Brief synopsis of the readings: In the book of the prophet Ezekiel we read about a shepherd who keeps his flock in view and will rescue them when they are in trouble. Furthermore he shall rescue one who is scattered and bandage the wounded and make the weak strong. Matthew’s Gospel foretells a time when the Son of Man comes in his glory. At that time he will divide the people into two groups as a shepherd divides the sheep from the goats. He praises the sheep because when “I was hungry you gave me food.” They also quenched those who were thirsty, welcomed the stranger, clothed the naked and visited the sick and prisoners. They were puzzled because they did not remember serving the Son of Man, but he replied “in so far as you did this to one of the least of these brother of mine, you did it to me.” He then turned to the other group and condemned them for not feeding the hungry, etc. He explained that “in so far as you neglected to do this to one of the least of these, you neglected to do it to me.”
Today we celebrate the last Sunday of the liturgical year. While the secular calendar begins on January 1st, the church year begins on the first Sunday of Advent (next week, November 29th) and today is the last.
Two weeks ago, last week, and this week describe what we often call the “End Times” and if you want to impress your literary friends they are “eschatological readings.” Fun fact: when I was in seminary I took an entire class on Eschatology taught by Fr. Carl Peter. Two months after the class finished he died peacefully in his sleep; that means I took his last class in Eschatology.
If you speak with Christians who work in social justice they will often talk about “Matthew 25” and they are talking about this reading. Here in San Diego the diocese awards the “Matthew 25 award” to someone who embodies care for the poor. Generations of Catholic school students memorized the “Corporal Works of Mercy” that outlined feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, etc.
It all sounds fairly simple, but the more we look into this, the more complicated it gets. We can’t fulfill these readings by simply writing a check to a charity and brag to our friends how wonderful we are.
The Son of Man didn’t say “when someone was hungry you made sure they received food.” Instead the Son of Man identifies with (and is) the person who is hungry or thirsty or a stranger. As Christians we all desire close relationships with God and this gives us an incredible blueprint for doing exactly that. God is not the old guy with the gray beard (not that there’s anything wrong with that) that lives in the clouds. God is the guy standing at the intersection asking for help. God is the frightened immigrants who are so desperate that they spend weeks walking through deserts or board unsafe boats in the hopes of a better future for their children. God is the prisoner who, in the depths of despair, recognizes that he (or she) needs help to reconcile and rebuild.
In the final word this reading calls us to meet the basic needs of others but that’s not enough. We are called to look the other in the eye and see God looking back at us. Decades ago I heard a talk by the Baptist Minister Tony Campolo and he spoke about this reading. I’m paraphrasing this, but this is what he said:
Do you think Mother Theresa wakes up in the morning groaning because she has another day on the streets of Calcutta and nobody made the coffee? Or does she instead say: “When I look into the eyes of the poor and suffering I see the eyes of Jesus looking back on me?”
On the other hand I once lived next door to a Catholic school. It was a blue collar lower middle class neighborhood and it became clear the parish could no longer sustain the school. The city expressed an interest in this property to build affordable housing. I attended a neighborhood meeting to discuss this and I have to tell you I came away ashamed to be Catholic. Neighbor after neighbor came to the podium to talk about how bad this will be for property values, only topped by one parishioner who said: “I have a friend who lives near a poor neighborhood and she tells me that poor people stink.” I decided against reminding them that they were one layoff or health crisis away from being one of those people.
Time and again Jesus tells us that the last shall be first and the first shall be last. Today’s reading also tells us that when the sheep enter into the Kingdom they (hopefully we) will enter arm in arm with someone who used to be hungry or thirsty or unwelcome or lonely.
And what about the goats? Well, perhaps there is a happy ending there too. They will go to a place where they will never be inconvenienced by those who are hungry or thirsty (after all, they must be too lazy to work). They need not fear being surrounded by people whose skin is darker and speak a different language. And since they don’t like going to hospitals they don’t have to worry about seeing anyone who is sick. Finally, since the prisoners aren’t here, the crime rate is zero.
Maybe they think this is Heaven.