Small Acts of Mercy

As a follower of Jesus, I have been called to be an agent of justice in a battered world. And if you’re a follower of Jesus, then so have you. We’re not meant to sit around and watch as the needy are neglected and the vulnerable are exploited. We’re meant to step into the fray, speak up for the voiceless, and make a difference for the kingdom.

But although I long to be faithful to this call, I find it easy to be overwhelmed. The need is staggering. Here’s just a taste:

  • There are approximately 9 million people on this planet who die of hunger every year.
  • 15 million children are navigating life in the aftermath of having lost both of their parents.
  • In this country alone, 2.3 million people are locked up in prisons, jails, and correctional facilities.
  • Over half a million homeless Americans will spend tonight with no permanent shelter.
  • Some 65 million people around the world have been forcibly displaced from their homes.

In keeping with God’s requirement for his people expressed in Micah 6:8, I sincerely want to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with him. But like a novice climber staring up at the towering slopes of Mount Everest, this task seems impossibly daunting. I have no clue where to even begin addressing the manifold wounds of the world.

But what if God isn’t asking me to conquer the summit? What if he’s just asking me to take a step?

In Matthew 25, Jesus teaches about the final judgment. It’s a contentious passage that has made plenty of Bible readers uncomfortable through the years. But if we set aside the controversies for just a moment, I think we can see in this apocalyptic forecast a liberating description of what acceptable acts of justice truly look like. After describing a great separation of all people, Jesus says:

Then the King will say to those on his right, “Come, you who are blessed by 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.”

Did you catch that? Those who inherit the kingdom aren’t exterminating world hunger or solving the problem of mass incarceration. They’re simply offering a meal. Pouring a drink. Sharing the guest bedroom. Giving away a coat. Paying a visit to the hospital. Keeping prisoners company.

A skeptic might look at this list and be unimpressed. After all, what difference will any of it make? With 9 million people starving to death, what good is one meal?

But Jesus doesn’t invite the skeptics to judge between the sheep and the goats. He reserves that job for himself. And if these simple, small acts of mercy register on his scale as meaningful manifestations of true faith, then that’s all that matters.

They say that all politics is local, and I tend to agree. But perhaps what’s even more local than politics is justice. While there’s absolutely nothing wrong with dreaming big and confronting the large-scale oppressions and inequalities of the day, we can’t forget that changing the world all starts with exercising faithfulness in the seemingly insignificant opportunities right in front of us.

Our presence in this world should be an informed one. This entails, among other things, nurturing an awareness of the global need for justice—no matter how overwhelming it may seem. But we need not let this information paralyze us with fear or hopelessness. Jesus isn’t looking for superheroes to fix everything all at once. He’s looking for unadorned acts of mercy in the ordinary lives of those who follow him.

These acts of mercy may seem meager. They may even seem meaningless. But insofar as we do them to the neighbor down the street, we do them to Jesus. And there’s nothing small about that.

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