17 October 2021

Will We Be Sheep Or Goats This Christmas?

"When the Son of man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will place the sheep at his right hand, but the goats at the left. Then the King will say to those at his right hand, 'Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.' Then the righteous will answer him, 'Lord, when did we see thee hungry and feed thee, or thirsty and give thee drink? And when did we see thee a stranger and welcome thee, or naked and clothe thee? And when did we see thee sick or in prison and visit thee?' And the King will answer them, 'Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.' Then he will say to those at his left hand, 'Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.' Then they also will answer, 'Lord, when did we see thee hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to thee?' Then he will answer them, 'Truly, I say to you, as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me.' And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life."

Matthew 25:31-46

Recently there have been a number of news articles highlighting a growing probability of a shortage of Christmas toys, decorations, and other goodies due to global supply chain dysfunction. Do your shopping extra early this year, we are being told, or else you may not be able to buy any Christmas stuff at all.

While the ability of global supply chains to quickly and efficiently deliver goods to market is a real economic concern and a serious economic problem, we still must pause to ponder if the Christmas holiday is the proper vehicle for calling attention to the issue.

Is Christmas just about toys under a tree?

Poverty Is Real--And Growing

Before people start worrying about how successful their Christmas shopping will or will not be this year, they are well advised to consider first the state of their neighbors. A fair number will not be doing any Christmas shopping at all regardless of how well global supply chains function. 

Here are a few summary facts about poverty in the United States, courtesy of the US Census.

  • The official poverty rate in 2020 was 11.4 percent, up 1.0 percentage point from 10.5 percent in 2019.  This is the first increase in poverty after five consecutive annual declines (Figure 8 and Table B-4).
  •  In 2020, there were 37.2 million people in poverty, approximately 3.3 million more than in 2019 (Figure 8 and Table B-1).
  • Between 2019 and 2020, the poverty rate increased for non-Hispanic Whites and Hispanics. Among non-Hispanic Whites, 8.2 percent were in poverty in 2020, while Hispanics had a poverty rate of 17.0 percent. Among the major racial groups examined in this report, Blacks had the highest poverty rate (19.5 percent), but did not experience a significant change from 2019. The poverty rate for Asians (8.1 percent) in 2020 was not statistically different from 2019 (Figure 9 and Table B-1).
  • Poverty rates for people under the age of 18 increased from 14.4 percent in 2019 to 16.1 percent in 2020. Poverty rates also increased for people aged 18 to 64 from 9.4 percent in 2019 to 10.4 percent in 2020. The poverty rate for people aged 65 and older was 9.0 percent in 2020, not statistically different from 2019 (Figure 9 and Table B-1).
  • Between 2019 and 2020, poverty rates increased for married-couple families and families with a female householder. The poverty rate for married-couple families increased from 4.0 percent in 2019 to 4.7 percent in 2020. For families with a female householder, the poverty rate increased from 22.2 percent to 23.4 percent. The poverty rate for families with a male householder was 11.4 percent in 2020, not statistically different from 2019 (Figure 12 and Table B-2).

Simply put, an increasing number of our neighbors are ending up in poverty.

Moreover, according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development, in 2020 at least 580,000 people in the US were homeless, and 40% of those were literally living on the streets or in abandoned buildings unsuitable for human habitation. The number of homeless in the US has been growing for the past four years. As with poverty, the problem is getting worse, not better.

Surely these issues ought to occupy a greater share of our attention than whether or not we will have a satisfactory number of presents under the Christmas tree com December 25.

Shortages Of More Than Just Toys

While politicians might be fretting about whether or not there will be Christmas presents, we should realize that the shortages being experienced worldwide include far more urgent priorities, such as food and adequate energy to heat homes this coming winter.

Shortages such as these invariably fall most heavily on the poor and less fortunate, for the simple reason they lack the resources to seek out and craft alternatives.

Long before we get to worrying about timely shipments of Christmas presents from China, we have pressing concerns of poverty, homelessness, and food insecurity all around us, concerns driven not by shortages of toys, but by shortages of gasoline and basic necessities.

Apathy Is A Sin

As the parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew illustrates, we are not called to ignore the less fortunate around us. We are called to care about them, and in at least some regard, we are called to care for them.

When they are hungry, we are called to give them food.

When they are thirsty, we are called to give them drink.

When they are naked, we are called to give them clothing.

When they are sick, we are called to show compassion towards them.

The parable makes it clear that we cannot presume to be righteous or devoted to God if we ignore the very real needs of our fellow travelers on this road. Apathy is a sin, and the penalty for it is severe.

We Are Called To Act

The parable of the sheep and the goats makes clear also that the call to compassion is a call to each of us as individuals. We are not given the option to pawn the duty of care off on others, and certainly not on government programs. Wherever we see human want and human suffering, we are called to care.

This is reiterated in the oft-told parable of the Good Samaritan as well, in which Jesus explained what it really means to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. We are not called to go on an endless crusade against all want and misery--as Jesus teaches, the poor are always going to be there--but when we see someone in need of a little compassion, we are called to show that compassion. We are called as individuals not to ignore someone in need.

Above all, we are called to act. There are no explicit rules in the Gospel on what actions we should take, but there is an unequivocal teaching that we should always take action.

The World Is Full Of Bad News. We Have The Power To Be Good News

One doesn't need to read the news articles mentioned here to know that there is an abundance of bad news in the world, and it certainly seems at times as if the bad news is getting steadily worse. Certainly being told that this year's Christmas presents are stuck on a slow boat from China qualifies as bad news!

Yet within every problem there lies an opportunity for a solution. Within every bad event there lies an opportunity for doing something good. Wherever there is bad news, there is a moment for us to create some good news.

Each of us has the power to be good news to someone. Even if it is something as simple as helping someone get safely across the street, or sharing some spare change from one's pocket, each of us has the power to do something to help someone else. We do not even have to go looking for opportunities to help one another; if we are out and about in our community we are certain to see at least some of the time people needing just a little bit of help to get through the day.

We do well to remind ourselves of this, particularly when we are faced with news of "Christmas shortages".  While we may be faced with shortages in the material world, in Jesus we only have abundance--abundance of love, abundance of care, abundance of compassion. While the world around us may lack a great many things, within each of us there never needs be any lack of love, or care, or compassion. Each of us has all of these in infinite abundance.

We do well to remind ourselves that, shortages in the material world or no, we are called daily to share that abundance of love, care, and compassion that is already within each of us.

In the parable of the sheep and the goats, the sheep are the ones who remembered this, and gave of their abundance. The goats are the ones who forgot this, and failed to give of their abundance.

This coming holiday season, what will you do? Will you worry more about the shortages of "stuff" in the world, or will you focus instead on sharing your abundance? 

This coming holiday season, what will you choose? Will you choose to be one of the sheep, or will you choose to be one of the goats?



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