Our acts of compassion should be as natural as breath. In our lesson this morning, Jesus speaks to his audience in a parable about righteousness. Using the image of a shepherd separating the sheep from the goats, Jesus paints a picture of what it looks like when our lives reflect mercy or unkindness.
The thing about sheep and goats is that, to the untrained eye, they can be hard to distinguish. There are subtle differences in the tail, the ears, the eyes, the coat, even the smell that are helpful to tell them apart. Even then, though, it’s not foolproof. And so, the only thing that can truly separate the sheep from the goats is the seasoned eye of a professional. In the case of the parable, it’s the shepherd alone who can draw the dividing line, sending the sheep one way and the goats the other.
The story ends with the sheep in everlasting life and the goats in eternal punishment. What is particularly striking is the fact that those that are judged have no such recollection of their behavior. For the righteous, as they enter into paradise, they are told that they have served Christ himself with kindness: feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the lonely and abandoned. And yet, they have no memory of this.
As for the unrighteous, even though the end of their story is quite different, their surprise matches that of the righteous. As they are told that they have greeted Christ with indifference – ignoring the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the imprisoned, the stranger, they claim to have no memory of this at all.
For the characters in the parable, it is as if their behavior, whether in cruelty or gentleness, has become nothing more than a reflex. It has left the realm of conscious choice and entered the land of unthinking. Their actions, for good and for ill, have become a kind of muscle memory.
It reminds me of the apocryphal story of Jim Thorpe, one of the first superstar athletes. Thorpe won gold medals at the 1912 Olympics in the decathlon and pentathlon. He then went on to play professional football, baseball, and basketball. There is a legendary story told about him that he once tried to spend a day mimicking the movements of a newborn baby. He gave up, exhausted, after only a few hours. The constant action was simply too much.
Whether or not the story actually happened, there is some truth to it. Infants have to learn how to do everything. Through a grueling process of trial and error, they figure out how to focus their eyes, control their voices, manipulate their muscles in order to move parts of their body. Things that we might take for granted, such as the simple act of waving one’s arm, are actually not that simple. It’s just that we have practiced them to the point that they we do it with no clue how we actually managed to make it happen.
And while it might be difficult for us to imagine that process of learning how to talk and walk, we actually still do this all the time. We are always taking what is learned and internalizing it to the point that it becomes automatic.
If you’ve ever had to go through some kind of physical therapy after an injury or a surgery, you know what I’m talking about. Those are the moments where you are made aware of things you take for granted. I remember breaking my thumb in a glamorous sports injury. After several months of keeping it immobile, the muscles had atrophied to the point of near uselessness. Every day I had to practice things like bending it, pushing down on it – a little at a time, until I regained that full use. After a while, it was as though the injury had never occurred in the first place. But it took work to get to that point.
Maybe you’ve never experienced such an injury. But think about something like starting up a car. When you first learn to drive, you sit down, close the door, put on your seatbelt, check your mirrors, put the key in the ignition, put your foot on the brake, turn the key…After doing this several hundred times, though, it becomes almost one smooth, unthinking motion. “When did we do all this?”
That kind of automatic reflex should be our goal. The unconscious compassion of the sheep in the parable, the righteous ones, should be the kind of unintentional beauty we create. And there is only one way for that to happen: through practice. When we emulate the shepherd, learning through seasoned experience the differences between sheep and goats, separating them eventually becomes second nature. But it doesn’t begin that way. It takes time.
Whether it’s a spiritual discipline like prayer or study or service, these are things that take patience and effort. The more we do it, the closer it comes to being effortless. And then, one day, we cross that threshold unaware that our acts of compassion have become as natural as breath.
The subject of our upcoming Engage series is evangelism. I know that “evangelism” is a word with a lot of loaded meaning, and I feel like I have spent a lot of time trying to unload it so that we can engage the subject afresh. Let me just say today that what I mean when I say “evangelism” is the ability to share your faith with the same thought, intention, and care that you share any other part of your life. It is probably more accurate to say that the goal of Engage is to learn evangelism with integrity.
You see, that’s just the thing: sharing our faith should be the kind of thing that we do automatically, naturally, reflexively – not with manipulation or confrontation, but with the same kind of smooth, natural action we have when we wave our hand, when we start up the car. “When did we share our faith with you?” We shouldn’t even be aware that it’s happening. And that’s the kind of thing that can only come with practice – the practice that our Engage series begins to offer us. I heartily encourage you to take part, so that we become like the sheep – not a mindless herd, but an amazing, lithe, fluid force for good in the world.
And lest we forget, there is always the possibility that we mind end up like the goat. Without the kind of practice that kindness requires, we risk falling back into habits of indifference, ignoring the vulnerable and weak and marginalized. The worrisome thing is that this, too, can become an unthinking reaction. If that’s the path we take, we do so at our own peril.
And that’s just it: it would be one thing if our behavior would only affect others. As a force for good, the repercussions would be incredible, taking the potential for grace within each of us and sending its waves out into the world. It’s a transformative possibility! Sadly, the same is true for our ill will. It can send out ripples far beyond what we can imagine.
And it would be another thing if our behavior would only affect ourselves, sending us to the left or the right of the glorious throne. The crucial point of the parable, though, is that our behavior affects Jesus himself!
This is both the risk and the gift of the sheep and the goats, of unconscious mercy and reflexive uncaring. When we meet others, it is as though we are meeting Christ. And therein, I believe, lies the key: Learn to expect Jesus in others. If we manage that, we are capable of incredible acts of grace and compassion!
Doing so takes practice. We might do well to have a mantra that runs through our head, especially when we meet up with those who seem particularly un-Jesus-like, something that would remind us that this person is every bit as beloved of God as we are. Whether it’s a co-worker, or a neighbor, or a family member, perhaps it would help to consciously think, “child of God; child of God; child of God…”
It is through careful discipline that this way of looking at others, looking at the world is internalized. That’s when our muscle memory will kick in, when our acts of compassion become as natural as breath, as the breath of God, within us.
This is the goal of our Engage study series, that we would practice together the subtle art of expecting Jesus in everyone we meet. I hope you will be a part of this incredible opportunity.
Friends, my prayer today is that the work God begins within us will not only move among us, but out into the worlds we inhabit and, indeed, into the world that God loves and desires and redeems.
May it be so.