I myself will give them rest, says the Lord GOD. The lost I will seek out, the strayed I will bring back, the injured I will bind up, the sick I will heal. (Ezekiel 34:15-16)
“For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me…
Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of the least brothers of mine, you did for me.” (Matthew 25:35, 40)
Toward the end of my time in grad school, I took a class on ministry through the life cycle: the joys and challenges of caring for people from childhood through the elder years. And during our class on ministering to young families, we watched a video of a speaker encouraging a church full of mothers that their work as a parent answered the call of Matthew’s Gospel: to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, tend to the sick. Whenever they cared for children – the least among us – they were caring for Christ himself.
I remember my reaction vividly. With the confidence and wisdom that one can only swagger before having children, I raised my hand and declared that this so-called parenting expert had it wrong. The idea that Christ’s commandment to care for the poor and needy – the very criteria by which we will be judged at the end of times – could be satisfied by raising one’s own kids was a complete cop-out.
It was really about justice, I argued. It was really about solidarity. It was really about radical love for marginalized members of society. It was not about diapers and bottles and car pools and doctor’s visits.
If anything, I soap-boxed, Christian parents were called to teach their children what it meant to actually visit prisoners, to actually welcome strangers, to actually feed the starving. Anything less was simply the watering down of American Christianity.
(Oh, the charming arrogance of bold declarations made from the sidelines. I am one heck of an armchair quarterback.)
Years later, I can tell you with just as much confidence that I only had it half-right.
Yes, I still believe that parents have a duty to raise their children to care for those in poverty and need. Yes, I still maintain that the watering down of the Gospel is an alarming trend for those of us who live in relative comfort and wealth. Yes, I still argue that today’s Gospel is about radical love and charity and service – a disturbing reminder for we who squirm in the pews and wonder if our lives will leave us on the right or the left side on judgment day.
But what I have learned in my short stretch of parenting is this:
If I don’t see Christ in my children, if I don’t remember their weakness, if I don’t serve their daily needs with love, then I’ve failed this Gospel call as well.
I can claim to work for justice but treat my own family unfairly. I can claim to love my brothers and sisters around the world but struggle to love those in my own house. I can claim to care for the poor but miss the needs of those right before my eyes. Because the other half of the equation is the everyday reality that meets the radical ideals. The domestic church that looks inward to turn outward.
Every day my children cry out because they are hungry. Thirsty. Lonely. I scoop them up with kisses and promise to tend to their needs. And that is good and right – all that I am called to as a parent.
But every day there are babies just like them who cry out and aren’t heard. Who hunger and aren’t fed. Who thirst and have no clean water. Who suffer and die from diseases that have simple cures. And if I don’t care about them, too – if I don’t share my wealth and resources, if I don’t change my habits to live more mindfully, if I don’t teach my children that caring for the poor and fighting against poverty go hand in hand – then I haven’t seen Christ in all his many faces.
From where I stand now, I see that my wise-grad-student, wise-child-free self was both right and wrong. The call is radical and can’t be domesticated. But the domesticated love is sometimes the most radical. It is dirty and demanding and exhausting and everyday. It is Christ in my children’s eyes and Christ beyond my front door. It is, as many theological truths prove, a “both/and.”
My mothering spirit is not for only those I have been given to raise. It is for all who cry out for what my children enjoy whenever they need: healthy food, clean water, warm clothes, a doctor’s care. To do any less is to ignore the face of Christ where he plays in ten thousand places, lovely in limbs and lovely in eyes not his.