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Credo XI

“…From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.”

Once I did a good thing, and I wonder if it is enough to save me. The Sulzbacher Center for the homeless had just opened in Jacksonville and the county medical society was trying to find volunteers to staff a free clinic there on Saturday mornings. They were desperate enough to use a neurosurgeon, so I showed up and did my best to be a decent primary care provider for a few hours. Among the people I saw was a healthy looking Black man about my age and my size who had hypertension and needed his medication renewed. The other problem I noticed when I examined him was that his pants didn’t come close to fitting. He left the zipper undone so he could hitch them up over his hips then left left his shirt untucked so that maybe no one would notice.

I liked the guy. If I got the connection right, he was the guy the cops knew as “Ten-Speed,” a moniker he had picked up because the only thing he owned when he started dealing was a ten-speed bike. He built a little business and had a house and a car by the time he got busted. Now, after some jail time, he was back on the streets minus the house, the car, and the bicycle. Or even pants. It’s hard to get work without pants.

I heard other hard luck stories that morning. If you’ve ever volunteered at a homeless clinic, you know there are lots of sad stories and seemingly impossible situations. Generally, the best policy is to keep your head down, do your job diligently and without judgement and let it go. You can’t fix everything.

But somehow, no pants bothered me. I went home to my closet, found a couple of very serviceable pairs of pants, a belt that could make it work if the pants were too big, a Bible, and a satchel to carry it all. I drove back downtown and asked around the homeless center until I found the guy and gave it all to him. Yes, he was grateful. And I’m grateful to him, because it makes it a bit easier to face Jesus as the judge.

I don’t like to think about Jesus as the judge. He is our Savior. He loves the unlovable and forgives the unforgivable. How can He be the guy that brings the hammer down? When I envision the judge in heaven I relapse into the vision of the bearded old man on the throne sending the righteous to their mansions of eternal bliss and the unrighteous to everlasting hellfire and damnation.

But Jesus tells us clearly that He will be the judge, and the righteousness standard is unexpected. He says, “When the Son of Man comes in all His glory, and all the angels with Him, He will sit on His glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before Him, and He will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.”

He says to the sheep, the ones on His right, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world.”

That sounds good. I like this part of judgement. Then, He goes on the give the reason for their eternal reward: they fed him when He was hungry, gave Him something to drink when He was thirsty, invited Him in when He was a stranger, clothed Him when He was naked, looked after Him when He was sick, and visited Him when He was in prison.

Interesting.

He didn’t list regular church attendance, saying the sinner’s prayer, receiving Last Communion, or even forgiveness of sins. He didn’t list financial contributions, large or small, nor a well-ordered, thoughtful life, nor running large charities well. Nope. The sheep getting past the pearly gates sounded like kind and generous people who did little things, one at a time, for Jesus.

But they didn’t do it for Jesus; at least they didn’t think so. The sheep said, “Who, me? I don’t remember that.”

Of course they don’t remember doing that. Jesus ascended to heaven back around 33 A.D.–not likely any of us are going to find Him in jail looking dehydrated, scrawny, sickly, and, well, naked. Even if He did come back and chose that place and appearance, I doubt the sheep would recognize Him. I wouldn’t.

Fortunately, Jesus made it clear to the sheep (and to us): “Whatever you do to the least of these…you did it for me.”

Whoa! I thought I was going to heaven because I said I believed Jesus was the Son of God and He forgives my sins. Now I find out that I need to complete the checklist of caring for the hungry, thirsty, lonely, naked, sick and imprisoned? I’m terrified, my hope now hanging on the one time I shared pants with an ex-con.

That’s the good part of Judgement Day. It gets worse.

The Son of God is still on the Throne. Now He is directing the goats to “eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” Because they didn’t feed the hungry Jesus, give water to the thirsty Jesus, take in the stranger Jesus, clothe the naked Jesus, care for the sick Jesus, or visit the prisoner Jesus.

Not because they were murderers, rapists, thieves, adulterers or liars. Not because they claimed to be atheists or agnostics. Nope, their sin was one of omission. They hadn’t taken care of the down and dirty Jesus.

The goats likewise answer, “Who me? I don’t remember that.” Maybe they also asked about grace. Maybe they asked for a bit of credit for finishing the Bible study course and memorizing a lot of scripture. Maybe they pointed to evangelism successes.

But no such luck.“Whatever you have not done for the least of these, you did not do for me,” He answers. The goats are going to burn in hell.

Everything about the words of Jesus in the twenty-fifth chapter of Matthew is disturbing. First of all, hell is real. I like to believe the modern myth that the righteous go to heaven and the others go to sleep. This is the illusion that allows for suicide and euthanasia. I don’t like to think of “eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” Although details are spare and no doubt beyond our imagination, hell is not a good ending. And now we find out that we get there by being not necessarily bad, but simply uncharitable.

Charity is good, sure. But who would have guessed that eternal joy or eternal suffering would hinge on charity? And a very specific kind of charity at that. It is unconscious charity that is eternally rewarded and it is performed for “the least of these” regardless of who they are or whether they are complicit in their misery. In other words, they are both the deserving and the undeserving poor, they are the ones who got sick and the ones who made themselves sick (think alcoholics and tobacco addicts), the stripped and the strippers, the shunned and the hermits. They are both the innocently imprisoned and the career criminals.

This is a narrow path. You have to be the kind of person who sees suffering and can’t stand to see suffering. You have to ignore all the good reasons for doing nothing, things like: “it won’t matter, anyway;” “they’ve gotten themselves into this mess, they’ll have to get out of it; I’m not equipped;” “I can’t afford it.” Then you have to expect no recognition and expect no reward. You have to be that kind of person. The only thing that saves you is becoming that kind of person.

I’m not that kind of person, not really, not all the time. Maybe nobody is. I’m wondering if my one act of kindness is enough to get me in with the sheep, but I don’t think so. I have to rely on that other thing called grace.

Jesus also said, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die.”

That’s “saved by grace,” but I found out it doesn’t mean just saying the magic words “I believe,” and expecting the free ticket to heaven. Believing in Jesus means surrendering my will to His, listening to Him through prayers and the Bible, and actively seeking Him in my life experience.

Sometimes that life experience can be pretty damn short. Think about the thief being crucified with Jesus and the promise made to him: “Today, you will be with me in paradise.” He didn’t get much time to feed the hungry and cloth the naked, but Jesus put him in with the sheep anyway. This is grace at its most primal. Jesus knows the thief didn’t just say the words; his heart had changed so that he turned into that kind of person, the one who would have given up his pants if he had any to give.

“Saved by grace” is also, ironically, letting go of “trying to be good.” Trying to be good implies I am in control and decide what is good and what is not. It sounds right but it is not: I’ll do good things for Jesus, then He will love me because I am good.

Grace works the other way around. If I actively believe in the living Christ and seek Him out, He will change me. It is this: Because He loves me, He will make me good. He will use me to take care of “the least of these” and I won’t even notice. He will make me into that kind of person. He will herd me over to the sheep.

My friend Mark, another retired physician, volunteers at homeless shelters and free medical clinics two or three days a week. He is kind and generous. He takes care of the home and family needs without complaint when his wife flies away, sometimes for weeks, to serve with Samaritan’s Purse. Nearly every week, he volunteers for the childcare program at his church. Here’s the kicker, the thing that makes him fit in so well with the sheep Jesus describes: he doesn’t do it for Jesus. He does it for “the least of these.” I know, because he professes to be an atheist.

I don’t know if Mark is going to be judged with the sheep or the goats. I don’t really want him to change anything about the way he lives. But I wish he would profess that He trusts and serves Jesus, that He could also claim salvation by grace. I think it would have a profound effect on his children and their children for generations. And I want to be certain he is herded in with the sheep. I really want him to be one of my buddies in heaven.

How many good deeds do you have to do to go to heaven? How many times do you get to pass by “the least of these” before you go to hell? I don’t know. Jesus is sitting on the judgement seat right now. I’m praying for His mercy and claiming His grace.

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