They are not now, nor have they ever been, the least of "those."
We've done a pretty good job at making such a distinction as Christians. We are the Christians, the righteous good, the servant-minded, the well-off and rich and helpful Christians. They are the naked, the hungry, the thirsty, the sick, the imprisoned. No longer do we count the least as these, but those. Those over there. Those far removed from us. Those whose world we hardly understand but dare step down and try to touch every now and then with our vast goodness. Those.
We like to compartmentalize, to say that here, where we are, there are these - these Christians, these comfortable people, these fairly-well-off. And over there, in the mission field, far away, on the other side of the tracks, there are those - those who become the object of our outreach, those we feed and clothe and shelter, those we are sent to serve.
Jesus says no, not those. These. The least of these. You can imagine Him pointing a finger, waving a hand to indicate the encompassing nature of the word. These, around us. These, in our midst. These on this very hill, on this very street, in this very town. These right next to you. These, included; these, a part of "us."
The least of these are among us. Right here. Right now. Today, tomorrow, and forever among us.
I ought to know. I am the least of these.
The least of these are hungry, and I have known hunger. The least of these are thirsty, and I have known thirst. The least of these are naked, and I have stood naked. The least of these are sick. Lord, have I intimately known sick. The least of these are imprisoned, and I have been locked down. (No, I have never been in jail. Never even had a speeding ticket, but I know imprisoned.)
It would be easy at this point to get into my story, and there is a day coming when I'm going to do a little bit of that because God's burdening my heart maybe to do so, but that day is not today. Because this is not a story about the least of me; this is a story about the least of these, and I don't want you today to see my story; I want you see Jesus.
Because that's who I see.
When I have been hungry, I have been fed. Thirsty, I have been given drink. Naked, I have been clothed. Sick, I have been encouraged. Imprisoned, I have been visited. And never - I want you to hear me on this - never have I received any of the above from any of "those." It's always been "these."
It's been people who never thought of me as a mission, as a project. It's been people who didn't believe their calling in life was to send an aid package and take a step back. It's been people that I have been honored to fellowship with day after day after day, year after year, people who have invested more in me than the tangible needs of the least of these; they have given their time, their hearts, their homes, the fullness of themselves and the incredible goodness of God to meet me where I've been. Today, as so many days in the past, as so many days as the least of these, I stand with them. We are these. And we're bringing more people in.
That is the mission of Christ. Not that there are ever these and those, but that there are only these - each and every man as a part of one body of Christ. Each and every man on this very hill, on this very street, in this very town - we are these. As easy as it is for us to distance ourselves by serving the least of those, Christ's mission for us is that we understand and love the least...of these. That we know we are all one, we are all together. That we stop dropping in and dropping off supplies and taking a step back. That we instead bring in and bring together and build up and give place so that even the least of these know that at least, these are these. These are among us. These are a part of us. These are us.
Even if I had never been hungry a day in my life. If I had never been thirsty or naked or imprisoned. If I had never been sick (one can only wish), I would still consider myself the least of these. Whether there is depravity in my living or not, there is depravity in my heart. It is the harsh reality of living this side of Eden, this side of Heaven. But at least I am these, I am among us, I am sitting on the hill listening to Jesus talk about one such as me.
And I am knowing His hand that reaches out to feed me. His Living Water that gives me drink. His righteousness that clothes me. His presence that visits me. His strength that encourages me. Through His word and His love, and through His children who are also these.
The least of these.