Tuesday, October 23, 2012

The Choice

Choices, choices, choices. Personally speaking, I'd rather not make them. I'd be as content as a bug in a rug if I could just sit back and let someone make them for me. (How's that for a passive personality?) But even indecision is a decision of sorts when you think about it. Fairly early in the history of mankind, we hear Moses telling the Israelites that they have a choice between blessing and cursing (Deuteronomy 11:26-28). And in the following book, Joshua tells the next generation the same thing (Joshua 24:15).

The fact is, every human being faces the same exact choice. And one day we'll have to face the music for that choice.

When the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the angels with Him, He will sit on His throne in heavenly glory. All the nations will be gathered before Him; and He will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on His right and the goats on His left. ~Matthew 25:31-33 (NIV)

The Son of Man was Jesus' most often-used name for Himself, the name that identified Him with the people for whom He came to sacrifice Himself. When He comes again, it won't be as a helpless human baby, but as Commander-in-Chief of the armies of Heaven, King of all kings, Judge of the nations, and our Shepherd. Our choices will determine whether He classifies us as sheep or goats.

The Qualifications of the Sheep
Then the King will say to those on His right, "Come, you who are blessed by My Father, take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave Me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave Me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited Me in, I needed clothes and you clothed Me, I was sick and you looked after Me, I was in prison and you came to visit Me." Then the righteous will answer Him, "Lord, when did we see You hungry and feed You, or thirsty and give You something to drink? When did we see You a stranger and invite You in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see You sick or in prison and go to visit You?" The King will reply, "I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of Mine, you did for Me." ~Matthew 25:34-40 (NIV)

Here King Jesus lists the qualifications for the sheep:
  • gave Him food to satisfy His hunger
  • gave Him water to quench His thirst
  • welcomed Him in as a stranger
  • gave Him clothing
  • attended to His needs when He was sick
  • visited Him in prison
Interestingly enough, the sheep who have been declared righteous can't recall fulfilling any of these qualifications, which raises a whole bevy of questions in my mind. Did they consciously choose NOT to look out for the welfare of others? Did they do what little they could to help others, not realizing that even their small sacrifices were a means of serving Jesus? Or maybe, just maybe, could it be that they humbled and denied themselves to meet the needs of others out of a heart of love and compassion--in other words, followed the example of Christ?

I also have questions about the various qualifications. Is Jesus referring only to the physical realm? After much reflection and meditation, I have to say "no." Why? Because even though Jesus met the physical needs of others during His earthly ministry, His primary concern was always, first and foremost, their spiritual welfare. We see this demonstrated time and time again: his teaching of the multitudes and the disciples, his healing of people by casting out demons and forgiving their sins, his conversation with so many--the woman at the well, Nicodemus, even Pilate--just to name a few.

So how does this passage translate to the spiritual realm?
  • He is the Bread of Life (John 6:26-40; John 4:32-34)
  • He is the Living Water (John 4:13-14; John 7:38)
  • He is the One knocking at the door and the Head of the fellowship of believers (Revelation 3:20; Colossians 1:18)
  • He gives us robes of righteousness, the armor of God, and Himself as clothing (Isaiah 61:10; Ephesians 6:10-18; Romans 14:13; Galatians 3:27; Romans 13:14)
  • He came to save the lost, the sick, the sinner (Luke 19:10; Luke 5:31-32; Luke 15:4-7, 32)
  • He came to loose chains and break down barriers (Luke 4:18; Isaiah 61:1; Galatians 3:28; Colossians 3:11)
Yes, Jesus ministered to the physical needs of others and so should we. But that, in and of itself, isn't enough. Ultimately, as His followers, we're here to complete His mission, to be His hands and feet, to fulfill His holy task. The only way we can truly make a difference in the lives of others is to introduce them to Jesus. Only then can we give them food that nourishes, water that quenches, divine fellowship, heavenly raiment, the balm of Gilead, and the means to break down spiritual strongholds.

And notice that our motivation should be to serve "the least of these."

The Quandary of the Goats
Then He will say to those on His left, "Depart from Me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire 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, I needed clothes and you did not clothe Me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after Me." They also will answer, "Lord, when did we see You hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help You?" He will reply, "I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for the least of these, you did not do for Me." Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life. ~Matthew 25:41-46 (NIV)

I must admit, this part of Jesus' story disturbs me. My stomach churns, my heart pounds, my skin crawls. Why? Because these people obviously thought they had been serving God. They had met the physical needs of others, and were probably a little proud of their history of benevolence. So what was lacking?

Their motivation. They didn't do it for the least of these. So why had they done all these benevolent acts? Was it to feel good about themselves? Was it in order to gain God's favor? Was it to merit membership in the Kingdom of God? We don't know. The story doesn't tell us. My guess it could be these or any number of other motivations. But in any case, the results are the same--eternal punishment.

Again, there is a hunger physical food cannot satisfy, a thirst water can't quench, a loneliness not overcome by the presence of people, a nakedness and shame not covered by regular clothing, an illness and captivity not alleviated by medical practice or earthly freedom.

The Questions For Us
To the angel of the church in Laodicea write: These are the words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the ruler of God's creation. I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm--neither hot nor cold--I am about to spit you out of My mouth. You say, "I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing." But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked. I counsel you to buy from Me gold refined in the fire, so you can become rich; and white clothes to wear, so you can cover your shameful nakedness; and salve to put on your eyes, so you can see. ~Revelation 3:14-18 (NIV)

In my humble estimation, many churches today are like the church in Laodicea. (And if a church is not like them, they have people in their fellowship with this attitude.) In fact, this seems to be a pretty accurate description of our country in general.

Compared to the rest of the world, we are wealthy and don't see our need for anything or anyone--including Jesus. We're blinded by our prosperity. Our all-seeing God tells us that we're the ones in need of food, water, clothing, medicine, and deliverance!

So here are the questions for us:   Will we choose to humble ourselves and admit our great need for Him? Will we choose to lay aside the trappings of this earthly life in favor of heavenly riches? Will we choose to serve the least of these with the heart of Jesus (often the very people we're quick to shun because they're not like us)? Will we choose to not only meet their physical needs but the greatest of needs--to know Him?

The choice is ours.


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