Then the King will say, “I’m telling the solemn truth: Whenever you did one of these things to someone overlooked or ignored, that was me — you did it to me.” — Jesus’s words in Matthew 25:40 (The Message)
Whether it’s a pair of new socks, a cup of cool water, a seven-course meal, a new coat or taking time for a simple visit, when we give those simple gifts to the downtrodden or the disenfranchised, Jesus teaches that it’s as if we’re giving them to Him. That message pierced my heart in an unlikely place and an unlikely season of my life – a fraternity house living room during my senior year in college.
As Christmas approached in 1966, I was living high, enjoying my role as a college senior, jumping into all sorts of extra-curricular activities, and relishing the friendships that would soon be following different paths. I don’t recall the circumstances that moved my fraternity to plan a Christmas event for underprivileged kids in our Athens, Alabama, campus home. Maybe it was to improve our reputation with the college administration or with the national fraternity with which we hoped to affiliate before the school year ended. To be totally transparent, I doubt that it was completely altruistic.
Motives aside, plan it we did. Through appropriate government agencies, we secured names of about 30 qualifying children. Armed with their ages, clothing sizes, suggested items, and other information, we spent hours shopping and wrapping toys, clothes, books, and games. And actually, I think that as we continued preparations, just about every brother in the house caught a little bit of Christmas spirit as we devoted time to the project.
With parental permissions granted, we were allowed to pick our young guests up from school on their last school day before Christmas break. We drove them to the fraternity house, and their wide-eyed response to a huge Christmas tree surrounded with four or five gifts for 30 kids – well, if we hadn’t caught the spirit already, that did if for everyone.
One scenario stands out most vividly in my mind, almost 50 years later. And it is a scene that has colored my every Christmas since. I watched as a young lad about 7 sat over in a corner opening his gifts. He first received a toy truck, and his face lit up as he played with it for a few minutes before going to another bright package. He unwrapped a little game that occupied his time for a few moments. He proceeded, slowly and patiently opening his gifts until he discovered a new pair of socks. His mouth dropped open, and his eyes shown with wonder as he tenderly caressed that pair of socks.
Then he pushed aside his toys, pulled off tattered shoes and ragged socks, and pulled those new socks onto his dirty little feet. He wiggled his toes, looked up, and exclaimed in awe, “I haven’t ever had new socks before!”
Until that moment, the whole Christmas party for kids had been mostly a do-gooder’s project for me. But this lad’s face forever engraved on my heart reminds me each Christmas season that it is imperative for me to serve and minister to those whom Jesus called “the least of these.” To serve them is to serve Jesus Himself.