The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.
Our society must make it right and possible for old people not to fear the young or be deserted by them, for the test of a civilization is the way that it cares for its helpless members. -Pearl S. Buck
The test of the morality of a society is what it does for its children.
A decent provision for the poor is the true test of civilization.
Last week, smack in the middle of the Christmas season, it was my honor to preside at Wednesday noon eucharist. There were two congregants present, so we made the cut as far as Jesus was concerned. (He promised his presence when two or three were gathered.) That weekly liturgy provides opportunity to remember saints du jour, according to the liturgical calendar. The Christmas season gives us lots of choices, including heavy hitters, heroes of the faith like St. John the Evangelist, St. Thomas a Becket, St. Stephen, the first martyr. We observe important events like the slaughter of innocents by Herod and in two days, conclude with observance of the Epiphany.
Right in the middle of it comes a saint about whom I knew little. Apparently, I skipped the class in seminary when we learned about Frances Joseph Gaudet. She was an African American woman born in the south during the Civil War. At an early age, she became a single mother with three kids, working as a seamstress and finding a way to answer the call to help those in need, specifically those in prison and those who did not have access to education. Not only did she do what she could to serve those populations, but she also became an advocate for social reform on behalf of those who society had disregarded. For her day, we read the parable told by Jesus (below) in which Jesus claims that he can be met in the poor, the hungry, the imprisoned, those without clothing. In that parable, he expresses the spiritual truth revealed in the quotes with which this column began.
A friend once gave me a bumper sticker that read: “Jesus loves you, but I’m his favorite.” As someone who in my more ludicrous moments wants to remind God how lucky God is to have me on the team, I confess I struggle to remember that God loves the least as much as he loves me. I forget that we are all bound to each other by this one thing: we are all on the receiving end of grace. I need to be reminded that Christ can be met in all persons. Lord knows, Christ sometimes comes well disguised. By design, default or distraction, in the routine of my life, I can go a while without any kind of interaction with “the least of these.” It’s easy to live in a bubble. It’s sometimes difficult to reach out, even though we see “the least of these” all around us, nearby and far away. I was convicted by what I learned about Frances Joseph Gaudet, challenged to take a new look at the way I live.
As the new year begins, as you and I ponder our own spiritual growth, as our church and country chart courses forward, what will it mean to find Christ in those who might be considered “the least of these?” How can we as members of the church “pastor the community,” one of the hallmarks of spiritual vitality in congregations? How can we remember that Jesus referred to “the least of these” as “members of his family?”
Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”Then the righteous will answer him, “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?” And the king will answer them, “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.” Then he will say to those at his left hand, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.”Then they also will answer, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?” Then he will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.’-Matthew 25