‘The Least of These’

via Creative Commons

The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’ (Matthew 25:40)

When I was in elementary school, our custodians were Jerome, John, and Emma. They were the ones who cleaned up when somebody dropped a jar of tempera paint or some kid threw up. I always noticed how the teachers treated them with such respect and deference, and this made an impression on me. I guess this is obvious, since I still remember their names and haven’t seen them since 1970. How we treat others becomes an example for children. In this case, the “others” were African-American janitors in a segregated school in the 1960s. And yet they were treated with respect by the teachers and this spoke volumes to me.

In the same way, how we treat children says much. My mother was frequently in and out of our state psychiatric hospital. I would go visit her and, strange as it may sound, have warm memories of the people I encountered in those visits. For example, there was a man named Kato who treated my mother well and entertained me when I was there with his funny stories and animated demeanor. He made amazing crafts; once he somehow created a wallet for me woven out of cigarette packs.

I don’t think I will ever shake the sense that humble people have kind hearts. This is borne out every day in my encounters with both strangers and friends.

I frequently remark that I would rather have dinner with my friends than with any celebrity I can name. (Okay, I would like to have dinner with Natasha Bedingfield, but I would want my friends to come too.) I am truly dumbfounded at the adulation we give to celebrities in our culture. I actually think that many of the celebrities themselves have this same reaction.

I remember hearing a story about a large cathedral which was built with a small door. When asked the reason for this design, the explanation was that everyone, no matter how large or small, would need to bow before entering. In that way, they would be reminded of the necessity of humility. Jesus Christ said much about the status of the rich and poor: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” (Mark 10:25)

What, then, would be the implications of this line of thought?

  1. We want to be careful about evaluating people based on appearances. Leo Tolstoy said, “It is amazing how complete is the delusion that beauty is goodness.” The flip side of this, however, is that as we come to know and love people, they become beautiful in our eyes.
  2. We must always be more concerned about the state of our spirit than our bank account. Money can come and go, material things can be bought and sold, but we will look at ourselves in the mirror each day and know whether we are living according to our core beliefs.
  3. Gratitude is essential. “Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all others,” said Cicero. We can protect ourselves from taking good things for granted by cultivating a grateful heart.

Once there was a housekeeper who worked in my building. I would see her early in the morning and, in her limited English and my limited Spanish, we would talk about her children and her aspirations. One morning, she lightly tapped on my door and presented me with some delicious Mexican hot chocolate. Though I had many more material resources than her, she was the one giving me a gift.

Our society is enthralled greatly by celebrity and political power. It is my belief that every single life is of equal value. When I drive into my old hometown of Greensboro (N.C.) and I pass by the housing projects, I think about all the stories there. I think about the hopes which are fully alive, as well as those which are growing dim. And at my favorite restaurant in the city, as we are waited on exclusively by Latino women, I think about how I’m sure they have the same concerns for themselves and their families as I do.

We all have the freedom to choose how we will live, and it’s our choices this day and the attitudes of our hearts, not the circumstances of our birth nor the size of our bank accounts, that determine the tenor of our lives.

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