Do I See Jesus in the People Around Me?

Why don’t I help people who are in need?

The possible reasons are plentiful:

Am I in a hurry? Are financial concerns making me less generous? Do I have other priorities for my time and resources? Do I think someone isn’t worthy of help and needs to be more responsible? Do I believe the other person is just looking for a way to take advantage of me? Do I feel unsafe because the person in need may be high or intoxicated?

Depending on the situation, I’ve been all over the map when it comes to helping others. Sometimes I’ve initiated help, sometimes I’ve responded positively, sometimes I’ve offered limited help, and sometimes I have not offered any help at all. Perhaps money really is tight during that month, but other times I just don’t want to be a sucker. Thoughts of self-preservation can be legitimate at times, but often it’s just a convenient way to sound reasonable in my own selfishness.

When I refuse to help others, the focus is often myself. I’m considering my needs and my personal comfort. I don’t identify with them. That is what makes a passage like Matthew 25 so striking. Jesus identifies with those in need to the point that any generous act toward others is considered a generous act toward Jesus.

Am I able see Jesus in other people?

More importantly, do I see Jesus in the people I am most likely to overlook or to dismiss?

That is the whole crux of how Jesus judged those who helped or neglected to help the sick, immigrant, poorly clothed, imprisoned, and hungry. Those who cared for these people were the ones who, perhaps unexpectedly, served Jesus by serving the overlooked people of this world. Those who neglected them had neglected Jesus himself.

“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.’”
Matthew 25:40, NRSV

“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.’”
Matthew 25:45, NRSV

It’s as if Jesus is trying to snap us out of our self-centered daily outlooks in order to perceive the God-given worth and dignity of each person.  He wants us to imagine that we are serving Jesus himself so that we don’t get lost in the situation or the worthiness of the other person.

And if imagining such a thing remains a stretch for us when we serve others, perhaps we have a clue to consider the state of our own hearts and our awareness of God’s love for us. If we are even uninclined to serve Jesus himself, then we know we have a focus on self that must be addressed.

The hope is that the generous love of God in our lives transforms us, reminds us daily of how great God’s mercy has been for us, and prompts us to show the same love and mercy to others.

Monday Merton: The Foundation of Christian Social Action

monday-merton-blog-header

I’m continuing my series of reflections on Thomas Merton’s Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander a few days late because of a virus that tore through my kids while my wife was away over the weekend. Now that saltines and Pedialyte have done their work, I’m anxious to share this fantastic quote from Merton, writing most likely sometime between 1962-64, on politics and Christian social engagement.

I am particularly interested in Merton’s holistic approach to social action, beginning with the foundation of men and women being created in God’s image. Our care for others springs from a our common place as beloved creations of God living in a world whose systems and power brokers frequently seek to desecrate others for the sake of profit and control. Merton’s words are particularly challenging and instructive for Christians seeking to engage in American politics.

“We apparently cannot conceive material and worldly things seriously as having any capacity to be ‘spiritual.’ But Christian social action, on the contrary, conceives man’s work itself as a spiritual reality, or rather it envisages those conditions under which man’s work can recover a certain spiritual and holy quality, so that it becomes for man a source of spiritual renewal, as well as of material livelihood.

 

Christian social action is first of all action that discovers religion in politics, religion in work, religion in social programs for better wages, Social Security, etc., not at all to ‘win the worker for the Church,’ but because God became man, because every man is potentially Christ, because Christ is our brother, and because we have no right to let our brother live in want, or in degradation, or in any form of squalor whether physical or spiritual. In a word, if we really understood the meaning of Christianity in social life we would see it as part of the redemptive work of Christ, liberating man from misery, squalor, subhuman living conditions, economic or political slavery, ignorance, alienation.

 

Once this has been said, we understand what it might mean to transform the world by political principles spiritualized by the Gospel. It is an attempt to elevate man, whether professedly Christian or not, to a level consonant with his dignity as a Son of God, redeemed by Christ, liberated from the powers that keep him in subjection, the old dark gods of war, lust, power, and greed. In such a context, political action itself is a kind of spiritual action, an expression of spiritual responsibility, and a witness to Christ. But never merely by the insertion of religious clichés into political programs.”

 

– Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, 76-77