When the Green Bay Packers’ Vince Lombardi, the eminently successful coach in the 1960s, was asked how he produced winning teams, he explained that any group of football athletes could win more games than they lost if they simply concentrated on the “little things,” the fundamentals of the game. After a narrow victory for the Packers, Lombardi called a special session for Monday morning because he felt his players were losing sight of the small details that guarantee victory. Standing before his players, he held a football above his head and announced: “Men, we need to review the basics of the game. This is a football.”
In the passage we heard from Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus has gathered his team, his disciples, around him for one of the last teaching sessions of his career. Throughout his ministry he has been trying to get his team to understand the meaning of the Reign of God—what it is, who is part of it, what is expected of those who want to part of it. He returns to fundamentals, and in the process he helps us to understand how the game of life is to be played.
One of the things he says is that discernment is part of the process because there comes a time when our choices and actions will be discerned as either worthy or unworthy. He says that nations and people come before the King, and there is a separating of people as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. But this judgment scene actually is taking place in our souls right now because we carry the Divine Presence within and we already know the answer. Engaging in discernment now allows us a chance to see what we’ve done with gthe gifts God has given us, and we can use that to advantage for the Reign of God. One morning in 1888, Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite, the man who had spent his lifetime amassing a fortune from the manufacture and sale of weapons of destruction, awoke to read his own obituary. The obituary was an error, of course, because it was actually his brother who had died. But Mr. Nobel was profoundly disturbed to read the headline that said the “Dynamite King,” had died. It was clear that this was how he was going to be remembered, and nothing else he had accomplished was even listed in the obituary. Nobel resolved to make clear to the world the true meaning and purpose of his life. And through the final disposition of his fortune, he established the most valued and prestigious prizes given to those who have done most for the cause of world peace, the arts, and sciences. For him this was the moment of discernment. Jesus reminds us that we must all give an accounting.
Jesus goes on to say that the discernment or judgment process results in surprise for some because some people are told that they had been rendering service to the King himself without even knowing it. Often we are not aware that an act of caring or compassion has any effect beyond our immediate view. We may never meet the family we helped by donating to the food bank. We might never shake hands with the man standing in his new shoes and belt, proud to have gotten his first job after having been incarcerated. We may never even see the woman dying of AIDS who, thanks to our generous giving, was provided with food and personal care items when even her family and friends were nowhere to be found. If you’ve never read the book, “The 5 People You Meet in Heaven”, I suggest you read it because as the book makes clear, one day we will all be surprised to discover whose lives we have impacted.
Jesus assures us that great noble acts aren’t what he’s talking about: it’s the small things. Food, shelter, the gift of our companionship. Our opportunity to please God will not be the result of some benevolent act that impacts all of humankind. It will be a small act of caring directed toward an individual.
Loving service is another part of the Reign of God. “I was sick and in prison,” says the King, “and you came to me.” We are sometimes challenged to do for others what they cannot do for themselves. Henri J. M. Nouwen, noted theologian and author, chose to leave his post at Harvard Divinity School to becoming one of the staff at Daybreak–a residential community for developmentally disabled people. A typical day at Harvard might have included lecturing to packed auditoriums, outside speaking engagements, interviews with magazine editors, and some quality time spent writing another book or magazine article for publication. At Daybreak, the day began by helping others out of bed, bathing, feeding, and clothing them. Tending to their physical, emotional, and spiritual needs as part of a ministry team fills the day. Nouwen shares what led to this change. “Most of my past life has been built around the idea that my value depends on my accomplishments. I made it through grade school, high school, and university. I earned degrees and awards, and I made my career. Yes, with many others, I fought my way up to the lonely top of a little success, a little popularity, and a little power. But as I sit beside the slow and heavy-breathing Adam (a resident of Daybreak), I start seeing how violent that journey was. So filled with desires to be better than others, so marked by rivalry and competition, so pervaded with compulsions and obsessions, and so spotted with moments of suspicion, jealousy, resentment, and revenge.” In serving those who cannot help themselves, Nouwen heard the voice of Christ: “Just as as you did it to one of the least of these, you did it to me.”
Jesus has been talking about the Reign of God, and it might sound like he’s saying,”Well, if you do enough good things, then God will let you in.” That’s not what he’s saying at all. He’s not sharing with us a magic formula of how we save ourselves by our own good deeds, rather, he’s giving us a description of how people who have pledged allegiance to God above all else live out their commitment. Acts of caring and compassion toward the least and loneliest demonstrate that people are already living inside the Reign of God, even when they don’t realize the impact their actions have. Small acts of kindness, even when we think they are invisible, are ways the Reign of God becomes more visible.
When Ignatius Loyola and his band of nine followers went to petition Pope Paul III in the 16th century to form the Society of Jesus, the Pope was unimpressed. Although the men arrived in Rome with their degrees, their doctorates in divinity, the Pope was unimpressed Then came the winter of 1538, the most desperate in Rome’s memory. These ten men took upon themselves the burden of the city’s destitute. They put the sick into their own beds, begged straw mattresses and food for the rest, and at times had as many as three or four hundred crowded into a ramshackle residence, which was all they could afford. So spectacular were their efforts that the Pope decided he could no longer ignore them, so 1540 he granted them the right to call themselves a genuine religious brotherhood–the Society of Jesus (Jesuits). Their actions indicated to whom they belonged.
Undergoing discernment, being open to surprise, not overlooking small things, involving ourselves in simple acts, serving “the least of these,” acknowledging God’s Rule–these are the fundamental ways we come to recognize God’s Reign and give evidence that we are part of the change. In time, others will notice that the Kingdom has come close to them. They may not know what to call it, but they will know that something has happened that makes life better. To that, Jesus would say “Amen! As you did it to one of the least of these I gave you, you did it to me.”