~ Falling Up ~
"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 didn't take me into your homes. I needed clothes and you didn't give me anything to wear. I was sick, in prison, and you didn't take care of me [visit me]" (Matthew 24:42-43, GW).
We hear Jesus' words through our cultural filters and so do not fully appreciate how radical and self-denying His call to obedience truly is. For those of us in the affluent West, we think we are charitable when we buy an extra turkey at Thanksgiving and Christmas and donate it to the less fortunate through distribution organizations. But in the minds of Jesus' listeners, He was telling them to reserve portions of their own meager food supply, wrap it protectively, walk outside the protection of the city's walls into the barren countryside, risking assault by roadside thieves and wild animals, and walk into the stench of the destitute in their camps of misery. You had to mingle with the poor, becoming like them for a while. For them, it meant welcome relief. For you, it was an incarnational experience, becoming Christlike, for He emptied Himself and became one of us.
The thirst Jesus talked about was not the kind that could be satisfied by dropping off a few cases of juice to the church urban ministry. Water didn't flow from faucets. One had to walk a distance to the wells, and outside the city, there were indeed few in the desert countryside. Thirsty people were not the bike-a-thon fund raisers who need a couple pints of bottled water. Many desert dwellers in Jesus' day didn't drink for days and had no strength to get to a well. He was telling His listeners to walk for them, carry back several heavy loads of precious water, hold the dirty, insect infested head of a dehydrated child or elderly person, and lovingly, slowly, sip by sip over many hours, help them take in life sustaining water.
To Jesus, strangers were not a couple whose car broke down and needed a place to stay until it was repaired. It didn't even quite mean putting up a family whose home was burned down until their insurance company settled, however important this kindness is. To His listeners, a "stranger" was an outcast, a non-Jew, a pagan, a Samaritan. To house such a person was akin to a white family taking in a newly freed, homeless black family of slavery in the late 1800s (in the U.S.A.), risking their white neighbors setting their home on fire. It was like a Christian family housing a Jewish refugee family hiding from the Nazi Gestapo at the risk of life and property.
Gathering your used clothes and dumping them into a Red Cross or Salvation Army depository box in a supermarket parking lot on your way to shop for new clothes is not the kind of "charity" Jesus had in mind when He said to clothe the naked. His listeners knew what He said entailed hours of difficult labor to weave the wool from the sheep grazing on the countryside into tunics, to tan and sew hides into sandals, and to sacrifice your extra tunic or cloak, venturing into "unclean" villages, listening for the cries or moanings of a person whose body ached from the assault of heat, wind and cold.
Visiting the sick didn't mean going into an antiseptic hospital for an hour. Last month a courier of the Voice of the Martyrs was summoned to a tent to see a 12 year old Sudanese boy. His family was martyred by religious extremists for not renouncing Christianity and the boy was next. After asserting "I am Christian" he was thrown into a garbage fire and left as dead. Before the ministry worker entered the tent, he could smell feces, burnt flesh and human decomposition. The boy's body was swarmed by flies laying their maggot producing eggs. The worker bathed him as best he could in the child's pain, picked him up and made the difficult journey to the ministry's medical center. This is the kind of sickness, like the repulsive and contagious leprosy affliction, Jesus' listeners knew.
They also knew visiting prisoners didn't mean sitting on chairs in a colorful room with snacks available. Jesus was telling His listeners to venture into cold, damp, foul smelling dungeons; to sit with shackled people on cold dirt made mud by their feces and urine, places without toilets, water or sunlight.
Without entering the world of Jesus' days on earth, we miss how radical His call to obedience is and what He meant by loving Him as He loves us. But Jesus said to serve these people means serving Him, and not symbolically in His Name, but literally. So serious was our Lord about obedience to these mandates of self-denial and serving Him through the poor, afflicted and imprisoned, He said that if we don't do these things, He will tell us to leave His Presence, that He doesn't know us. Of course He wouldn't know us if we never ministered to Him. Jesus said if we love Him we will keep His commandments. If we are self-deluded commandment keepers, we are self-deluded lovers, meaning we don't really love the Christ but are the "lover of selves" He said would dominate the world.
"Obedience unto death" means rebirth into unending life. Adam and Eve were disobedient unto life, from their perspective. By consuming the forbidden fruit, they were deluded into believing a more fulfilling life of knowing good and evil awaited them. The fall into death was the actual fate of which they were warned. We, no longer born in God's image but in the likeness of Fallen Seth and his parents (Genesis 5:3), follow suit. Christ turned the Fall upside down, His obedience leading to redemptive death, which is life. The Kingdom of God is an upside-down place where we love those who hate, do good to our enemies, abandon our lives to live, suffer to experience joy.
The kingdom of heaven is a paradox to the spiritually blind. As in other traditions that whack us on our brains' right sides with paradoxical mandates like "Let me hear the sound of one hand clapping" or "Describe the footprints of birds in the sky," we must live in the paradox of experiencing the beauty of Christ in a burned and tortured body of His brother or sister; of redemptive suffering out of which true joy explodes as a witness to God's love and glory far exceeding the most moving and articulate sermon of words in a comfortable church.
Saints are not those who are most free from sinning. As St. Paul declared himself the chief of sinners, saints are people who sin. Rather, saints are poor in spirit, humble, incarnational. St. Paul says to suffer with those afflicted, to the point of experiencing a oneness with them. This is incarnational, to become like them, as Christ became like us, as we become like Him. A saint sins, but remains humble and contrite, seeing Christ incarnate in the poor, sick, naked, imprisoned, as Christ said He is.
We take the Fall out of disobedience and Fall into obedience. During his vision on Patmos, when St. John saw the Christ, he fell flat on his face "as a dead man." John had a fall, at the feet of Christ, the Lord, into the heavens. John took a fall up. Let us always fall upwards into the Heart of Christ.
John S. Hilkevich, Ph.D.
Spiritual Resource Services
Weekly Reflections © November 10, 2001
"God's Word" is a copyrighted work of God's Word to the Nations Bible Society. Quotations are used by permission.
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