Many of you are familiar with Jesus’ parable of the separation of the sheep and the goats at the last judgment in Matthew chapter twenty-five. As Jesus speaks to the sheep He commends them for giving the hungry something to eat, giving the thirsty something to drink, giving the naked something to wear, seeing the sick and looking after them and visiting those who are in prison. As I thought of these simple acts of kindness and compassion my reaction was and often still is, “What is so great about doing something so simple? Couldn’t anyone do these things? Couldn’t the littlest child and someone who is mentally challenged do these things? Why do we even have to mention that these people need our attention and care?”
As we face the current pandemic and the public demonstrations that have sprung from the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis it seems to me that Jesus’ words are more profound and challenging than we might first believe when we read them in Matthew chapter twenty-five. Consider some of the sick in Jesus’ day. Consider the lepers who had to leave their communities and confine themselves in leper colonies. Many people fearing that they might catch leprosy if they got too close to a leper would find it very difficult to go to a leper colony to visit or bring food or to treat a leper’s wounds. Many of those who were in prison for robbery or murder would cause many people to ask why should I show any kindness to someone so cruel and cold blooded?
The challenge of Jesus’ words is that He makes us aware that the least of His brothers and sisters make us uncomfortable because it makes us aware that the reason we don’t always visit the sick and those in prison is that we are afraid of the sick and we don’t have an ounce of compassion for those rotten people in prison.
I know from my own experience how challenging these words are. I have been a hospital chaplain for thirty-four years and I am still afraid to visit the sick. Back in the nineteen eighties when AIDS patients were first appearing in the hospital I was afraid to enter the room of such a patient in spite of my gown and gloves and protective gear. I was even more afraid of where would I find the words to comfort the patients who were often sick and in pain and struggling with issues like being rejected by their families. To this day as I talk with young mothers dying of cancer who don’t want someone else to raise their children the challenges to bring peace and comfort are enough to make the most courageous person pause to go to that bedside. COVID -19 only ramps up our fears to an even greater degree.
So let’s look at our fear of looking after the sick. I discovered that a lot of my fear was based on what was I going to say. How would I explain things? How could I find the perfect answer? How could I take away the pain and grief of the person in that bed? The biggest thing that has lowered my fear has been my coming to understand that Jesus was already there. He says, ” I was sick and you visited me.” So I have found that if I don’t have to fix the person but instead I am there to visit, it changes the dynamic between us. I listen instead of talk. I draw near with an open heart and an open mind to see what the person in the bed can teach me instead of what I might teach them and time and time again I find that what I was going to say would not have been helpful. What I ended up saying after I listened had much more meaning and healing because I heard what the patient’s heart was saying.
I discovered much the same thing in my work with those in prison. I still remember a young man who was awaiting trial because he had sexually molested and murdered his girl friend’s young son. How could anyone forgive this man for such an unspeakable crime? As I got to know him over a course of many weeks I found that this man had more than one side to him. He was musical and artistic and thoughtful and gentle and I just couldn’t figure out how such a man could so such a violent thing. One day he told me that he was two people. There was the person that he could stand to live with and there was the person he couldn’t bear to look at. He had been sexually molested as a child and had been traumatized by that experience. He had never received any treatment for that experience. He had never talked to anyone about that experience and it didn’t surprise me that the walls he had erected to keep that pain away crumbled and the rage and hurt burst forth leading him to now have to spend the rest of his life in prison. I couldn’t commute his sentence. I couldn’t take away the damage done to him and the damage he had done to himself but I visited him and his heart was lifted that someone heard his story.
So the present pandemic and social unrest stirs our fears and brings up those ugly feelings of judgment we don’t always want to acknowledge are coming from our hearts. I am not going to march on the streets right now because of the pandemic and my age makes that an unwise thing to do should I contract the virus. But I am going to vote for people who believe in changing the way we treat people so that there is room at the table for everyone who is a part of our society. I am going to challenge views that judge people before you have talked with them and understood where they are coming from. I am going to continue to be a chaplain and work on my fears of entering the world of the sick.
And you, my readers, must also find your path. If you can’t go to people physically because of the pandemic you can call someone you know who is mourning the loss of a loved one. You can email. You can write a letter. You can make your voice heard. You see Jesus’ parable is not about the least of his brothers and sisters. It is really about how we see them and how we see ourselves. If we see them as beneath us and we are powerful and they are weak we will stay safe behind our walls. But if we see that the least of our brothers and sisters have so much to tell us and so much to show us then we will go to where they are.