Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Remembering the Least of These

"Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me" (Matthew 25:40).

My friend Tim Jones, an Anglican priest, made headlines
the other day in his sermon when he counseled the desperately poor to shoplift rather than resort to burglary, prostitution, or suicide. The debate over that counsel has been rather intense. I Googled "Tim Jones shoplifting" and the search engine came up with 35,400 results. Check it out for yourself.

Tim served in my diocese for several years before returning to England. During that time, I got to know him as a friend, a man of integrity, and a good priest. Whether he's right or wrong in this particular instance, he and his family have my prayers.

Whether Tim is right or wrong, one thing is certain: the Christian tradition places a high value on serving the poor and the needy. For in what we do or fail to do to "the least of these," we do or fail to do to Jesus himself.

The excerpt below from a Christmas sermon entitled "God With Us" by Anglican priest
Edward Bouverie Pusey drives the point home far more eloquently than I can. I offer it on this eve of Christmas eve in the hopes that we will all remember the least of these who live among us, and stand ready to seek and serve Christ in them.

If we would see [God with us] in his sacraments, we must see him also wherever he has declared himself to be, and especially in his poor. In them also he is “with us” still. And so our church has united mercy to his poor with the sacrament of his Body and Blood, and bade us, ere we approach to receive him, to remember him in his poor, that so, loving much, we, who are otherwise unworthy, may be much forgiven; we, considering him in his poor and needy, may be permitted to behold him; and for him parting with our earthly substance, may be partakers of his heavenly. Real love to Christ must issue in love to all who are Christ’s, and real love to Christ’s poor must issue in self-denying acts of love towards them. Casual almsgiving is not Christian charity. Rather, seeing Christ in the poor, the sick, the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, we must, if we can, by ourselves, if not by others, seek them out, as we would seek Christ, looking for a blessing from it, far greater than any they can gain from our alms. It was promised of old time, as a blessing, “the poor shall never cease out of the land,” and now we know the mercy of this mysterious blessing, for they are the presence of our Lord. “The poor,” he saith, “ye have always with you, but me ye have not always,” not in bodily presence, but in his poor, whom we shall ever have.

The poor of Christ are the church’s special treasure, as the Gospel is their special property, the church the home of the homeless, the mother of the fatherless. The poor are the wealth, the dowry of the church; they have a sacred character about them; they bring a blessing with them; for they are what Christ for our sake made himself. Such as them did he call around him; such as they, whether by God’s outward appointment, or by his Spirit directing men’s choice, the poor, rich in faith, have been the converters of the world; and we, my brethren, if we are wise, must seek to be like them, to empty ourselves, at least, of our abundance; to empty ourselves, rather, of our self-conceit, our notions of station, our costliness of dress, our jewelry, our luxuries, our self-love, even as he, on this day, emptied himself of the glory which he had with the Father, the brightness of his majesty, the worship of the hosts of heaven, and made himself poor, to make us rich, and to the truly poor he hath promised the kingdom of heaven. The hungry he will fill, but those in themselves rich, he will send empty away. Year by year there is more need; the poor are multiplying upon us, and distress on them; gigantic needs require gigantic efforts; in these our towns, our church is losing its best blessing, that of being the church of the poor; we know not too often of their existence. Our fair houses are like painted sepulchers, hiding, by a goodly outside, from our sight, the misery, and hunger, and cold, and nakedness, which we love not to look upon, but which will rise in judgment against our nation, if we heed it not.

Realize we that they are Christ’s, yea, that we approach to Christ in them, feed him, visit him, clothe him, attend on him, and we shall feel (as saints, even of the noble of this world, have felt) that it is a high honor to us to be admitted to them. Such as can, would gladly devote their lives to them. We all should treat their needs with reverence, not relieving them coldly, and as a form, but humble ourselves in heart before their patient suffering; welcome the intercourse with them, as bringing us nearer unto Christ. In them he comes to us, in them we visit him; in them we may find him; he in them and for them intercedes for us with the Father. In them he who gave them to us, the means and the hearts to relieve them, will receive our gifts. He, before men and angels, shall acknowledge as done to him, what for his sake, we did to them.

From They Still Speak: Readings for the Lesser Feasts, edited by J. Robert Wright (Church Hymnal Corporation, 1993), pp. 168-170.

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