I love Jesus’ parables. They are powerful illustrations of the kingdom, the King, and the principles by which He governs His realm. One such parable is in Matthew 25. In chapter 24, as He nears the end of His earthly ministry, Jesus explains to His disciples the signs of the end of time. He continues this end-time discussion in chapter 25 by showing how the righteous Judge will give His final review and verdict. Jesus does this by telling three stories: the parable of the ten virgins, the parable of the talents, and the parable of the sheep and the goats. These three parables are loaded with meaning and have received a thorough treatment by countless preachers and scholars. However, I compared what I call the “post-decision declaration” in each of the three parables. This led me to notice a significant difference between the first two parables and the third.
After Jesus pronounces each decision, the master in the story gives to the lost and left out a sort of final word. This post-decision declaration is a type of explanation as to why they were not being rewarded. To the foolish virgins, He says, “ ‘ “I do not know you” ’ ” (Matt. 25:11).1 Then, to the “ ‘ “wicked and lazy slave,” ’ ” He says, “ ‘ “you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest” ’ ” (v. 27).
But, the final parable stands out, not only for its verdict, but more so for the reason behind that verdict.
First, it stands out because it is so extensive. Jesus takes time to identify each person or group and to say how they were cared for. Then He reverses the entire explanation and provides for the wicked what is practically the same description, just with a negative twist. He is intentionally explicit. Second, this extensive explanation stands out because the explanation reads so simply and practically. These are things they could have, should have, been doing all along. These are things that they often claimed they stood for, yet they failed over and over to follow through. The master’s final words are chilling: “ ‘ “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me” ’ ” (v. 45).
Ellen White’s comment is noteworthy: “The world will be convinced not so much by what the pulpit teaches as by what the church lives. The preacher announces the theory of the gospel, but the practical piety of the church demonstrates its power.”2 We have preached sermons about the “least of these” countless times, and many people do not want to hear about this. They do not seem to remember “the least of these” either. We must be more intentional about how we communicate the gospel through acts of service.
Jesus talks very specifically about what matters to Him and what type of ministry makes Him take note. He makes it unequivocally clear that He identifies directly with the voiceless, forgotten groups in society that often receive our last-ministry considerations. Jesus identifies with “the least of these.” So, what are some ways we can be more intentional about reaching out to “the least”? A closer look at the parable illuminates some hidden opportunities for ministry to the forgotten groups. While space does not allow for a thorough explication of all the forgotten groups, a few specific examples will lift the spirit of the text and challenge our ministry.
Those who hunger
The first group of people that the Master highlights includes those who suffer from hunger. Clearly, there is so much more ministry to be realized for the hungry. Hunger outreach by the Adventist Development and Relief Agency may be vibrant across impoverished countries, yet even in wealthy nations many still struggle to find three square meals a day. According to hungerreport.org, “Hunger rates in the United States remain tremendously high in part because of a weak recovery since the end of the Great Recession.”3 The author argues further: “When the breadwinner in a household is out of work, everyone living under the same roof is at risk of hunger.”4
It is actually innovative to think that the way to fight hunger is to create jobs, given that traditionally our churches in the United States have set up food pantries to serve the hungry. The irony of our food pantry ministries is that they usually partner with the local food bank to serve food. And, generally, the food that comes from the food banks is food that the donors (even the ones who work in the food pantry) normally would not eat. So, the approach to hunger would be more effective if we tried a different tactic.
Consider the epidemic proportions of children who are growing up without adequate parental support, which limits proper food availability. Studies show that approximately 70 percent of African-American children in the United States are being raised in a single-parent home.5 This means that the vast majority of African Americans are at immediate risk “because the social, emotional, and financial resources available to the family may be limited.”6
In his book Father Hunger, Robert McGee contends, “This kind of emotional hunger acts in many ways just like physical hunger. If we aren’t provided with what is best for us, we will soon begin to seek other, less healthy, substitutes.”7 McGee adds that this hunger leads to the dangers of codependency, dysfunction, addiction, and the like.8 We need new ministries and strategies to feed the hungering children who sit in our pews and live in the communities where we pastor. We need mentoring programs and community centers to feed them with love, affirmation, and support.
In my previous district, one of the churches started a volunteer mentoring ministry at a local community center. We did not start a community center; we simply adopted one. Various members picked a day of the week and volunteered an hour for that day. We played games with the children, helped them with homework, and even put on a few basketball tournaments. One day, as I was sitting at a table playing a board game with a little girl, she asked me, “Are you my dad?” I was speechless. Then I began to realize how important it is for us to invest our time and energy with the children in our community.
Those who are sick
When Jesus thanks the righteous for their compassion for the sick, He does not say that they visited. He says, “ ‘ “I was sick and you took care of me” ’ ” (v. 36). We struggle to visit the sick regularly. We generally keep their names in the church bulletin and often mention their names at prayer meeting. They might get a quick visit if they have a committed pastor or exceptional elder. However, we do not do much to provide for their care and recovery.
Health-care costs continue to rise.9 In addition, unemployment persists. With the rising cost of health care, the exorbitant prices of medication, and the unemployment situation, we need solutions that provide quality care for the sick who are among us. And health is one of the areas with a special message we have to share with the world.
In the book Creation Health, Dr. Monica Reed and Dr. Des Cummings put a new twist on the eight laws of health. For years we taught NEW START; now there is CREATION.10 Same gospel, but a new acronym. It reminds us, “Embracing the CREATION Health prescription can restore health, happiness, balance, and joy. These eight principles are the Creator’s gift to help us experience life as He designed us to live it.”11
In what ways can we apply the eight laws of health in a nonconventional ministry to provide for the unique needs of our sick and shut in, chronically and terminally ill members? What about a task force deputized with ensuring that all our sick members have adequate sunlight, fresh air, and whatever type of exercise they can handle? What if we started a ministry to pay for the medication of (non) members who are in need?
What do we do for those in our midst who suffer from mental and emotional sickness? The wide prevalence of depression has led to depression being called the common cold of mental illness.12 Is there any consideration for those who are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after severe abuse or fighting in a war? What do we do for those who are not emotionally healthy? How do we show compassion and provide care to them?
I have long thought that, with all of the counselors in our churches, we can at least provide a regional guide for therapeutic and emotional support professionals. Or, why not start a grief support group for those who have experienced major loss? What about allowing Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous groups to utilize our ministry space?
My very first pastoral assignment was in a depressed rural town in Alabama. The largest employer was a small factory that made car parts. There seemed to be a disproportionate number of cancer cases in the area, which many people attributed to the water contamination crises that had plagued the area for years. I visited with community members who lamented that while cancer is one problem, the other one is their inability to afford treatment because the factory began laying off many of the workers due to outsourcing. It quickly became apparent that these women were deeply depressed concerning their situations. They needed real support. Although I offered no solutions, they were really glad that someone cared enough to listen and that they had an opportunity to share their frustrations.
Later on I would learn the values of this type of moral support. Years ago, while pastoring in the big city, I met Ruth. Everyone who knew her called her “Grandma.” She was 83 years old and very sick. She had a family, but she had no one to take her back and forth to her many doctor appointments. More than that, she needed someone to look after her affairs. During one of her many stints in the hospital, her son stole money needed to pay insurance costs and her mortgage. We helped her renegotiate the terms of her loan with the mortgage company and get caught up with all her bills. Clearly, Grandma Ruth was ready to die, but she was worried about her son and the other six children she had adopted. She, too, was depressed and very lonely. She had people all around her, but she was still lonely. Grandma Ruth taught me that sick and lonely people need our love and care.
Those who are in prison
Finally, Jesus says to the righteous ones, “ ‘I was in prison and you came to visit me’ ” (v. 36, NIV). I wonder how long it would take during a prison visit for an inmate to start talking about his or her children. Or, how long would it take for an inmate to start talking about worries and stress, depression and anxiety resulting from being locked up? Can you see how this is directly tied to the first two forgotten groups? “Father hunger” happens when Dad is in prison. More than that, Dad experiences PTSD and depression because of all the things he has endured and because he must now face the bleak prospects for his future release. And once released, he is often tempted to return to a life of crime because it is very hard to get a job when you have a felony conviction on your record.
Michelle Alexander expounds on this issue in her book The New Jim Crow: “Once a person is labeled a felon, he or she is ushered into a parallel universe in which discrimination, stigma, and exclusion are perfectly legal, and privileges of citizenship such as voting and jury service are off-limits. It does not matter whether you have actually spent time in prison; your second-class citizenship begins the moment you are branded a felon.”13
The irony of inmates not being able to find jobs after they have been released is evident in that all of them work while they are imprisoned.14 They are forced to work for pennies.15 So basically, the prison system denies them the right to provide for their families while the prison benefits from their labor. That is de facto slavery. Or, at the very least, it is a revamped form of convict leasing.16
What are we doing to protect prisoners from these types of injustices? What are we doing to provide a safety net for them once they are released? Can the church create systems for professional development, economic protection, and emotional support for these brothers and sisters who are at the greatest risk of falling through the cracks? What can we do to curb the hunger of their children? Maybe we should build a graduated halfway house with a job-training center and day-labor agency. Lots of our churches participate in Angel Tree style programs.17 Maybe we should create a ministry to provide for these children for every major holiday.
The church where I currently serve has a vibrant prison ministry. Church members minister in the prison facility on a regular basis, but even after the inmates are released, the ministry does not end. Church members and ministry leaders work to integrate them into church life. Just this past Sabbath, one brother stopped me to say, “Thank you for everything you all have done to help me since I got out.” Another young brother came who was released just last week. He asked for work because he was trying to earn enough money for travel across the country to visit his newborn son. He had worked numerous menial jobs but had not come up with enough money. He worked for two days cleaning the church and doing manual labor, and in return, we gave him the balance needed for travel fare. Although the money we gave him was not much, he was happy to tell me yesterday that he had purchased his ticket. He is excited to meet his son for the first time.
The refrain that keeps ringing in my mind is the moment when the king says, “ ‘ “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me” ’ ” (v. 45). This is a very compelling concept that Jesus identifies directly with those who are forgotten. And He bases our final reward on how we treat those forgotten ones.
In that very next line—the last verse—the finality of the judgment is expressed. “ ‘And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life’ ” (v. 46). If we want to be counted on the side of the righteous, we must be careful to care for the least of these—those who usually get the last consideration by our churches. We must care for them and minister to them, because when we do, when we reach down to help them up, we are looking into the very face of our Lord.
1 Unless otherwise stated, all Scripture references are from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible.
2 Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1948), 6:260.
3 “Full Employment in America,” Hunger Report, accessed June 17, 2014, hungerreport.org/issues/full-employment/.
5 Annie E. Casey Foundation, “Children in Single-Parent Families by Race,” Kids Count data center, accessed June 17, 2014, datacenter.kidscount.org/data/tables/107- children-in-single-parent-families-by#detailed/1/any/fal se/868,867,133,38,35/10,168,9,12,1,13,185/432,431.
6 S. McLanahan, The Consequences of Nonmarital Childbearing for Women, Children, and Society, in National Center for Health Statistics, Report to Congress on Out-of-Wedlock Childbearing (Hyattsville, MD: National Center for Health Statistics. 1995), cited in, “America’s Children: Key National Indicators of Well-Being, 2013,” childstats.gov, accessed June 17, 2014, www.childstats .gov/pdf/ac2013/ac_13.pdf.
7 Robert S. McGee, Father Hunger (Ann Arbor, MI: Vine Books, 1993), 18.
9 Paul Davidson, “Health Care Spending Growth Hits 10-Year High,” USA Today, April 1, 2014, www.usatoday.com/story/money/ business/2014/03/30/health-care-spending/7007987/.
10 The acronym NEW START stands for nutrition, exercise, water, sunlight, temperance, air, rest, and trust in divine power. CREATION stands for choice, rest, environment, activity, trust, interpersonal relationships, outlook, and nutrition. For more information, visit www.creationhealth.com.
11 Des Cummings Jr. and Monica P. Reed, Creation Health, Secrets for Feeling Fit and Living Long (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 2003), 15.
12 Jenna Baddeley, “Depression and Its Metaphors,” Embracing the Dark Side (blog), Psychology Today, November 3, 2008, www .psychologytoday.com/blog/embracing-the-dark-side/200811/ depression-and-its-metaphors.
13 Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, Reprint ed. (New York: The New Press, 2012), 92.
14 “Prison Labor,” Prison Policy Initiative, accessed June 18, 2014, www.prisonpolicy.org/prisonindex/prisonlabor.html.
16 Douglas A. Blackmon, Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II (New York: Anchor, 2009). Blackmon takes a look at the period post Civil War to Civil Rights and explores in detail the complex practice of convict leasing. Recently freed slaves were arrested on baseless charges and forced to work in labor camps like coal mines and railroads, where many died due to dangerous and unsanitary conditions. Blackmon contends that this revamped form of enslavement persisted until well into the 1940s.
17 “Angel Tree,” Prison Fellowship, accessed June 18, 2014, www.prisonfellowship.org/programs/angel-tree/.