Dr. Peter Marty: An Incognito Lord

Another Bible Story that Breathes Life

Destiny of all rests on how we attend to voices at bottom of human pile

Read Matthew 25:31-46.

It's amazing that the most affluent country in the history of the world is still trying to find the basic resolve and ingenuity to care for, and feed, all of her people. How can we in this nation, which is more professedly Christian than all of its counterparts in the developed world, still be struggling to practice fundamental Christian behavior? 

Of all the New Testament expressions about divine judgment, none is more explicit than Jesus' word about our need to care for others. The destiny of the righteous and unrighteous will be determined on the basis of how we attend to the voices at the bottom of the human pile. How will the lives of those whose names do not appear on anyone's cell phone contact list, much less the church's prayer chain, figure into our love?

Notice that there is no heavenly entrance exam requiring individuals to profess their faith in Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior. Jesus makes no mention of correct beliefs at all.

When it comes to judgment, there is no reference to some of the horrible crimes many consider to be deal breakers - abortion, murder, extortion and idolatry. The only circumstance that appears to damn us for certain is the belief that other peoples' problems are not our concern. It's what we neglect to do that is most devastating.

Perhaps you feel what I do when speaking a liturgical confession in worship. The most personally indicting line is the one where we acknowledge all of the "things we have left undone." I don't like it, but I also hope it never disappears from my lips. Come bedtime, I always want to be able to pray that I did all that I reasonably could do in God's name that day. Grace has its place. Yet some restlessness over what I surely neglected to do is also critical to my faith. Sin remains inescapable. 

We have a peculiar tendency to want to scratch the godly truth right out of Matthew 25. So we make up our own translation: "I was hungry and you said I should get a job. I was thirsty and you said the poor would always be with us. I was naked and you told me you just dropped some shirts in the Goodwill box. I was a stranger and you set up a task force to study me." 

A far better translation would have us looking for God hidden in the eyes of the least of these our brothers and sisters. Our incognito Lord takes up residence in people who don't seem to count. We ought to forget all fascination with some moral virtue in the sheep and some grievous fault in the goats. 

The king in our story never says a word about anyone compiling an impressive moral record. The only difference between the sheep and the goats appears to be the willingness of the former to look other people in the eye and meet them in their circumstance.

Faith is more than feeding and caring for others - it is believing that these other ones actually have a place in our heart.

The surprise of both the righteous and the unrighteous catches our attention. Neither realizes that the Lord is hidden in their most vulnerable neighbors. Perhaps this is God's design - we can never know, and need never know, exactly where God hides. Such a disguise could be God's attempt to erase the reward-theology that seems to be at the tip of the pencil with which we keep trying to write the story of our lives. 

The sheep expect no reward for serving others. There is no hint of them trying to flatter or appease. Their behavior simply belongs to an unself-conscious way of loving. We might call it unpremeditated compassion. 

So the next time you find yourself dishing up food at a homeless shelter, take a good look at the disposable glove on your serving hand. Count the digits or fingers. "The gospel is written on all five," Mother Teresa once said. "You-Did-It-Unto-Me." That's the hand you'll want to have ready for Jesus coming through the line.

[Taken with permission from the April issue of The Lutheran magazine.]