The Hidden Face of God, pages 61-64.
"Confusion and Clarity, Poverty and Presence
August 28th, 2019
For 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.
Matthew 25:35-36, NLT
In the past few years, for hundreds of thousands of people all over the globe, it has seemed like the end of the world. Their homes have been swept away by angry walls of water. Little ones have been wrenched from the arms of panicked parents. People who already had little were left with absolutely nothing. The bitter confusion caused by a tsunami on the other side of the world and the venomous blame-shifting that resulted form hurricane Katrina on this side, left some of us wondering where God stood in the whole mystifying matter.
To the poor who have been left childless and homeless, it must seem as if God broke His promise never to destroy the world again by water (Genesis 9:15). Their world, at least, was destroyed. These two major disasters serve to simply lift the veil on the suffering that goes on in the world every single day. More children die of hunger (and have been dying for decades) every day than were lost in the last hurricane. More Christians have been swept away by persecution in the last few years than died in the tsunami. Now is seems our fresh voices of lament are simply joining the already hoarse cries of the rest of the world, asking God for a way out of the confusion.
At first glance, the Bible seems to say there is no single way out. There is no unified answer that will sweep the suffering of the world under the carpet. It is a fallen and death-invaded world - it has been so since the expulsion from the garden, and it will remain so until Christ returns. Decay and chaos, disease and death are the rules in nature.
Look hard at the teaching of Jesus and you'll find neither an outline nor an answer. He ultimately offers no quick fixes, no certain aid. But what Jesus unquestionably offers in the Gospels is Himself. There is an Answer. He tells us that if there is a way, it is He (John 14:6). It is left to us to understand just what that means and what it implies as we look at our devastated world.
When we see the pattern of His perfect life, we begin to understand that while Jesus consistently provided for the practical needs He saw (healing or perhaps food), more important, He always provided Himself. He was fully present to the suffering of His friends (John 11:33-35). In effect, He became one of them. He entered redemptively into the confusion and pain He seemed to attract like a magnet (Luke 7:11-17, 36-50). He fully identified with the sinful woman, with the poor beggar, even with the confused Pharisee. Most of all, Jesus entered fully and effectively into the pain and confusion created by our sin. When He suffered and died on the cross, He paid the full price for becoming one of us. Long before anyone in Indonesia or the gulf coast cried out, "Why have You forsaken me?" Jesus lamented these words for them and for us.
If His life can be seen as a sort of compass - that is to say, if there is a direction indicated in the truth that Jesus is the "Way" - then that direction is to move into the suffering of the world and into our own suffering. If anything can push back the confusion, it will be His Presence meditated through our own presence among the shattered lives we increasingly find all around us.
Jesus spoke about another time of confusion that is coming. It will occur at the bona fide end of the world, upon His Second Coming. As Jesus prepares to enter into the hurricane of pain and the tsunami of suffering that will soon wash over Him in the garden and on the cross. He paints a confusing picture for His disciples.
"Then these righteous one will reply, 'Lord, when did we ever see you hungry and feed you? Or thirsty and give you something to drink? Or a stranger and show you hospitality? Or naked and give you clothing? When did we ever see you sick or in prison, and visit you?' And the King will say, 'I tell you the truth, when you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me!'
"Then the King will turn to those on the left and say, 'Away with you, you cursed ones, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his demons. For I was hungry, and you didn't feed me. I was thirsty, and you didn't give me a drink. I was a stranger, and you didn't invite me into your home. I was naked, and you didn't give me clothing. I was sick and in prison, and you didn't visit me.'
"Then they will reply, 'Lord, when did we ever see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and not help you?' And he will answer, 'I tell you the truth, when you refused to help the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were refusing to help me.'" (Matthew 25:37-45, NLT)
As the "sheep and goats" stand before the King for their final sorting, the major dividing line seems to be whether or not they cared for the poor. This should seem self-evident to almost any religious person, but what is most strange about Jesus' telling of the story is that both groups are in a state of confusion.
The first group had, in fact, cared for the poor and the prisoner and the sick. But they seem confused when Jesus announced that it was really He to whom they had ministered. He does not say "it was like you were ministering to Me." No, Jesus radically identifies Himself with the sorrowing. This idea is precisely where the ministry of Mother Teresa derived its amazing power.
The final confusion exists among the group who did not care for the poor, the goats. When they refused these least ones, they were refusing Jesus Himself. I am forced to believe that this is the same surprised and confused group Jesus spoke about in Matthew 7:22. They had done all sorts of "works" - prophesied, exorcised, and so on. And yet Jesus says, "I never knew you."
That final end-of-the-world state of confusion we read about in Matthew sheds an enormous amount of light upon our present state of confusion. The call of Jesus becomes crystal clear precisely at the meeting of these two states of bewilderment. We are to provide food, drink, clothing, hospitality, and visitations to those in prison, realizing that we will never reach the bottom of the bottomless needs of the world. But in so doing, we can enter redemptively into the suffering of the fallen, confused, and hurting world, there to find...Jesus Himself.