Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.
—Jesus (Matthew 25:40)
A few months ago I was walking toward a store in a downtown area. About a block from my destination was a homeless young man. He was very much the stereotypical: ragged, dirty, worldly possessions in a shopping cart, and holding a cardboard sign asking for any help. I stopped and asked him his name. He gave it and the manner of his reply led me to think that mentally he was not quite “all there.” I told him I’d be praying for him and gave him $20. As I did, I told him my name and asked that he pray for me. He assured me he would.
When Jesus’ mother and step-father presented Him in the Temple shortly after His birth, as was the Jewish custom of the day, a man, Simeon, was there waiting. God had promised Simeon he would see the One who would be the salvation of all humankind. Upon seeing Jesus, Simeon said:
Behold, this Child is destined for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and…[through Him] the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed. (Luke 2:34-35)
The judgment of God is a mysterious thing. He doesn’t pronounce judgement like a human magistrate based on some Book of Regulations and sentencing guidelines; rather, God’s judgement is as Simeon says it is: God revealing our hearts to ourselves in the light of His reality. This is what Jesus did during His so-called earthly ministry. In the words of Fr Stephen Freeman:
As [Jesus] is increasingly revealed, everything around Him is revealed as well. Things are shown to be more clearly what they are. Those who hate Him, begin to be revealed as plotters and murderers. What was once only thoughts and feelings of envy become plots and perjury. The power of Rome is unmasked for its injustice, mere people-pleasing. The High Priest is revealed to believe that the destruction of God is good for his nation. The weakness of the disciples and the empty boasting of Peter and the rest are shown for their true emptiness. The sin of the world is revealed in the death of God…But the righteous are revealed as well. The steadfast love of the Mother of God never wavered before the Cross. Her faithfulness is revealed. The kindness of Joseph of Arimathea is forever marked by an empty tomb. The tears of a harlot reveal the nature of love, even hidden beneath the deeds of her life. In the judgment of God, all things are simply shown to be what they truly are. Sin is seen to be sin. Love is seen to be love. There is clarity. And in the judgment of God, His own love is shown to be what it truly is—self-sacrificing, forgiving, relentless in its mercy.
In the quote at opening of this post, Jesus tells us that what I do, or fail to do, for my neighbor reveals my heart’s attitude toward Jesus. By loving and responding to the needs of the poor, the downtrodden, those in prison, the widows, the orphans, and, yes, even my enemies, my love of God is revealed for what it truly is. As one saint said, “If I do not love my neighbor and my enemy, I do not love God.” Sometimes, God is even more direct with us by giving us the opportunity to be hospitable, or not, to an angel without our knowing. (Hebrews 13:2).
I have often wondered what it will be like when I stand before God under His judgment. I am certain God will reveal that my heart contains both sheep—my meager love of God and my neighbor and goat—my self-centered love of me. How can I be so certain? Because my encounter with this homeless man was such a moment of God’s judgment in my life.
When I first approached the young man, my mind was filled with rapid-fire throughs like: It’s my money…The kid might use this cash for drugs, alcohol, etc…He should get himself together and make something of himself as I did…Lord, have mercy on Your child…How good a guy am I for helping out this poor fellow…I’ll show him my humility by asking for his prayers, too….He needs to know someone sees him as a person.
These warring thoughts were a mixture of genuine compassion for this human, made in the image of God, along with my love of money, my judgmentalism, and my pride. I could clearly recognize bleating of sheep and goats coexisting in my heart.
St Paul says:
…each one’s work [love for neighbor and God] will become evident; for the day will show it because it is to be revealed with fire, and the fire itself will test the quality of each one’s work. If anyone’s work which he has built on it remains, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved, yet only so as through fire. (
God’s love is fire. It is experienced by sheep as a comforting, loving embrace and by goats as a consuming inferno.
A couple of hours later I was headed back toward my car. The homeless young man was still sitting by the tree. He saw me coming and his countenance brightened. In his stilted speech, he said “Hey, Mr. Mike! How are you doing! I’ll be sure and pray for you.”
I had forgotten his name.
The embarrassment of the moment was God’s gift to me. He gave me a brief, albeit painful glimpse into the smallness of my own heart as I was once again blistered by the fire of God’s transforming love for me as it burned away a bit of my broken self.
St John Chrysostom said, “The rich exist for the sake of the poor. The poor exist for the salvation of the rich.” I need people like this homeless man in my life; I need everyone in my life. How I respond to those whose paths I cross affords God the opportunity to reveal to me my inner sheep and goat. If I am willing for God to show me the state of my true heart, and if I will endure the resulting shame, repent for it, and accept God’s unfathomable forgiveness and love for me…well, this is the path to salvation, isn’t it: to descend with Jesus into the hell of my own heart where, I pray, He will raise me up to eternal life with Him.
The heart itself is but a small vessel, yet dragons are there, and there are also lions; there are poisonous beasts and all the treasures of evil. But there too is God, the angels, the life and the kingdom, the light and the apostles, the heavenly cities and the treasuries of grace—all things are there.