One moment of clarity during my recent retreat involved Matthew 25:31-46, the story of the sheep and the goats.
For the better part of one year, (many years ago) I prayed almost exclusively with this passage of scripture. I would try to move on, but God kept calling me back. “I guess I am a slow learner,” I would joke with God when I could not seem to move onto other scriptures. I knew I was missing something but could not figure out what it was.
I did continue to have aha moments as the year passed, gaining deeper insight into the message as the words permeated my being.
Thirty years later, this passage still draws me and connects me with my basic call from God:
For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.
These works of mercy became the standard against which I measured myself. When was the last time I fed someone who was hungry or gave drink to someone who was thirsty? When did I welcome a stranger or care for someone who was sick or visit someone in prison?
I took the commands literally. I believed Matthew outlined these works clearly so that there could be doubt about what I was to do. And I believed that Jesus was calling me to engage in each and every activity.
The passage goes on to say, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did to me.
That is the part that took me a while to grasp—to see that whatever good work I did, I did for Jesus, that the person on the receiving end was Jesus. Here was the mystery.
I had done good works before 1986, but I had somehow missed this piece of the equation, the part where I was actually doing it to or for Jesus. I thought I was just helping another person, but to realize that I was helping Jesus cast my efforts in a different light, because by doing these good works I was actually putting myself in a position to interact directly with Jesus. And in doing for Jesus, I was setting myself up to receive something in return—healing.
God was inviting me to get in touch with my own hunger, thirst, nakedness, alienation and imprisonment—and to let His love in through my acts of service for others. By offering mercy, I was receiving mercy.
Every act of kindness I did softened my heart and made me more compassionate. Every good deed opened the door for Jesus to shift my vision so I could see the world as Jesus sees it.
Some of these commands can demand I move far outside my comfort zone; and I have come to believe that that is exactly where Jesus is waiting for me.