Brief synopsis of the readings: Our first reading is from the prophet Ezekiel. Using the imagery of a shepherd and his sheep, God talks about keeping his people in view. God will rescue his people from wherever they have been scattered “during the mist and darkness.” God will also “look for the lost one, bring back the stray, bandage the wounded, and make the weak strong.” Finally, God announces that he “will judge between sheep and sheep, between rams and he-goats.” Matthew continues from last week; here Jesus talks about when “the Son of Man comes in his glory.” The Son of Man will divide the people into two groups (like sheep and goats). He thanked and rewarded the first group for feeding him when he was hungry, giving him drink when he was thirsty, welcoming him when he was a stranger, etc. Bewildered, they asked when they did that. Jesus responded by telling them that “in so far as you did this of my people you did it for me.” He then turned on the other group and castigated them because they didn’t feed him when he was hungry, etc. Likewise they asked him when they failed to meet his needs. He responded that whenever they failed to meet the needs of these same people, they failed to meet Jesus’ needs.
The last few weeks I’ve complained about these end of the liturgical year readings because I’ve been troubled with the imagery of the kingdom of heaven. Today we celebrate the last Sunday of the year and next week Advent begins.
If the readings from the last few weeks appeared too difficult, today’s Gospel can appear too easy. Even though the 25th chapter of Matthew contains readings from the last three Sundays of the year, many of us think of “Matthew 25” in terms of only this Gospel.
A cursory reading seems clear: if you feed the poor you go to heaven. If you don’t, you go to hell. In fairness this Gospel has compelled millions of people over the years to commit billions of acts of kindness. Seemingly every Catholic grows up with an awareness of Catholic Charities, the St. Vincent de Paul Society, Catholic Relief Services, and countless other organizations. Not to be outdone, our Protestant brothers and sisters have founded Lutheran Social Services, Methodist Social Services, and American Baptist Home Mission Societies.
But I am struck by something I heard a few years ago: The kingdom of heaven is certainly built on the poor receiving what they need, but it’s also built on the relationships that are forged between the giver and the recipient.
Earlier I referenced the St. Vincent de Paul Society. Fr. Vincent was a French priest who lived in the 1600s and devoted himself to serving the poor. He, like many saints, gave us advice on how we can live our best lives. This quotation is my favorite:
“You will find out that Charity is a heavy burden to carry, heavier than the kettle of soup and the full basket. But you will keep your gentleness and your smile. It is not enough to give soup and bread. This the rich can do. You are the servant of the poor, always smiling and good-humored. They are your masters, terribly sensitive and exacting master you will see. And the uglier and the dirtier they will be, the more unjust and insulting, the more love you must give them. It is only for your love alone that the poor will forgive you the bread you give to them.”
Fr. Vincent died in 1660, and 357 years after his death we continue to struggle with his message (or at least I hope we do). On one hand global communication and the current 24 hour news cycle have allowed us to do incredible things. After events like 9/11 or natural disasters from the 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean to Puerto Rico, many of us have donated money. And donating is easy: we are given a toll free number, we pull out our credit cards, and we can fulfill Jesus’ demand. In addition to large charities like the Red Cross, we also have GoFundMe and countless other avenues for our generosity.
And as much as I applaud these avenues, I also find myself concerned that this removes us from the contact we have with each other. Please understand that I don’t wish to discount or demean the generosity of “credit card giving” but perhaps we can challenge ourselves to make our generosity a little more local.
I don’t want any of us to read this immediately hit the guilt button. I recognize how time is finite and many of us are stressed to the max. New time given to one area takes it away from others and I don’t want anyone to spend less time with family out of guilt from this Gospel.
As we read and reread this Gospel we can easily think Jesus’ command is only about food. It’s not. Perhaps we can look at the demand that we welcome the stranger. I recently read something that struck me: “If you’ve been blessed you should use that blessing to build a longer table, not a higher wall.” Much of what I see around me sees strangers as enemies, or at least possible sources of danger. If we can assume that strangers mean us harm, we can also assume that strangers help us fulfill the command that we welcome them.
Some of you know this, but in September I learned that my employer decided to shut its doors. It was the second time this happened in 4 ½ years. But once again another hospice took us in. This transition is never easy, but far and away the best part was the reception we received from my new employer. We were welcomed as strangers. We weren’t seen as new competition for patients but as new members of a team. When I am an old man I will remember with joy this treatment. And this welcome took nothing away from the limited time we all live with.