Have you ever wondered why the Bible in general and Jesus in particular tell us to care for the poor, the aliens, the outsiders and the oppressed?
And why is it that he speaks so highly of us when we do? He calls us, ‘Blessed by my Father.’
Some of the things Jesus said do not sit comfortably with what most of what religion teaches.
The religious world that I grew up in taught me that I would inherit the Kingdom of God if... and the list of ifs was as long as your arm.
As a child of the Sixties, I was often made to feel that I was about to topple into the fiery abyss if my trousers were too tight, or if my hair was too long or if I wore winkle-picker shoes.
And as for cigarettes, or beer, or cinema-going; that was too horrible to contemplate.
And yet what did the Master say? ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the creation of the world.’
Now, did he go on to intimidate his listeners with a list of conditions?
No, the criteria appeared to be; ‘I was hungry, and you fed me. I was thirsty, and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger, and you invited me into your home.
‘I was naked, and you gave me clothing. I was sick, and you cared for me.
‘I was in prison, and you visited me.’
The ‘righteous ones’ in the story seemed to be as surprised as some of the readers of this column might be, for they replied: ‘What? When did we ever see you hungry and fed you?
‘When were you ever thirsty and we gave you something to drink? I can’t remember ever showing you hospitality when I saw you as a stranger, and naked, or sick or in prison? Sorry, am I missing something?’
If only we could really grasp this: ‘When you did it to the least of my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me!’
But there’s an important principle here that we shouldn’t miss.
If we are constantly looking over our shoulders as we go through the ritual of doing and giving and visiting and feeding, to see if he’s watching us, then that righteousness is the type of righteousness that we read of in Isaiah 64: ‘When we display our righteous deeds, they are nothing but filthy rags.’
I think I mentioned last week that it is possible to do the right thing for the wrong reason or from a dubious motivation and ‘fall from grace’ as a result – perhaps that’s another way of saying, ‘You miss the point!’
The ‘righteous ones’ Jesus speaks about are those who are driven by the presence of the Spirit within to feed the hungry, visit the prisoners, clothe the naked and house the homeless, those who are happy to work quietly, unnoticed and unsung, serving others and expecting no reward.
But isn’t that what Jesus had in mind when, in another place, he said, ‘When you give to someone in need, don’t do as the hypocrites do – blowing trumpets to call attention to their acts of charity!
I tell you the truth; they have received all the reward they will ever get.
But when you give to someone in need, don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.
Give your gifts in private, and your Father, who sees everything, will reward you’?
There’s a choice: God’s praise when you neither look for it nor expect it, or man’s praise and none from God.