In the 2023 film (and 2020 novel) Leave the World Behind, the character played by Julia Roberts admits she’s a misanthrope: someone who doesn’t like people. Distrust is her default. She’s more self-aware than others but no less culpable in a tale of how suspicion, selfishness and indifference sow the seeds of society’s destruction.
Nothing could be further from misanthropy than seeing Jesus in another person.
When I was in high school, our youth group sang “Have you seen Jesus my Lord? He’s here in plain view.” The song asked if we had seen the face of Christ on each other.
It’s still an important question, one that’s especially vital today as polarization and animosity intensify in a U.S. election year.
Can we see the face of Christ on a neighbor flying a rainbow flag or wearing a MAGA cap?
If you can, you might be a philanthrope. More than financial generosity, philanthropy, broadly defined, is the love of people.
In the Christian ideal, it’s a love that not only casts others in a positive light but perceives the divine spark of Jesus himself within them.
The theme of our February issue, “When I Met Jesus,” generated responses that illustrate different aspects of philanthropy.
What kindles philanthropic feelings? Getting rescued from a tight spot will do it. We received several Good Samaritan stories. The stranger who changes a tire or offers a lift in a snowstorm evokes such intense gratitude that people get the feeling of having met Jesus.
If receiving generosity is the first category of “I met Jesus” incidents, the second is its opposite: serving others. Like the Good Samaritan precedent, the second category also has a biblical archetype: Jesus’ parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25.
In Jesus’ telling, the king commends the righteous sheep, who provided food and drink when he had none, welcomed him though they didn’t know him, clothed him, cared for him when he was sick and visited him in prison.
The sheep cannot recall any of this. But the king explains: When you helped people in need who seemed to be “the least” — that was me.
The goats, who failed to help, are as surprised as the sheep to learn the secret identity of the king who passes judgment.
Because we’ve heard the parable, we’re primed to look for king Jesus where we might least expect to find him — and sobered by the prospect of answering for our actions “when the Son of Man comes in his glory” (Matthew 25:31).
In Theology as If Jesus Matters (Cascadia, 2009), Mennonite theologian Ted Grimsrud offers a description of being alert to what the sheep and the goats didn’t know: When we are open to seeing Jesus in all our social interactions, we are living sacramentally.
Sacraments are rituals that heighten our awareness of God’s presence. They don’t have to be formal, official rituals. Singing and potlucks might be sacraments, Grimsrud suggests. Sharing with a person in need or repairing a damaged relationship certainly are.
In Jesus Matters (Herald, 2009), a collection of essays on Jesus-centered theology and practice, Mennonite seminary professor Mary H. Schertz suggests three places where Jesus can be found:
n In the company of those who meet in his name;
n In the poor and hungry; and
n In the pages of the Bible.
Commenting on the parable of the sheep and the goats, Schertz says serving a meal at a homeless shelter or going on a service trip is merely a start.
“Jesus is not absent in [these] charitable acts . . . but he is truly present in our ongoing daily friendships with the poor — and with all the give and take, ups and downs, ins and outs of the relationships we have with classmates, coworkers and the people at church,” Schertz writes.
“The everyday mutual intertwining of lives in the most ordinary circumstances is guaranteed to bring us closer to Jesus.”
Sometimes we’re the wounded traveler, sometimes the Good Samaritan. A true philanthrope might see Jesus everywhere.