The Least of These...
26 Jan 2008, Dr Barry Wright
(Barry is Thornleigh's Church Pastor)
'THE LEAST OF THESE…'
Today we live in a world and an age when human need would seem to be at its greatest. Everywhere we look, if our eyes are sensitive to it, we would see people who are hurting.
There are also many today who see loneliness in its various forms as the most dangerous and widespread illness now affecting the western world. It often occurs in our biggest cities where there are thousands of people surrounding us on every side.
However, it is not so much about being isolated from people, but is more about the depression that can descend when there is no one near who cares.
This need has become one of the greatest challenges of the modern age, oft times leading those who find themselves in this situation to drugs, immorality and even to suicide.
A note left behind by a young woman who fell to her death from her twelfth-floor apartment in Chicago, USA said in her final words, 'I have no friends. I receive no mail. No one calls me on the telephone. I can't stand it any longer.'
After hearing of the tragedy, her neighbours responded by saying, 'We didn't know she felt that way'.
In America today, there are those suggesting that the problem of loneliness in its various forms is affecting 75-90 per cent of its population. Philip Slater, in his book entitled, 'The Pursuit of Loneliness', suggests that the growth of social fragmentation is so severe in the United States that it is pushing their culture to the breaking point (Nelson, 1999: 120).
In the developing war torn countries of the World we find many other issues of extreme need. We read that approximately one fourth of the world's population cannot afford the basic necessities of food, clothing and shelter. Many of these 'poorest of the poor' are children under the age of fifteen (ibid: 118). We are told that more than ten thousand starve to death every day and that related diseases from dietary deficiency claim many more.
This situation, involving death and starvation, is further complicated by the massive displacement of people brought about by the many natural disasters that have taken place throughout these territories.
We live in a world that is witnessing a collapse in those areas that are vital for human survival.
We know there is nothing new under the sun because Jesus in Matt 26: 11 makes clear that 'The poor you will always have with you…'
The Scriptures in Matt 24: 7 also allude to the time of the end as a difficult period of earth's history when 'Nation shall rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are the beginning of the birth pains.'
Associated with all these problems Jesus finally tells His disciples in Matt 24: 12 that in all of this 'Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold, but he who stands firm until the end will be saved'.
Jesus, almost 2000 years ago was preparing His disciples for what must take place before He was to come again.
War, persecution, famines, natural disasters and false prophets were all to be a part of this turbulent period of earth's history.
He was also telling them that many of these things, in association with increasing wickedness, will be a threat to their faith and that they need to stand firm.
The bottom line is that '…the love of most will grow cold.' The question of who is my neighbour is now brought to the fore.
Jesus was also intimating to the disciples that when He comes back there would be a judgement separating the saved from those that will be lost. He then shares with them on what basis these decisions will be made.
To do this Jesus presents a number of parables to illuminate their minds, not only about the Second Advent and their need to be ready, but also about judgement and the basis on which people are saved.
In Matthew 25 we find three parables of which most of us would be familiar.
In verses 1-13 we have 'The Parable of the Ten Virgins'.
In verses 14-30 we have 'The Parable of the Talents' and
In verses 31-46 we have 'The Parable of the Sheep and the Goats'.
In the parable of the virgins or Bridesmaids in Matt 25: 1-3 Jesus was to refer to a division of people. Five of the Bridesmaids went to the wedding and five were excluded. Jesus was dealing here in this parable with what it means to be ready. This story was told especially for those living in that period of time when the signs of His coming were applicable, but where the day and the hour were to remain unknown.
In the story of the talents in Matt 25: 14-30, involving a Master and his servants, we discover that the faithful servants were commended and promoted. The unfaithful servant was rebuked, discharged and punished.
In this parable Jesus was making clear that we were not only to make ourselves ready as shown in the previous story of the wedding, but we were also to watch for His coming. To live without watchfulness is to court disaster.
While the virgins were shown to be waiting for their Lord, in the parable of the talents we have the servants working for Him.
With the Bridesmaids, the inward spiritual life of the faithful was described, while the parable of the talents deals with external activity.
Jesus was trying to warn us of something special here? What was it?
We learn along with the foolish virgins, that negligence and decay in the inner spiritual life can only lead to a loss to the kingdom of God. Similarly the doom of the slothful servant was to result from idleness in his work.
We also learn with the first parable that the human heart needs to be kept with all diligence while the second story shows the need to put all diligence into our outward service.
This provides a logical sequence. Maintaining the life of God in the heart, as shown by the wise virgins, provides the sole condition that is needed for any profitable outward activity for God's kingdom as shown by the faithful servants.
In each of these two parables a judgement is being taught, but the nature of the judgement is so far not revealed.
To discover what this is, we now need to turn to the final Parable told by Jesus in Matt 25: 31-46 of 'The Sheep and the Goats.' Let's read what it says. (Clear Word Paraphrase)
'When the Son of God comes in all His glory and the angels with Him, He'll assume His role as Judge and King. Everyone on earth will be gathered together before Him, and he will separate those who are genuinely His from those who are not, as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats during shearing time.
He will call the sheep to His right and the goats to His left. Then He will say to those on His right, 'You are God's children because you are so much like Him. Come! It's time for you to receive your inheritance.'
You have cared about others, which show that you care about me. When others were thirsty, you gave them water. When they were hungry, you gave them food, and when they were without a place to live, you took them in.
When they had nothing suitable to wear, you gave them clothes. When they were sick, you visited and comforted them, and when they were in jail, you didn't forget them.'
Then the righteous will say, "Lord, we never realised that when we fed the hungry we were feeding you or that when you gave thirsty people a drink we were giving it to you!
Neither did we realise that when we took strangers into our houses, we were taking you in or when we gave people clean clothes we were giving them to you! And we didn't know that when we visited the sick or those in prison, we were standing by you!'
And the Son of God will say, "I know you didn't realise this because a change took place in your life, and kindness and compassion became a part of your nature. What you did by caring for those who are thought to be unimportant was acknowledged by God as if you had done it for me."
Then He will say to those on His left, "You can't be given a home in my Father's kingdom, for you are still controlled by your sinful nature. Leave my presence, and be consumed by the same fire which will destroy the devil and his angels.
For when I was hungry, you didn't offer me anything to eat, and when I was thirsty, you didn't offer me a drink.
When I was a stranger and alone, you didn't offer me a place to sleep, and when I needed clothes, you didn't care, and when I was in jail, you ignored me."
They will respond, Lord, we didn't know that you were ever homeless, in need of clothes, sick or imprisoned. If we had, we would have gladly helped you!"
Then the Son of God will say, "Because you didn't care about others, I know you don't care about me. I have no choice but to end your lives forever, because in my Father's kingdom everyone cares about everyone else."
'Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.' (KJV).
On the Mount of Olives that day Jesus, in speaking to His disciples was providing a word picture showing the scene of the great judgement day. It seemed that all the decisions being made here were to revolve around one pivotal point.
Author Ellen White in the book 'Desire of Ages' p. 637, makes it clear that when the nations of the earth are gathered before Him, there will only be two classes of people '...and their eternal destiny will be determined by what they have done or have neglected to do for Him in the person of the poor and suffering'. (White, 1940: 637).
Jesus will not present the great work He has done, but will present the faithful work they have done for Him. Those He commends may have known little of theology, but they are seen to have cherished His principles. Through the influence of the Holy Spirit these faithful people have been a blessing to those about them. (Ibid: 637, 638).
There are certain things that this parable teaches about the help we are all able to give.
It would seem that the help Jesus talks about in this parable is found in the simple things of life - things that anyone could do. It's not a question of giving out large sums of money or having our names written in the annals of history, it is more about working for people where they are. (Repeat) This opens the way for anyone to be involved, thereby providing him or her the way to God's kingdom (Barclay, 1975: 325).
Many feel it would be a wonderful privilege to visit the scenes around Palestine where Jesus walked and to see the lake and hills where he would have taught the multitudes of His day. However, we do not need to go to these places in order to walk in His steps because we can find His footprints beside the sickbed, in the hovels of poverty, in the crowded alleys of the cities, or anywhere there are human hearts that are in need of consolation (White, 1940: 640).
The legend is told of the man called Martin of Tours who was a Roman soldier and, later, a Christian. One cold winters day as he entered the gates of a city, a beggar stopped him and asked for charity. Martin had no money, but seeing the beggar was almost blue with cold, he was prepared to give of what he had. He took off his ragged soldiers coat, cut it in two, and gave half to this poor specimen of humanity sitting at his feet. That night he had a dream where He was shown heaven with all the angels, and sitting in the midst of them was Jesus wearing half of a Roman soldier's coat. One of the angel's said to Him, ' Master why are you wearing that battered old coat? Who gave it to you? Jesus answered softly, 'My servant, Martin, gave it to me.'
It's interesting to note that those in the last parable who helped did not know that they were helping Jesus. They helped because they couldn't stop themselves. Their actions were a natural, instinctive and an uncalculating reaction of a loving heart, just like Martin of Tours.
For those who help because they are given praise, thanks and publicity that pander to their self-esteem, they fail the test and are separated out with the goats as in the story Jesus told. Their actions are seen for what they are and can only be described as 'disguised selfishness'.
Jesus confronts us with the wonderful truth that all help given to His children from a loving heart is given to himself and there is no better way to delight the heart of God than to help our fellowman.
Sing Sing in New York State, is the oldest and most infamous of all prisons of world renown in the United States of America. This state prison was commenced in 1825 and was originally built by convict labour. After following the approach of complete isolation from society, from each other and from all stimulation, it then moved to a model involving all prisoners doing hard labour together in silence. The romanticized stereotypes of grim stripe-suited convicts marching in silent lockstep, of the electric chair, of daring escape, of fear, and in ingenuity of defiance of overbearing authority, are all of the stuff of the legend of Sing Sing.
This 800-cell prison was erected beside a quarry on Mt. Pleasant, near the Hudson River town of Sing Sing, which in the Indian language means 'stone on stone'. It is interesting that the town later changed its name to Ossining so it wouldn't always be confused with the gaol.
The original prison was described as a stark grey stone box with no trace of ornamentation. The cells were seven feet high, six and a half feet long and three and one quarter feet wide. They were equipped with a device invented by an inmate whereby a 150 foot long bar was used to lock or unlock 50 cells at a time. This was a hellhole of a place to be. Other than Alcatraz, Sing Sing had arguably become the world's most famous prison.
However, in 1920 its reputation was to change with the appointment of a new warden by the name of Lewis E. Lawes. At age 37 he was the youngest of the 39 wardens promoted to this difficult position. Born in Elmira, New York where his father worked as a prison guard at the New York State Reformatory, he was not unfamiliar with these types of institutions. When he arrived, there were over a thousand men in the prison population. No prison was tougher than Sing Sing with previous appointees not lasting any more than the average of two years at a time. Lawes once made the comment that 'The easiest way to get out of Sing Sing was to go in as the warden'. Over the years it had developed a grim reputation for destroying its administrators and this situation was well known throughout the prison system.
Lawes continued to be an outspoken proponent of prison reform so when he retired after twenty one years, this hellhole of a place had been turned into a model prison known nationally for its band, sports teams, educational programs that involved a huge library, and many other initiatives. It had become, in the words of some of his critics, a humanitarian institution.
However, the story of Sing Sing would not be complete without knowing something of the story of the Warden's wife, Katherine (Stanley) Lawes. When asked about the transformation within the walls of this infamous prison Lewis Lawes made it clear that he owed it all to his wonderful wife who was now buried just outside the prison walls.
Katherine Lawes was a young mother with three small children at the time her husband accepted the appointment to become warden at the prison. At the time she seriously believed the idea that the prisoners were human beings worthy of attention and respect. Consequently, she regularly took to visiting inside the walls of Sing Sing. She encouraged the prisoners, ran errands for them and spent time listening to them. Because she insisted on getting acquainted with the men and their records, she discovered a convicted murderer who was blind and another who was a deaf mute. Her response was to teach Braille to one while the other was taught sign language after she, herself, went to school to learn so she could teach.
As a result of the care she was able to show these incarcerated men, they learned to care deeply about her.
Consequently, it was understandable that a deep wave of emotion was to sweep through the prison grounds one fateful day on hearing that Katherine had lost her life in a tragic car accident the night before in October 1937.
The acting Warden was presented with a petition from the prisoners requesting that they be allowed to attend the viewing of her funeral bier. After much deliberation and understanding the seriousness of what he was about to do, he finally granted their request. It was on the condition that they all check back through the gates that same evening.
A few days later the south gate of Sing Sing swung slowly open.
Hundreds of men, lifers, murderers and thieves - men convicted of almost every conceivable crime, marched slowly from the prison gate. They marched slowly to the home, which was three-quarters of a mile distant, where they were able to view the body of this special woman and pay their respects. They then reassembled at the home and returned the three-quarters of a mile to their cells in the prison. There were so many of them that they went unguarded, but no one tried to escape. If anyone had attempted to break away the prisoners would probably have killed them on the spot. Later that evening every single man walked back into the prison. This shows their devotion to Katherine Lawes, the women who daily walked into hell to show these men a piece of heaven. There were those in the prison who believed Katherine was the body of Jesus Christ that came alive and walked through the corridors of Sing Sing Prison from 1921 to 1937.
In the famous parable of the sheep and the goats, Jesus spoke about visiting the prisoners. He also talked about feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, comforting the sick. By this vivid parable He was telling us about the life that counts for time and eternity. This is what the poet called 'that best portion of a good man's life, his little, nameless, unremembered acts of kindness and love.' Kindness is a language that even the deaf and dumb can understand. This is a fruit of Grace.
William Barclay, the well-known New Testament scholar once said: 'That God will judge us in accordance with our reaction to human need. His judgement will not depend on the knowledge we may have amassed, or the fame that we have acquired, or the fortune that we have gained, but on the help we have given to those around us (Barclay, 1975: 325).
Always remember that maintaining the life of God in the heart…provides the sole condition that is needed for any profitable outward activity for God's kingdom.
May it be said of us by the King of Kings on that day the nations are gathered before Him, 'Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me' (Matt 25: 40, NKJV).
Barclay, W. (1975) The Gospel of Matthew Vol 2. The Daily Study Bible Series. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press.
Nelson, G. P. (1999) A Touch of Heaven. Finding New Meaning in Sabbath Rest. Nampa, Idaho: Pacific Press Publishing Association.
White, E. G. (1940) Desire of Ages. Mountain View, California: Pacific Press Publishing Association.
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