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; I was a stranger and you made me welcome, naked and you clothed me, sick and you visited me, in prison and you came to see me…in so far as you did this to one of the least of my brothers and sisters, you did it to me.” Matthew 25: 31-46
There is no affirmation of the human condition like this anywhere else in scripture. Moreover, in today’s gospel-reading this proclamation is uttered by Jesus, positively and negatively, four times. We are left in no doubt that the only criterion or condition for entry into the kingdom of heaven is care for our sisters and brothers, especially for those who are sidelined, forgotten or often overlooked.
When she was awarded the Nobel peace Prize in 1979, Mother Teresa asked that the prize money be donated to the poor people of Calcutta. She went on to say: “At the end of life we will not be judged on how many diplomas we have received, how much money we have made, how many good things we have done. We will be judged by I was hungry and you gave me to eat. I was naked and you clothed me. I was homeless and you took me in. Hungry not only for bread – but hungry for love; naked not only of clothing – but naked of human dignity and respect; homeless not only for want of a room of bricks, but homeless because of rejection. This is Christ in distressing disguise.”
Tim Unsworth was a freelance journalist I have long admired. For twenty-five years, he wrote a column for the National Catholic Reporter, a Chicago based weekly Catholic newspaper. His writing was inspirational, gospel-based, witty and, at times, irreverent. He and his wife were respected members of the Chicago Catholic parish of St Clement. When Joseph Bernardin was named as the new archbishop of Chicago, Unsworth wrote him a letter, encouraging him to relinquish some of the traditional privileges that went with the role of being Archbishop of the largest Catholic archdioceses in the United States. Among other things, he advised Bernardin to eat his lunch in an ordinary deli, to take a bus to his office or even to walk.: “An archbishop on a Chicago Transit Authority bus would convert half the bus population.” Unsworth went on to suggest that there was no need for the Archbishop to live in an upmarket residence: “The only people who can afford to live in mansions like that are the archbishop of Chicago and Hugh Hefner. Hefner wants such symbols. You don’t need them.” That letter led to a close friendship between Bernardin and Unsworth. As well as his weekly columns, Unsworth wrote five books, one of which was a biography of Bernardin entitled I Am Your Brother Joseph. Another was about the role of lay people in the Church: Here Comes Everybody. In 1980, the magazine Salt, published by the Claretian priests featured an article Unsworth wrote about a character who belonged to the parish of St Clement.: “The Unsightly guest who taught a parish how to see.” The article describes the extraordinary impact a homeless parishioner had on the whole community of the parish he frequented:
“Jim was your basic, homeless street person. Actually, he had two homes. One was a bus bench near the church; the second was a back pew of the parish church – whenever the weather got too cold for his bus bench, he moved into the pew. Jim was a stubborn and difficult man. He never panhandled. He refused any monies offered, often without uttering a word. Jim didn’t make you feel good about being good. He didn’t smoke, drink or use drugs. He suffered from schizophrenia, causing him to withdraw from reality and exhibit erratic emotional and intellectual behaviour. Unshaven and unwashed, he smelled like rancid chicken, and had developed a haunting stare that made eye contact all but impossible.
But Jim was vivid testimony to our society’s unsolved problems and unkept promises. His presence caused the priests of the parish to take measure of their priesthood. Just by his presence and powerful silence, he became a catalyst for meaningful action in the parish. His silent homily compelled people to become involved with the homeless of the neighbourhood. People looked at Jim and wanted to do something. He probably flushed out more volunteers than a hundred bulletin pleas. Jim’s presence was largely responsible for the parish’s shelter program and soup kitchen.
Jim was only 58 when he died of leukemia, but he seemed a great deal older. At his funeral, the entire parish came to say goodbye to one of the most influential parishioners ever to attend their church.” (Salt, June 1988.ww.salt.claretianpubs.org) Almost without knowing it, Jim lived and proclaimed the Gospel of Jesus. He was one of those whom Matthew’s Jesus in today’s gospel-reading urges us to befriend.
In addition to his being the Messiah, the Christ of God, another characteristic of Jesus that entitles him to be lauded as king was the depth of his humanity that led him to identify with all his disciples, allowing them to continue his ongoing presence in the world. Paul was acutely aware of that when he challenged the members of the Christian community of Corinth: “Examine yourselves to see whether you are living in faith. Test yourselves. Do you believe that Jesus Christ is in you? If not, you have failed the test.” (2 Corinthians 13: 5) Let’s not forget that Jesus is as alive and active in our world as we, his followers, make him! Today’s gospel-reading once again reminds us that Jesus made our relating to one another a condition for relating to him. It is that which will encourage us for the rest of our lives to keep striving to look at one another with new eyes. What exactly motivated Jesus to encourage and challenge us to pursue that goal? That’s something for everyone of us to ponder. However, I respectfully suggest that the challenge he puts to us grew out of something he discovered through his own prayer, reflection and observation: that God is present and alive in every human person. That is cause for treating everyone we encounter with respect and dignity. When we are present to them, we are in the presence of the holy.