The Least of These

“And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ –Matthew 25:40

There is a little boy in our neighborhood whom my son struggles to love. They are simply so different that my child cannot enjoy playing with this child. He has tried being subtle (hiding in the house when this little boy is outside playing), being polite (“No, thank you, I don’t want to play with you today”), and simply tolerating the boy until he had to go home for dinner. This little boy is quite persistent. It’s painful to watch. My husband and I have worked with our son on appropriate ways to handle this situation. Let’s face it: there’s just no easy way to tell someone you don’t like him. So the rules are that he has to be polite and he has to treat this child with respect.

A couple days ago, when walking home from the bus stop, we discovered that no one was home at this little boy’s house. So we invited him to our house until someone arrived to take care of him. It wasn’t long before his grandmother called. She had gotten held up in traffic and had run just a few minutes late. The boys were playing nicely, so our neighbor decided to stay for a while. In the meantime, some other friends came over to play as well.

After a bit, the little guy in question came down the stairs and began putting on his shoes. I could tell by the look on his face that his feelings had been hurt. Turns out, the other kids had locked him out of the room where they were playing. He went home fighting back tears.

Conference time. When I explained to my son that this behavior was neither polite nor respectful, he was appropriately remorseful (when parental pressure was applied). He went across the street to apologize (at my insistence). Much to my chagrin, he returned with the other kid in tow. I knew this was not the result he wanted, but I was thankful to see that he was handling it well and that this little boy forgave him. I knew my son was in for an afternoon of tolerance. But he survived. And hopefully he learned something from the experience.

The whole incident took me back to my own childhood. On the “holler” where I grew up, there was an extremely poor family. My family was not well off by any means, but we must have seemed rich to this family: a mother with six children, deserted by their father. Their house had no running water and so it was very difficult for them to bathe or wash their clothes. I later learned that there were many heartbreaking things that went on behind the walls of that house. But all that I knew as a child was that the other kids teased them mercilessly. Children can be brutal; I’ve always heard it said. Why? I cannot say, many reasons I’m sure. But we can’t blame the kids entirely; they didn’t wholly understand that what they were doing would have long-term consequences. But I did. Even as an elementary school student I could see the look of defeat on the faces of the kids in that family. I watched over the years as their expressions of humiliation changed into masks of resignation. My brothers and sister and I had been taught from a young age to “treat others as you would have them treat you”. We lived by that. Even when it meant we had to stand up to our friends on behalf of those less fortunate than we. It wasn’t easy. In fact, it was quite hard at times.

Things are different for my children. We live in a subdivision, not a “holler”. Their father is a “professional” not a factory worker. Status is measured not by how clean your clothes are, but by what designer label they sport. Needless to say, there is not a lot of opportunity to show the fortitude that compassion nurtures.

Even though our little neighbor boy stood before us in Nike tennis shoes; even though his shirt had the unmistakable smell of Downy wafting from it; even though they were equal in all things status…that little boy needed my son’s compassion.

This is what I try to teach my children; this is what I have learned from Jesus: Kindness is always the right choice. Sometimes it may be uncomfortable. It may even hurt at times. But one day we are all going to look back and remember a look of defeat on a kid’s face and wish we had done more to keep it from being there.

Our children can make a difference to each other. They can build each other up, or tear each other down. Most kids will do a little bit of both in their lifetime. But if we make Jesus an important part of their lives from early on we may be able to stack the deck in favor of kindness.

People matter more, I often tell my boys. People matter more than things. People matter more than being right. People matter more than having fun. People matter.

They don’t always get it. Mostly because people don’t always treat them like they matter. But one day those words will win out over anger. One day those words will win out over pride or fear.

And on that day, the world will be a kinder place.

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