I want to talk about dead people. Not Ghosts. This isn't Sixth Sense, “I see dead people,” ESP, psychic stuff. This isn't even zombies, either, although these dead people are walking around among us. Jesus Christ is life itself. I am the resurrection and the life, he said, and if what he says is true, and as Christians, we DO believe that he is the source of life, then anyone without Jesus is not alive but dead, dead in their sins.
This might prompt us to reach out to non-believers more, because this is not just a matter of someone not believing NOW and LATER succumbing to everlasting death. No, these people are dead NOW. Our culture pushes individualism and believing only in yourself and self-centeredness, and the result of these teachings is that we end up being stressed out and literally dead people walking about. Christ teaches us to put ourselves LAST. He teaches us how to put God first, and then our neighbor, and last of all ourselves. And the stress melts away. We relax. We can feel the life flooding through our souls.
In Ezekiel 34, we read in the early part of the chapter, God condemn the false shepherds because they feed themselves instead of the sheep. Isn't that we are taught from birth in this culture? We are taught to feed ourselves. And you would think that feeding ourselves made us healthy, but it does not. We are engorging ourselves, and that makes us dead people walking around.
The Lord says in the second part of Ezekiel 34 that he himself will be the shepherd, for he is the only one who can properly care for the flock. We feed ourselves, but God will rescue his sheep. He will know his sheep, because they are the thin and weakly ones. The fat, strong ones are the ones who have been feeding themselves, so he will separate them out.
We see this mirrored in our Gospel passage, where the Son of Man will come in his glory and separate out the people from each other, just like between sheep and goats. Now, here the conditions of separation are whether the certain person has cared for the least of these in the flock. Has the person fed himself, as it says in Ezekiel, or has he fed the sheep? Jesus calls Peter to feed his sheep at the end of John's Gospel, and that isn't just a message for Peter. That's a message for us. Are we feeding ourselves, like the culture tells us to do, or are we feeding the sheep, like the Lord tells us to do? Are we fat dead people or thin living people?
Now, here's something that is a little difficult to grasp. There are dead people who are great philanthropists and who give to charity and who use their money to travel to other countries and give their time and money to help others. These are people that surely deserve to be called blessed by the Father and who will inherit the kingdom, because they are doing the Father's will—they are caring for the least of these, and therefore they are caring for Jesus. That is what Jesus wants, right?
Well, there's another way to look at this passage. The phrase, “just as you did it to one of the least of these, you did it to me,” is a symmetrical phrase. It's kind of like forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us in the Lord's Prayer. There is no reason to think that just because “forgive us our sins” comes first, we don't have to forgive those who sin against us until we know we have been forgiven by God. In fact, because we forgive others, God forgives us, and it is easier to forgive others when we know that God has forgiven us. It's a balanced statement. It's circular. One feeds the other and back and forth.
Same with “just as you did it to the least of these you did it to me.” It's easy to think that anyone who serves the poor with their time and money has earned his way into the kingdom of heaven, because it says right there that when one serves the poor, he is serving Jesus. But this is a balanced statement, too. This is a circular statement, too. When our intentions are to serve Jesus through our serving the poor—when we have Jesus in mind when we serve the poor—that is when we are doing the will of the Father. When we can say to ourselves, “I am caring for the least of these, because this is how I properly care for my Lord and Savior,” then we are inheriting the kingdom. When our motives—our intentions—are for Christ, that is when our deeds have true heavenly meaning. Because our faith in Jesus Christ is feeding our works, not the other way around. If someone is acting like Albert Schweitzer or Florence Nightingale or Mother Theresa and his or her intentions are not toward Jesus Christ. If that person is not picturing Jesus' face on the poor people he or she is serving . . . all those good deeds are worth nothing. No kingdom is inherited. We are still feeding ourselves and not our sheep after all. We are still dead.
Look at John 13, where Jesus washes the disciples' feet. Verse 3 begins, “Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up...” and began the process of washing the disciples' feet. His mind was on the Father. His mind was on God. His focus and intent was on the Lord's will.
Jesus died on the cross, and when he was resurrected from the dead, he had this conversation with Peter: three times he asks Peter if he loves him. Peter responds yes. Then comes the next part—the conclusion: feed my sheep. We cannot feed the Lord's sheep if we do not love Jesus. Jesus has to be first in our hearts and minds, or all of our good deeds fall into the void of nothingness. Love Jesus, serve him, and we will be able to love and serve the least of these. Put Jesus first and feed his sheep and inherit the kingdom.