The following anecdote comes courtesy of Ralph Milton’s Rumours newsletter (although Ralph no longer updates Rumours, there’s a wealth of information there).
There was a little old lady who every morning stepped onto her front porch, raised her arms to the sky, and sang: “Praise God from whom all blessings flow!” One day an atheist moved into the house next door. He became irritated at the little old lady. So every morning he’d step onto his front porch after her and yell: “There is no God!” Years passed with the two of them carrying on this way every day.
One morning, in the middle of winter, the little old lady stepped onto her front porch and sang, “Praise God from whom all blessings flow!” Then she added, “Please God, I have no food and I am starving; provide for me, oh God! The next morning she stepped onto her porch and there were two huge bags of groceries sitting there. “Praise God from whom all. . .!” Before she could finish, the atheist neighbor jumped out of the hedges and shouted: “There is no God!!! I bought those groceries for you!”
The little old lady threw her arms into the air and shouted: “Thank you God! You not only answered my prayer for food, you got that sinner next door to pay for the groceries and deliver them! Hallelujah!”
Okay, so maybe it’s a bad joke. But every time I’ve told it people laugh. And why not? As Proverbs says “A merry heart doeth good, like a medicine.” And don’t we all know people who are like both the old lady and the atheist? So determined to prove their point that they miss the point.
Which makes it a useful story for reflection on God’s expectations of us. God calls on us to reach out to others; to help those in need; to comfort those in distress.
Which of the people in the story did what “God requires”? The woman? Even though she’d received help, she still saw her neighbour only as a sinner. The atheist? Even though he still professed there was no God, he reached out and helped her.
Literalists would say that the atheist, who is unlikely to claim Jesus as a “personal savior”, is damned. They’d likely also claim that the woman committed no “sin” in gloating over the benefit she received from her neighbor’s generosity. She is, after all, a faithful Christian.
But the Gospel writers have Jesus say interesting things about faith. In fact, Matthew writes Jesus as saying that there will be folks who come to him talking about all the things that they’ve done in his name. They’ll talk about healing, and prophesying, and miracles.
Jesus says he’s going to tell them to go away.
Jesus is quoted as saying that the key is to do the Will of God; to live the agapé relationship that Jesus is the model for. Sadly, a lot of people seem to think that has something to do with condemning people who don’t do things the same way they do. They manage to ignore the clear statement of the Gospels that it was that judgmental condemnation that Jesus condemned.
Matthew has Jesus put our priorities in proper order: “So in everything do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.”
If we condemn someone for their choice of partner, we would like others to condemn us for ours? If we pass by someone on the street who is obviously down on their luck, we would like others to pass us by as well?
Of course not.
We hope that when we’re in trouble, someone will reach out to us. We want someone to show us compassion, to speak up for us if we’re being persecuted. To accept us without judgment.
That’s all it takes.
And it won’t matter who buys the groceries.