Once, in a small town nestled in the mountains, there lived a good family.
The mother drove a shiny SUV, and she had two children, a boy and a girl, who were both on the A/B honor roll, which you would know if you read the bumper sticker on her shiny SUV. Her husband worked in an office and wore a tie. What he did isn’t important; it’s the fact that he did things that set him apart from the people who didn’t. He provided insurance and stability and was an excellent role model.
They were active in their church, and they paid 10% of their income in tithes, and every Christmas, the whole family volunteered to ring the bell outside of K-Mart to collect money for the food bank. Their Christmas letter included details from their eldest daughter’s mission trip to Mexico, where she spent four days leading a Bible school in an orphanage. They weren’t stingy with their canned food donations, like some people who just brought in a couple of dusty cans of cream of mushroom soup that had been languishing in the cabinet for a few months. They organized things, headed committees, their socks always matched, and their clothes were always ironed.
One night, just before Christmas, an angel of the Lord appeared to the mother while she slept. The angel said, “Keep watch, for tomorrow Jesus will come to visit you.”
The woman woke up early, and as she got her children ready for school, she thought about what she was going to say to Jesus. “I’ll ask Him which Bible school curriculum we should get,” she thought, “and then I’ll ask Him if we’re doing a good job, and I’ll ask Him to heal the sick and feed the hungry.” Her intentions were pure and good, and on the drive to drop off her children at school, she hummed “Jesus, Take the Wheel”.
As she pulled her car into the pickup line at her son’s elementary school, she noticed that there was a hiccup in the system. Leaning out her car window, she could see that a couple of SUVs in front of her was a vehicle that had stalled. The mother driving it had gotten out and lifted the hood. She stood there staring at the engine helplessly, wearing a coat over fuzzy pajama pants. Our protagonist rolled her eyes. “Can’t people get dressed before they leave the house? Jesus Chr…,” and then she stopped herself. “I just mean, how hard is it to put on pants?” She knew this other mom. She knew the woman’s kids, too. Their pants were often just a little too short, their noses just a little too runny, their hair just a little too uncombed. She wasn’t certain, but she was pretty sure they got free lunches at school, and had said more than once to her friends at parent night, “I don’t want to deny the kids food if they’re hungry, but I just think their parents should step up.”
Finally, someone came to help the pajama-clad mom, and as our lady drove around the stalled car, she averted her eyes. “Bless her heart, she’s probably so embarrassed,” she thought, “but that’s what happens when you don’t take care of your car.”
She stopped at the grocery store on her way home, to pick up some snacks for Jesus when He came to visit. There was a couple standing in the cereal aisle, blocking the Life, which she wanted to have on hand, since Jesus was the bread of life, after all, and she did so love a theme. She had to get close to them to say, “Excuse me,” and when she did, she smelled stale cigarette smoke and dirty hair. Their sunken cheeks and glazed eyes told her what she already suspected. There was a prescription drug abuse epidemic in her small town, one that made her make concerned faces when she talked to her friends about the parents who brought their kids to their Bible school every summer, but then never even came back to the church. “I mean,” she would say, “I’m glad they’re bringing them, I just worry about them acting that way around our kids, some of the stuff they say…” and then the other moms would nod in agreement about how very unfortunate the situation was.
When she reached for the cereal, she met the man’s gaze. “Hey,” he said, “you got like just five dollars we could have to get some groceries?” Our protagonist was not unfeeling, but she was also nobody’s sucker. She knew they weren’t going to buy groceries with that money. “I’ll tell you what,” she said, “How about I buy you the groceries?” She congratulated herself for being so clever and also generous. What she didn’t realize was that they could tell that she didn’t trust them, and that poor people, and people addicted to prescription painkillers, can still detect disdain in people’s voices.
She went home and waited for Jesus. She turned on the TV, but Comcast was down, so she called customer service. After waiting for fifteen minutes, she finally got someone on the phone, but they didn’t even speak English, so she said, “Nevermind, I’ll call back later when I can talk to somebody I can understand.” She pulled out her phone and had to use her data to complain about it on Facebook. Her friends all agreed that this was unacceptable and infuriating.
Evening came, and Jesus had still not arrived. She made dinner, and the family discussed their weekend plans. They had selected not one, but THREE angels off the angel tree at Wal-Mart, and couldn’t believe some of the things those kids had asked for. “One of them wants a tablet,” her husband said. “Do they even know how much those cost?” He cut into his steak. “OUR KIDS saved up their allowances to get their tablets with their own money, nobody handed them anything,” he said. His daughter, who was sixteen and had a newly-minted social conscience, thanks to her four days fingerpainting pictures of Jesus in a Mexican orphanage, started to say, “Dad, it’s not like they deserve nice presents less than we do,” but her mother cut her off, saying, “We can talk about this later.” She had said the same thing when they had started to argue about drug tests for welfare recipients. They had never talked about that again.
When the woman went to bed that night, she was filled with disappointment and doubt. She prayed, “Jesus, I was promised you would come visit me. I waited all day, but you never showed up, and I’m not angry, I just think it would have been considerate to let me know you weren’t coming.”
Jesus didn’t answer. She had kind of expected Him to show up and explain Himself. It was really the least He could do, she thought.
But then, just before midnight, she awoke, and there was Jesus, sitting on her stationary bike, His hands on His knees.
Before she thought about what she was saying, she blurted out, “Jesus Christ, are you trying to give me a heart attack??”
“Sorry,” said Jesus.
“You were supposed to visit me today.”
“I did,” Jesus said. “I mean, I tried. I handed you a lot of opportunities to be kind. I even tried to help you with your cable access, but you were super rude. What was that about?”
The woman didn’t know what He was talking about. “Look, I’m a good person. I volunteer and I donate money to a LOT of charities,” she said.
“Yeah,” said Jesus, “and I really appreciate that. But you need to work on your tone. It comes across as kind of judgy.”
“I just don’t want to donate to the wrong people,” she said.
“Let me sort that out,” said Jesus. “I promise, if you do good things, I’ll make sure good comes of it.”
The woman began to weep. “I didn’t mean to be judgy,” she said, “I want to do what you would do. I even used to wear one of those bracelets.”
“I know,” said Jesus. “I liked those. But you’re forgetting the things I DID do. I healed people who didn’t have insurance. I helped people who didn’t deserve it and who didn’t show a proper amount of gratitude. I hung out with hookers and tax collectors and people with poor personal hygiene. If you want to do what I would do, that’s what you’re going to have to do.”
“That sounds really hard,” she said.
“Listen,” said Jesus, “I never promised this would be easy. But I can promise that it will be worth it. They’re going to talk about you. You’re going to have to speak up when your friends start making low-key racist jokes. You’re going to think about other people more than you think about yourself. You’re going to have to get uncomfortable.”
“How uncomfortable are we talking about here,” she asked, “like, sleeping on the ground or standing in the cold?”
“Seriously,” said Jesus, “are you really talking about discomfort to me right now?”
“Oh. Right. Sorry. I forgot.”
Jesus sighed. “I know. A lot of people do. I mean, you take communion with King’s Hawaiian rolls, for My sake. You know that’s supposed to be my body, broken for you, right?”
“But the kids complained about those paper wafer things,” she started to say, but then remembered this time that she was speaking to a man who was crucified with a crown of thorns pressed into His head.
“How do I fix it, Jesus,” she asked. “How can I do better?”
“When you wake up tomorrow, I want you to go out and find the least of these.”
“Like the kids on the angel tree?”
“That’s a start. But you know what else would be great? If you also found their parents.”
“But their parents are probably on drugs,” she said.
Jesus nodded. “Yeah, some of them,” He agreed, “so they probably need more help. That’s where you come in. It’s your job to love them anyway.”
“But…but…they’re on drugs.”
“I know,” said Jesus, “and you’re kind of self-righteous, but I still love you. And even though they’re on drugs, and they steal, and they act ungrateful, I love them just as much as I love you.”
“Wow,” said the woman, “that’s really humbling.”
“I’m glad you finally figured out how to use that word correctly,” said Jesus.
When the woman woke up the next morning, it was with a heart full of both joy and fear. But she went forth, and did as she was told.
She was kicked out of the country club.
She made a lot of committees angry.
She was uninvited to the annual Fourth of July barbecue the year after she showed up with her SUV full of sticky kids from the group home who ate all the hot dogs and ran around like nobody had ever taught them how to act right, which of course, they hadn’t.
Her husband was horrified at first, but eventually became accustomed to the steady stream of eclectic dinner guests. Her daughter was finally proud of her mom, and the next mission trip, they went together, and didn’t even remember to post a single selfie on Instagram, dubbing themselves #blessed.
The woman noticed, after a few years, that her car was filthy and in disrepair. Her clothes were out of style. Her highlights had grown out. The invitations and meetings had all but disappeared from her social calendar. That night, Jesus came to her again.
“Good job,” He said. When they high-fived, she saw the place where the nail had pierced His palm.
“Hey,” she said, “I’m sorry I forgot.”
“It’s okay,” Jesus told her, “you remember now.”