by Br Julian McDonald cfc
“Come, you who are blessed by my Father. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me…Whatever you did for one of the least sisters and brothers of mine, you did for me.” Matthew 25, 31-46
There would be no Christianity without the person of Jesus Christ and the message he lived and proclaimed. He and his message are the foundation of the kingdom of God on earth. In that sense, he is king. There was and is nothing regal about him. He lived, modelled and proclaimed servant leadership. He, whose personality and actions attracted people as no other before or after him, is the one we acknowledge and celebrate today. But let’s not forget that he did not set out to found a church. The community which tried to live as he did, which built their lives on what he taught, attracted and inspired others, and eventually organized themselves into a church. We demonstrate our reverence and respect for him to the extent that we embrace the message he proclaimed and live as he lived.
To understand the full significance of today’s gospel reading or, for that matter, any gospel message of Jesus, we have to remember that Jesus had no inside running in his coming to understand the love of God. Fully human like us, he had to learn to ponder the scriptures of the Jewish tradition in which he grew up. Through personal reflection, he came to appreciate what it meant to be created in the image of God. That appreciation came only through spending time in prayer and reflection. Similarly, Jesus came to understand the message of today’s first reading from Ezekiel, which serves as a backdrop for his own parable of the sheep and goats – the centrepiece of today’s gospel. Moreover, Jesus had seen enough of his world’s kings and rulers to know that they were more interested in their own interests than in caring for their people. They were more like bad shepherds, ruling by force and brutality, with no idea of how to care for their sheep. (In the verses leading up to today’s first reading, Ezekiel scarifies bad shepherds and leaders, who have no interest in the welfare of their sheep.)
Jesus’ own strength and influence are to be seen in the fullness of his humanity. Perhaps his greatest human achievement was to have successfully taught his followers the full extent to which he chose to identify with every single one of them. He built solidarity with and among them precisely by making their relating to one another the principal condition for relating to him. He deflected them from giving all their attention to him by pointing out that they would find one another equally attractive if only they took the risk of getting to know one another. The way in which he expressed his identification with all people could not have been any clearer: “I was hungry and you fed me, thirsty and you gave me a drink; I was a stranger and you received me into your home, naked and you clothed me; I was sick and you took care of me, in prison and you visited me” (Matthew 25, 35-36). But he had a special concern for those who were on the outer. If he was “king” for anyone, it was for the lost and the losers, the dregs of society, the strugglers, the strange and the questionable. That only confirms that he took the world as he found it and was in touch with the reality that confronted him. While many were scandalized by his preference for the poor and downtrodden, he did not allow himself to be diverted from what he had learned from his own reflection and experience: a deep sense of God’s abiding presence in humankind. He did not allow hierarchies, conventions, expectations or threats to get in his way as he tried to convince all around him of God’s deep desire to relate to them, to hold them dear. He had come to know well the God to whom Ezekiel ascribed the words of today’s first reading: “I myself will pasture my sheep, I myself will show them where to rest…I shall look for the lost one, bring back the stray, bandage the wounded and make the weak strong. I shall watch over the fat and healthy. I shall be a true shepherd to them” Ezekiel 34, 15-16). And he lived what he learned.
Ezekiel described the actions of God as shepherd of the people. Matthew, in today’s gospel reading, sets down a set of responsibilities for us to undertake on God’s behalf. While some of those tasks might not look very attractive, they are the responsibilities on which, according to Matthew, we will be judged. We are challenged to meet Christ present in the stranger who comes into our life, in the prisoner whose crimes cause us revulsion, in the sick whose illnesses are accidental or self-induced, in the hungry, who, we believe, should have been able to provide for themselves. The challenge that Jesus puts to us in today’s gospel is as real as that, and it demands of us a combination of imagination, faith and compassion – all within our reach, all gifts given to us by a loving God. But we also know our capacity for the kind of insensitivity that can look at a stateless refugee and tell ourselves: “He’s not my responsibility”. Insensitivity that can see an old, dishevelled man sitting on a park bench, and have us rationalize to ourselves: “Well, he’s not my grandfather.” Coldness that can look at a starving child, and say: “She’s not my daughter.”
Are care, compassion, sensitivity an integral part of our stance to our world and its people or responses we use selectively? True, we may not have the wherewithal to make an effective, tangible response to all the needy people we encounter. But we all have the capacity to engage with them respectfully and with the dignity they deserve as our sisters and brothers.
How does all this fit in against the warnings in the first reading from Ezekiel and Matthew’s imaginary description of the Son of Man coming in glory? Well, notice that the same question is asked by both the virtuous and the neglectful: “Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty, a stranger or naked, sick or in prison, and did not come to your help?” The virtuous are unaware of the good they have done and the condemned are not aware of having done anything wrong. Therein lies the crux of the matter. Our capacity for sensitivity and compassion and our human imagination come from a loving God who urges us to look at our world with new eyes. Yet we can allow these gifts to sit dormant, to be controlled by fear and hesitation. It is entirely up to us to decide whether we will express them creatively for the benefit of others or for nobody but ourselves. We may even do nothing with them, and just let them lie dormant. The choice is ours, and so, too, are the consequences.