Meatfare Sunday is a sad day for Paleo eaters everywhere. It marks the beginning of a period of time marked by hangry feelings and achy joints, largely because it’s much harder to turn away from bread during such a dire time. It seems I’ve only a few days left of hamburgers, bacon, and happiness.
Of course, I don’t want to seem like all I’m thinking about is the new Taco Bell “Quesalupa” (which hasn’t appealed to me, and probably won’t until the Fast actually begins). Meatfare Sunday, after all, is also the Sunday of the Last Judgment, which is far more sobering than being told to resist those chicken nuggets.
The Gospel reading for Sunday is a familiar one, I’m sure. The Lord tells a parable of a King who separates sheep from goats, and he (He) tells the sheep on his right hand that they are to be rewarded for feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, welcoming the stranger, and visiting those who are sick and in prison. Conversely, the goats are sent into punishment for not doing these things.
The kicker of the story, of course, is that the King identifies with those who are identified as needy here, telling the sheep and goats that insofar as they did or did not to the “least of these, my brethren, you did it unto me.”
This Gospel reading, however, has become so familiar to me that I now find myself thinking, “Yeah, yeah, I get it. I’m supposed to be like Jesus and serve those who are poor. I’m not doing a good enough job of it, so I really should get on that. Got it.”
While there is no doubt that this reading ought to be read as a call to action; I’m not sure that’s all it is.
I’ve often heard people speak of serving the poor as “being Christ to those in need.” This is actually a pretty bold claim. To think that I the wretched one could dare to identify myself with the Savior? Isn’t it somewhat bold to assume that what I’m doing in offering a morsel of bread to someone is actually salvific for them?
There certainly is an element of truth to this, that we are called to minister to those in need, just as Christ ministers to us, who are also in need. Yet I sometimes think that this is all part of my tendency to self-aggrandize, seeing myself as having some sort of cosmic significance, the star of my own reality TV show.
When I look at the Gospel reading this time, I’m struck by the fact that in this parable, Christ does not identify with those who serving, but rather with “the least of these,” those being served.
Now I don’t know about you, but when I bear this in mind, it seems even more preposterous to conceive that my act of serving the poor, of serving Christ, is somehow salvific for them. After all, I have never saved Christ; it He who does the saving.
Perhaps our service to “the least of these” is more for our own salvation than anyone else’s. Perhaps it is we who need to be saved from our self-aggrandizement.
I know that I’m likely to get swept away by service because of “how good it feels” to “give back a little.” We often talk about how it’s “more blessed to give than to receive” or how engaging with those who in need really helps us “feel more grateful for our blessings.” These positive feelings really build up after a nice stint of “feeding the homeless.”
While all these things might be relatively innocuous sounding, I think beneath them is still our sinful self-obsession. Central to each of these things is a sense that what really matters is what we get out of the encounter. “Feeding the homeless,” you see, is not meeting a need. It’s an easy way of feeling like we’re doing a good deed. To meet the truest and deepest need of a particular homeless person would be to provide a home, or at least some friendship to break the loneliness that builds up from years spent alone on the streets.
Whether we leave feeling like we’ve done a good deed or a little more grateful for what we have, when we approach service to the poor with these motives buried (and yes, they are buried deep) in our hearts, we are not actually serving those in need.
It will be no wonder, then, when we stand before Christ, we will hear that we, like the goats, did not do these things for Christ because we were too busy doing them for ourselves. We want to feel like the savior, we want to feel like we have our lives together, and so we try to take care of others, “giving them a hand up!”
I don’t mean to sound like a bummer in any of this, nor do I mean to discourage us from engaging in the almsgiving and service to those in need that is such an important part of Great Lent. I am encouraging us, however, to look into our hearts and repent of the self-aggrandizement (whether big or small) that partially fuels our care for those in need.
When we look at our neighbors in need, we are to look for Christ, trusting that He is beckoning us out of ourselves, so that we can actually become concerned with the need of another rather than our own. In this way, we are saved by actually encountering those in need.
Great Lent is a time of taking up the Cross, giving ourselves away for the life of the world. It would be a shame to have even our best intentions thrown off by impure motivations.
This Lent, I’m going to try my darnedest to step out myself, observe the need in front of me and attend to it the best I can. This is the path toward salvation, and I intend to walk it. I hope you’ll walk it with me.
Christian is a Young Adult Ministries Coordinator for Y2AM. He is a husband, father, mover, shaker, coffee drinker, sandal wearer, and CrossFitter. Christian has his MA from Azusa Pacific University in Marriage and Family Therapy and is working toward a second MA in Children, Youth, and Family Ministry from Luther Seminary. Christian and his family live in Phoenix, Arizona.