Caring for the Least

Seven Practices that Shape Us  •  Sermon  •  Submitted
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Growing as a disciples is not so much about what you know but about what you do. If we want to see growth in our lives we must order our lives around practices that shape us for discipleship.


Opening Prayer

Let’s open with prayer. If you have a prayer concern, just offer it up out loud in this space. It can be a situation, a need, a family member or friend. When I sense we are finished I will close out our prayer.
Lord, grow us to be people open to your Spirit and ready to answer your call. Amen.


Intro series: Seven Practices that Shape Us...
This morning I want to talk about the third practice that I believe is foundational to the Christian life, and which I hope our church will be built on. I call it Caring for the Least. We see throughout history that the church has always taken the lead in caring for those on the fringes of society. It was Christians who stayed behind in times of plague to care for the sick and dying. It was Christians who rescued abandoned infants from trash heaps when they had been left out to die. It has been Christians who have established orphanages to care for children who have no parents. It has been the Church who has pooled it resources to build hospitals to attend to the needs of the sick.
The church has done these things because the church has understood a truth that runs throughout Scripture: God has a proclivity toward the least of these. Throughout our Bibles we can see four distinct groups emerge that warrant God’s special attention: the poor, the immigrant, the widow, and the orphan. Together, these represent all who are on the fringe of society - the outcast, the vulnerable, the defenseless, the weak. These are the least of these. In one of Jesus’ most strongly worded parables regarding the judgment of the nations in Matthew 25, he describes his true followers as those who took notice of the least, saying “for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me” (Matthew 25:35–36, NRSV). But to those who claimed to be his followers, but who did not do these things “Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’” (Matthew 25:41–43, NRSV)
We all feel the need to see justice done. We want to receive justice when we’ve been wronged, and we want to see that others receive justice when they have become victims. The kingdom of God is one where God’s justice and righteousness flows to all its citizens - and particularly those who are the most vulnerable in society. We, as the agents and vehicle of God’s kingdom, are called therefore to make the care of the least of these one of our highest concerns. When this happens we demonstrate the good news that the kingdom of God has broken into history through the redeeming work of Jesus Christ.


Let’s turn to our passage for this morning. I’m going to focus on verses 13-16, Jesus blessing the children, but I wanted to look at the context around it first. One thing we must remember as we read the Gospels, really the Bible in general, is that those writing under the inspiration of the Spirit weren’t merely journalists; they are theologians who are putting their account together not only to inform but to make theological points. This passage, when viewed from a high level, is contrasting those who were the least in society with those who were privileged.
Jesus first addresses the issue of divorce. Why was divorce such a big deal to God? We can say that primarily, marriage symbolically reveals the oneness of the Trinity; it is intended to be a visible picture of the oneness, love, and mutual delight that exists within the Trinity. But from a pragmatic standpoint, God hated divorce because divorced women became vulnerable women. Exploited women. In a time when women had very little rights and were not able to hold property, to be divorced was to leave you will few options. If you had a male relative who would take you in that was one option. Or you could beg. Or you became a prostitute. Those were about the only options available to you. Either way, divorced women were some of the most marginalized people in society.
Then we see Jesus respond to children. I’ve always only heard this passage shared as a message that ultimately highlighted children’s ministry and came with an appeal to volunteer. But at a high level, Mark is showing another example of those who were the least of society. Children, like women, had no rights and no status in society. There were no child labor laws protecting them, no Dept. of Human Services that could take them out of an abusive home. They also represent those who are the least in society.
And then Mark moves to the story of the rich young man. Lots of applications can be made about this story all by itself, but when contrasted with what came before, we also see that Mark is holding in contrast those who are most vulnerable in society with those who are most privileged. In fact, Jesus’ words to the rich man was for him to go sell all he had. Why? To give it to the poor so that he would have treasure in heaven. And the rich man went away grieved because he was unwilling to do it. He loved his money and privilege more.
Taken together, the first thing we see is Jesus’ grief - grief over the plight of those who are the least, and grief over the blindness or callousness of those who are privileged, those who could make a difference but choose not to. And the first hard thing this passage asks of us is, “Which group do we fit in?” Are we more like the divorced woman and the child, or are we more like the one who is privileged? That’s something each of us has to wrestle with on our own.

Blessing the least

I want to pull a few things out of verses 13-16 before I offer some general applications.
V. 13 - people are wanting to bring their small children to Jesus to receive a blessing from him. Blessings in this culture carried significance - it was assumed that the blessing by those who were righteous would be heard and acted upon by God. So they wanted Jesus to bless their kids. But the disciples “spoke sternly to them” meaning, the disciples told them to leave Jesus alone. “Stop bugging Jesus with those who are insignificant” seems to be the general attitude. Disciples: “Jesus doesn’t have time for the least.”
V. 14 - when Jesus heard this he was “indignant”. This is the only time in the Gospels where this word is used. Essentially, Jesus got mad. He got angry that his disciples would shoo the children and parents away. The disciples attitude might have reflected the attitude of the day, but not for Jesus. Jesus did not see something of insignificance; he saw something of great worth when he saw the children. In this act, Jesus shows that there is no one who is insignificant, unworthy, or least in his eyes; everyone is welcome, everyone has eternal worth and significance. Jesus: “I came for the least.”
What had to be perplexing to the disciples is what he says next: let the children come to me “for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs”. It’s been speculated that what Jesus is blessing is a child’s virtues; their innocence, purity, or humility. But none of these things are mentioned. They aren’t blessed for their virtues but for their lack; they come only as they are - small, powerless, and overlooked in society. Jesus is saying that to receive the kingdom of God as a child is to receive it as one who has no credits, no clout, no claim. A child has nothing to bring, and whatever a child receives, he or she receives on the basis of sheer neediness. They come as the least, only with hands that need to be filled, and Jesus is happy to fill those hands.
V. 15 - Jesus stresses this posture of neediness when he says that only those who come in this way will enter God’s kingdom. Here is another example where Jesus flips conventional thinking on its head. It’s not the rich, the powerful, the important that will inherit the kingdom. It is the very opposite. The weak, the marginalized, the vulnerable. Not those who are considered important, but those who are considered least. Jesus: “You must become like the least.”
V. 16 - the passage ends with Jesus demonstrating physically his love and care for those who are least. He gathers the children into his arms and blesses them. Jesus does this throughout his entire ministry. The leper, the woman of ill repute, the broken, the sinful - all these people Jesus gathers to himself, showing beyond doubt that the least are at the forefront of Jesus mission. They will be the first to benefit when the righteousness of the coming kingdom is finally revealed. Jesus: “I will gather and fill the least”.


What can we apply from all this?
We should all “check our privilege”. Most of us, at least by the majority world’s standards, have some privilege. Americans hold that vast majority of the world’s wealth. Now I know that many of us are not rich by American standards, but compared to the rest of the planet, most of us have a good roof over our heads, plenty of food, electricity, a car, and numerous other conveniences. And, lest we forget this fact, we live in a country where we actually have some say in how we are governed - maybe not as much as we’d like, but neither are we living in an oppressive dictatorship like much of the world. We have privilege, and as a result we have to be careful to not fall into the trap of the rich man. The rich man isn’t judged for being privileged - he’s judged because he was unwilling to share with those who weren’t. We have to be careful not to let our wealth, our comfort, or privilege make us blind to the plight of the least. We have to guard against an attitude which says “they are only getting what they deserve.” I’ve said it, and you’ve probably said it or at least thought it as well.
We have the special privilege to attend to the needs of the least. You might remember the story where the woman broke an alabaster jar of expensive nard to pour on Jesus. She was criticized for such a wasteful display, that the money could have been given to the poor. But Jesus defended her, saying she had done him a good service, and that the poor you have with you always. He wasn’t being calloused to the plight of the poor; he was acknowledging that until the world is fully renewed in the new age, we will always have the least among us and therefore always have the special opportunity to attend to their needs. We can give over and above our regular tithe to supply our food pantry. We can keep food and water in our vehicles to give to those who beg at street corners. We can look in on retirees and widows to make sure they have basic necessities. There are endless ways to take part in this ministry that is so close to God’s heart. The question is whether we will have the eyes to see the need around us.
We can show solidarity with the least. Solidarity means to have unity in feelings or action with someone else. Not only can we help care for the least, but Jesus calls us to become like the least. To trade our posture of pride, or self-reliance, of independence, for an attitude of humility, of weakness, and neediness. Solidarity means being with the least. The issue with those who are least isn’t always solved by giving money. Sometimes what is needed is time and attention. We should ask a hard question: “If I was in the same shoes as someone who was poor, an immigrant, a vulnerable woman or child, what would I want someone to do for me?” And then do whatever it is that love demands. Jesus said it would be the meek who would inherit the earth, and today’s message invites us to chose the way of meekness and identify with the least.
We can take comfort that, when we are treated as the least, Jesus comes to our defense. Just as Jesus was indignant over the treatment of children, so he is indignant when you are mistreated, maligned, and marginalized. That same passion that aroused him to defend those children is the same passion stirred in him for your sake. And when Jesus is aroused to act, nothing can stand against him! He told the parable of a widow coming before an unjust judge day and night begging for justice. At first he ignored her, but finally she wore him down and he granted her request. Jesus says if this is true of an unjust judge, how much more will a just father in Heaven come to your aid. He finishes the parable saying, “And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them?” (Luke 18:7, NRSV) No! God comes to the defense of the least, and when we find ourselves regarded or treated as the least we should look up, for our salvation draws near. In Christ we are no longer the least, we are the chosen.
I am so thankful to be a part of a church movement - the Vineyard - that has made the care of the poor one of its primary values. This is as much a part of our DNA as anything else. I’m even more thankful to be a part of a local church that sees the value of those who are food insecure, those who are marginalized, and those who simply need a hand up. To all that I have said I would just add, “keep up the good work!” I’ll close with the apostle Paul: So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest time, if we do not give up.” (Galatians 6:9, NRSV)


Jesus surrounds himself with those considered least. On the night he was betrayed to death, he sat at the table with those who were least in the eyes of the world. And yet to these least he gave the keys to his kingdom and offered them a place at his side forever. This morning we who were least, but now chosen and loved, come to sit with Jesus again and eat the meal of the kingdom. In this meal is the promise that everything will be made right. Every injustice will be resolved. Every violation will be healed. Every outcast now has a home. Eat this meal in the joy that He is preparing a place for you, and that what you eat now in his physical absence, you will eat in his presence in the new creation.
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