Grande and watched a large family trying to wade across the river to our land of plenty, pleading with us not to report them to the authorities who might arrest them or turn them away. Gayle and I witnessed this, and we never will forget it.
But don’t we need to protect our own economy, our own freedoms, our own way of life, our own comfort zones? “Lord, when was it that we saw You hungry and gave You food, or thirsty and gave You something to drink? And when was it that we saw You a stranger and welcomed You, or naked and gave You clothing? And when was it that we saw You sick or in prison and visited You?” We may have seen Him just yesterday, perhaps even earlier this morning, in an age when the plight of the entire world is an instant visual on our cell phones or I-Pads or computers. [And speaking of such devices, I was seriously saddened to hear on the news and read in the Tribune this past week that the 4 major internet providers spent 32.5 million dollars to provide internet access on 22 miles of the Chicago Metro system. I tried to imagine how many homeless, hungry, thirsty, coatless persons could have had their Christmastide radically changed by the equitable distribution of 32.5 million dollars! The Metro riders and the internet providers will never know the difference this slight inconvenience could have made!]
We are not short of opportunities to meet the needs of “Jesus the Refugee.” He is on our doorstep. He pleads with us today for a place to lay His head. He begs us not to require a flight into Egypt or a borrowed room or a hard wooden floor for an overnight stay. He is in North Chicago and Waukegan and Milwaukee and Chicago, and He is hungry, thirsty, homeless, naked and about to be imprisoned. Will we find ourselves among those on His left to whom He will say, “Depart from Me, accursed ones, into the eternal fire which has been 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; naked, and you did not clothe Me; sick, and in prison, and you did not visit Me. Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me. These will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
No doubt John the Evangelist was recalling these words of Jesus when, writing his first epistle, he said, “If anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet turns his compassion away from him, how does God’s love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or with tongue, but in action and in truth” (I John 3:17,18). What does it mean for us to show God-like compassion? The very word “compassion” means to “suffer along with” someone else. How many of us have given thought actually to suffering with any other person, least of all with someone we don’t know and of whom we are somewhat suspicious?
Paul admits in Romans 5 that “one will hardly die for a righteous man; though perhaps for the good man someone would dare even to die.” But then Paul shows us the extraordinary, compassionate act of God, the truest imaginable demonstration of “suffering with” someone. He writes, “God demonstrated His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” He even calls us God’s enemies, who “were reconciled to God through the death of His Son.” And the author of Hebrews urges us to fix our eyes on “Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:2).
May we be found among the righteous who, in the power of the Holy Spirit, are able to exhibit the compassion which truly belongs to God alone. When we do that, we will demonstrate powerfully that we are born “not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:13).
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
Collect for the day
Almighty God, in the birth of Your Son You have poured on us the new light of Your incarnate Word, and shown us the fullness of Your love: help us to walk in His light and dwell in His love that we may know the fullness of His joy; Who lives and reigns with You, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.