Every Sunday throughout the world, billions of men, women and children in Christian churches confess their sins before God. We confess that we have sinned against God by things we have done and by things we have left undone.
Every time I say the word “undone” during that confession, I am reminded of Jesus’ description of the judgment of the sheep and the goats (Matthew 25:31-46). Most people remember it. That’s the parable-like story of the sheep who are surprised to learn that when they fed, clothed or visited someone in need, they were actually feeding, clothing and visiting Jesus.
You may recall that the goats are likewise surprised to learn that when they neglected to feed, clothe or visit someone in need they were actually neglecting Jesus. Just another one of Jesus’ stories in which those who thought they were the “in-crowd” turn out to be the “out-crowd,” and those who thought they were the “out-crowd” turn out to be the “in-crowd.” All of that is enough to make anyone a bit more humble.
I have come to believe that when most people confess their sins, they are thinking about what they have done wrong (sins of commission); very few consider what they have failed to do (sins of omission). In fact, I would say that the vast majority of Christians spend far too much time feeling guilty about their wrongful actions, and far too little time considering the great “undone” in their life — rightful actions they could have taken, but didn’t.
In other words, Christians may also be surprised one day to find that they held on to the guilt of sins of commission far longer than necessary (after all, God’s forgiveness upon repentance is enough for any of us). And we may likewise be surprised to find that our failings, in large part, stem from neglecting those around us in need. And there are many. Just look. I think that may be one of the things Jesus wants us to see in this story.
The problem is often not that we don’t care; it’s that we don’t act. And when we don’t act, then to the person in need are we — in effect — any better than the person who doesn’t care?
To many, doing nothing is the safe way to live, even if we know we are called upon to act, whether it be to care for someone in need or to stand up for those who are disadvantaged. Dante Alighieri wrote, “The darkest places in hell are reserved for those who maintain their neutrality in times of moral crisis.”
Just ask the goats.
The Rev. Dr. Bob LeFavi, installed member of the Society of Ordained Scientists, is pastor at Bethel Lutheran Church, Springfield.