We Are Children

For many years I have tracked news from around the globe and around the city where I live, wherever that happens to be at the time. One thing has always been abundantly clear– something is tragically off. So I’m not alone in my inclination to throw up my hands and head to the observation deck. As a follower of Jesus, we could just watch the churn from a place of safety far above the fray while we wait for his return. While the nations (and neighbors) rage, we can wait it out. We may even believe there is truly nothing efficacious we can do because. . . total depravity. Sin will always abound. Indeed, we don’t really want to get involved in matters so steeped in the reality of the nature of sin. They may stain us! Thus, we plan for the long game, pick up our coffee (or coke) and book (or phone) and watch (or scroll). And wait. 

We are like the siblings who are left at home while the parents are away. 

The parents put a child in charge as they head out the door. When a fight breaks out between the siblings, the parents expect the appointed child to get involved and help resolve the argument. This child has tools of mediation because the parents have taught and modeled how to intervene in the situation. The appointed sibling has a mandate to immerse in the chaos. It is their responsibility.

Sounds great in theory. In practice, that’s rarely how it works.

I was one of the older siblings in a brood of five. When an argument between the siblings arose while our parents were away, I remember yelling at them, insisting they stop fighting. When that didn’t work, before I was at risk of getting punched myself, I walked away. I threw up my hands, resigned to the reality that siblings fight and there’s nothing I could do about it. They wouldn’t obey me. Maybe I grabbed a book and went to my room, my place of safety and solitude, removed from the cares of the household. I could hear the cacophony of teasing and scrapping about, but it was no longer my concern. I tried.

I could say I loved my brothers and desired peace in the household, but my practice was isolationism and retreat. I desired peace at zero personal cost.

Parents have certain expectations of their children. We teach, train and, more importantly, model tools to resolve conflict during our absence. We model how to care for and speak to one another. If the child with the tools and mandate to intercede slinks away, unharmed and detached from household troubles, it is because they know the others won’t bother them. They have the privilege of escaping. 

But what about the small, vulnerable sibling who is beaten up in the meantime? Or the little one trying to make his lunch, but he’s two-years-old and no one will help him? The youngest continues to cry, but his wails mix with the din of the sibling roar and become indistinguishable from the rest of the emotional mess. It becomes overwhelming. The one who was delegated to immerse in the household as a peacemaker rationalizes through the situation. I can’t really do anything about it. I’m not going to worry about it, because when my parents come home, they’ll deal with it. All will be made right.

They ignore the burden of accountability.

In Matthew 25, Jesus tells the story of a master who gives talents to his servants. Just as parents leave an equipped child in charge, the master delegated various levels of authority to his trained servants. And, like the parents, the master leaves. The servants know the master’s plan, they’ve caught his vision. They have the tools and authority to work in the master’s name. So, what do they do with the talents? They get to work, investing and growing the master’s talents.

There is one servant, however, who doesn’t put the master’s talent to work. He slinks off to his proverbial room, to his safe place of indifference and laziness, because he is fearful (Matthew 25:25). When the master returns, this servant is arrogant enough to blame the master for his own inexcusable neglect. “Lord, I thought I was being a faithful steward of all that you’ve given me by not taking any risks and not putting myself in any vulnerable situations. I knew you would judge me one day because of what I have and have not done with the talent, so I took the path of least resistance and stayed in my safe place. I thought at least you would praise me for keeping myself safe, stewarding my personhood. When you return, at least you’ll still have me!”

That servant isn’t called savvy and judicious. He is called worthless. He is worthless in that his actions were not profitable or contributing to the master’s domain. His “effort” is worth nothing. He is condemned to an existence apart from his master and cast into utter darkness, the place of weeping and gnashing of teeth (Matthew 25:30). 

Jesus, of course, is the master. And the Master, the Son of Man, will return in glory at a time of the Father’s choosing, with “all his holy angels with him, and he will sit on his glorious throne” (Matthew 25:31-46). The story of the Son of Man’s return on the day of judgment is recorded by Matthew immediately following the parable of the talents. 

The Son of Man calls all the nations to himself and pronounces judgment on those who were given the talents, the training, the means by God’s common grace to step into the situation, to be present and active. But many went to their safe place. They buried their talent– their equipping, their gifts, their resources. They knew the Lord would return to make things right, so they just waited it out and neglected the hurting, the stranger, the naked, the sick and those in prison. It was just too costly to get involved. It takes too many talents for such a risky venture. Best to put them in a safe place until the master returns. Could he fault them for that?

Yes, actually, he can. And does. Our master has given us all the tools and training we need to be an active presence in our earthly home. Like a parent, he did not call us to close ourselves up in a closet– or put our lights under a lamp– until he returns. His divine power has given us everything we need to live the life of godliness in the house, apartment complex, village, country and planet in which he has placed us. If we live with him and walk with him, like a child does with a parent, how can we deny that our knowledge of him and communion with him is inadequate for the calling he has placed on us, the mandate he has given us?

Some of us live in self-imposed isolation and self-righteous exile. We don’t know where the hungry and hurting reside because we’ve cut ourselves off from the outside. We don’t listen to local news and don’t walk our streets. We think we’re the only ones with legitimate hurts. We think we’re the ones that can’t take a risk. And we think isolationism is a term used exclusively for geopolitical circumstances. It’s not. It can also be the posture of our heart and hands. 

My son recently learned how to spell ‘isolationism.’ Of course, his nine-year-old inquiring mind also wanted to know the definition. I expressed the meaning through story. I learned this historical account when I visited the National Holocaust Memorial Museum a few miles from our home.

The ocean liner St. Louis set sail from Germany in May 1939 with 937 Jewish passengers on board. Most had applied for visas for the United States. They sailed to Cuba, where they had a landing permit, to await approval of their U.S. visas. When they arrived in Cuba, their permit was revoked and they were forced to leave Cuba’s harbor. 

The German captain of the ship, sympathetic to the plight of the refugees, sailed off the coast of Florida, close enough to see the lights of Miami. They waited for President Roosevelt to make a decision to grant visas. He never responded to their pleas. The State Department and the White House had “decided not to take extraordinary measures to permit the refugees to enter the United States. A State Department telegram sent to a passenger stated that the passengers must ‘await their turns on the waiting list and qualify for and obtain immigration visas before they may be admissible into the United States.’ ” 

With nowhere to dock, the ship sailed back to Europe. Some Jews were granted access to Great Britain. Others found refuge in Belgium, France and the Netherlands, but these were ultimately not safe havens. Some were able to emigrate before the Nazi invasion of Western Europe. Even so, 254 of the individuals who saw the lights of Miami died in the Holocaust. 

The St. Louis account stirred a sense of righteous indignation when I read it on the placard on the museum wall. When I told the story to my son, he was shocked. That was a century with too many injustices to count. Yes, there are other storied examples of isolationism. But even my son clearly understood the isolationist political position that, in a democracy, was undergirded by the voices and votes of the people. Isolationism also manifests itself in the home, in interpersonal conflict and shirking of responsibilities. In every instance it is ugly. In one instance, it’s far removed. In another, it’s in our heart.

What about my century? My today? Did the citizens of Miami who saw the lights of the ship off the coast call their congressman and demand action? Or did they even know they were there? Perhaps they didn’t read the news or listen to the wireless. Perhaps they didn’t know. Perhaps even if they did know, it wouldn’t have impacted their hearts and hands. Perhaps later many claimed they would have done something if they had only known, if they had only known the future for the passengers was the Holocaust.

If you think this blog is about immigration policy, you’re missing the point. Do we have to know the future to engage in the now? 

In his legendary song “The Sheep and the Goats,” Keith Green sings about these people, people who claim they would have done something if only they had known. They claim to not know there was a need for active engagement and personal risk. Yet their lack of knowledge about the need wasn’t their greatest oversight. The most egregious act of ignorance was their belief that in the future they wouldn’t be held accountable for it. They plead ignorance on the day of judgment. 

But Lord, they will cry. When were you sick, hungry or hurting?! 

You weren’t one of those creepy people who used to come to the door, were you? 

Lord, that wasn’t our ministry. We just didn’t feel led, you know? 

Lord, when were you sick? What did you have, anyway?

Well, at least it wasn’t fatal. Oh, it was?

I’m sorry Lord, I would have sent you a card. . .

On this last day, however, it seems Christians are offered an out. It is the nations that are judged for how they treat the suffering brethren of Jesus (Matthew 25:40), right? We could easily read this passage to mean we must prioritize the Church because that is true service to Jesus. Yet that’s still millions upon millions of people, so we have a tendency to place further qualifications on what kind of Christian brothers and sisters we will take risks for. In an effort to narrow the scope and make it more suitable to our expectations and priorities, we ask, “Who, indeed, are my brethren?”

The picture of the suffering brethren looks remarkably familiar. This wounded, thirsty, hungry, and naked sibling in Christ shares a striking resemblance to the stranger laying on the side of the road to Jericho.

Jesus told the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) in response to a scribe who asked: “Who, indeed, is my neighbor?” The scribe knew the law: ‘Love the Lord God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and your neighbor as yourself.” Instead of seeking justification through the means God ordained, he asked this question to justify himself. He was not seeking to change anything about his habits and manner of life. He just wanted to be affirmed. He was hoping Jesus would say, “Good job! You’re doing great! You’re good to go!” 

We often ask both questions– “Who is my brother?” and “Who is my neighbor?”– not because we’re eager to serve and lay down our life, but because we want to throw down a measuring line. We want to sort people into buckets of ‘worth a risk’ and ‘not worth a risk.’ We want to justify the choices we’ve made, lifestyles we inhabit and the gods we serve. Then we think we’ll be excused on the day of Christ’s return. I didn’t think he was my brother! I didn’t know they were my neighbor!

But the Lord doesn’t listen to those excuses. He gave his Word. He gave his example. He gave his followers himself. Those who make excuses find themselves in the company of the servant who did not invest his talent– separation and eternal punishment. 

Yet, marvelously, we do not sit in isolation, condemned. Christ calls us to community with his people, to serve Him with intention. “Thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of him everywhere. For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing. . .” (II Cor 2:14,15). We are the aroma to God, the sweet smelling incense rising as worship to him as we immerse ourselves among those who are saved and those who are not. We are engaged and involved in both of those people groups. 

And we are not alone. He is with us in this task. Until we die or Christ returns, let us be about his business, leaving our cocoons of comfort and familiarity, and running toward the spiritually and physically hurting and hungry. We are his children, the sheep of his pasture. His immeasurable abundance is poured out on his sheep so we can pour it out in greater measure. On that final day, we will enter his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise, giving thanks to him and the work he has done in and through us for the sake of the brethren and the world.

Also, if you happen to leave your kids home alone, make sure you’ve trained them and modeled righteous justice. Hold them all accountable when you return. It’s a good reminder that there’s no expiration date on accountability this side of the new creation.

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