God with the Poor and Powerless

Each Thursday, we look at one of the lectionary passages for the upcoming Sunday. Today, we're actually looking at three of the passages--Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24Psalm 100, and Matthew 25:31-46--because there is a strong thematic unity between the three.

Three of these passages depict people as sheep. It's a common image in the Bible. What is interesting (and I am sure not at all coincidental) is the passages from Matthew and Ezekiel this week center on this scene in which God judges the sheep. There are two different spins. In Matthew, it is the familiar sheep versus the goats setups. In Ezekiel, the judging takes place between fat sheep and lean sheep. 

Yet both passages are about justice. They are about how the poor and oppressed are treated. They are about what happens when the haves either ignore (as in Matthew), use, abuse, or displace (as in Ezekiel) the have nots. Unlike some passages of scripture that use imagery, there is little mystery about whose side God is on. God is fully aligned with the have nots. In fact, God is so fully aligned with those considered powerless that Jesus says whatever is done to the powerless is done as if it were to him.

We like these kind of passages in the abstract. After all, most of us would like to believe that we are the kind of people that care for the vulnerable. We want to be the kind of people that feed the hungry, heal the sick, clothe the naked, and so on. My generation has rallied behind this idea of helping those in need. We hear these passages and nod knowingly. This is what we're supposed to be doing. And it is what we're supposed to be doing.

Yet these passages are unsettling to me. I know my legacy. I am of white European descent. I come from a line of fat sheep who traveled to this land and butted at the less powerful until they were scattered far, wide, and into oblivion. I know that clothes that I have worn, the technology that I have used, and so many other goods that I have consumed are made on the backs of people that are oppressed by unjust systems. I know that my government has killed innocent people with bombings and drone strikes attempting to take out bad guys.

And I sit in my nice house that has plenty of space for the five people that live here. It has electricity, heat, air conditioning, running water, cable, wi-fi, and a full fridge. Then I think about larger families than my own that live in spaces the size of a small bedroom with none of those amenities. I realize that even though I am firmly in the middle class in America, that I live like a king relative to the rest of the world.

I don't write this to make us feel guilty. But I am being honest that these passages should make us feel uncomfortable. If you are able to read this blog on a  computer or a phone, then you are one of the haves. You, like me, are a potential fat sheep; a potential goat. We need to be aware of that. We are powerful because we have the means to help save lives or, whether intentionally or not, to take away from lives.

We are about to enter into a season of extravagance in which we'll feast on more food than we can stomach and receive numerous gifts. Do not misunderstand me. Turkey dinners or receiving a new pair of shoes is not in any way evil. We simply need to be mindful.

We need to find ways in which we can aid those in need. We need to keep our eyes open for those around the world and next door who are oppressed. We need to educate ourselves about the ways in which our systems hold down, hurt, and kill children, women, and men. We need our hearts to be filled with compassion for our brothers and sisters. We need to remember that God is with them and whatever we do to harm them, whether we mean to or not, puts us on the opposite side of God. I don't know about you but I want to be with God.

Psalm 100 also mentions sheep though it is less of an apocalyptic Animal Farm and more the comforting image that occupies my flannel graph memories of childhood. It is a beautifully simple psalm that imagines God's people gathering together in praise.

Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth.
Worship the Lord with gladness; come into His presence with singing.

Know that the Lord is God.
    It is He that made us, and we are His;
     we are His people, and the sheep of His pasture.

Enter His gates with thanksgiving,
     and His courts with praise.
     Give thanks to Him, bless His name.

For the Lord is good;
     His steadfast love endures forever,
     and His faithfulness to all generations.

When I read about that worship, I cannot help but think about the fact that our worship of God is glorifying God in whatever we do. It is not just something that we do on Sundays, when we sing a song of praise, or do something spiritual. That is worship, but how I treat my neighbor is part of my worship. What I do with my time is potential worship. To worship this good and loving God necessitates loving others.

There is also this notion of unity in the passage. We are God's people. For us to fully identify with this notion, we have to look out for those who are poor and powerless. We cannot just be the people within our church walls. We has to include those about whom Jesus said "just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me." We cannot truly enter God's presence with singing if we are ignoring significant portions of God's family.

Sigh. Like I said, it is a passage that makes me uncomfortable. Yet I think that is a good thing that it makes me uncomfortable. If it didn't make me uneasy then I would be completely numb. I think God uses discomfort sometimes to nudge us forward to love and serve. So my hope is that this season of giving would be a catalyst for us to more fully identify with the God who loves the poor and powerless.

Ben Franklin, Turkeys, and a Fascinating Alternate Timeline

An Encouraging Conversation