Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe - November 23, 2014
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What is going on in today’s Gospel?
Today’s Gospel passage from Matthew comes from the very end of Jesus’ public ministry. In the ensuing chapter, Jesus celebrates the Last Supper with his disciples before being taken into custody by the Jewish authorities. Immediately preceding the scene we hear about today, Jesus has been telling parables about the end times, a portion of the Gospel known as the eschatological discourse. Eschatology, from the Greek eschatos, for “last,” and -ology, for “study of,” is the particular branch of theology that deals with the end of human history. Throughout the New Testament, it is apparent that the early followers of Jesus believed that the Second Coming, marked by the end of the world as we know it, would take place in their lifetime. Numerous of Saint Paul’s ethical exhortations include an admonition concerning the imminence of these end times, so there was a great deal of urgency underneath his calls to conversion.
Jesus’ description of the Second Coming, known by Christians as the paraousia (a Greek word meaning “arrival”), is meant to evoke apocalyptic passages from the Book of Ezekiel and Book of Daniel, in which the Son of Man is depicted as arriving on the clouds, with fire and fury and heavenly creatures all around.
Jesus then goes on to delineate, using the metaphor of sheep and goats, what will take place upon the Son of Man’s arrival. The scene, as Jesus portrays it, has come to be referred to as The Last Judgment. He begins by invoking the familiar Biblical imagery of sheep and goats. Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, the Lord, the God of Israel, is analogized to a shepherd, and the people to his flock. Then, in the Gospels, Jesus, likewise, takes up this metaphor, referring to himself as The Good Shepherd. Usually, the dominant theme communicated by this image of a shepherd is one of protection, safety, and provision. The shepherd feeds his sheep, looks after them, and guards them from harm. Here, we see that the shepherd’s function is as judge between the various members of the flock.
So what are the criteria for the Last Judgment?
In ancient times, earthly wealth was regarded as public testament that one was leading a holy and righteous life. Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, those who do God’s will depicted as being are rewarded with bountiful harvests, rich conquests, and--the most valuable of assets in ancient times--numerous offspring. By contrast, those who were on the margins of society--the poor, the diseased, the mentally ill, the abandoned--were viewed as being deserving of their ignoble fate. It was understood that their misfortune was a direct result of sinful behavior, be it their own or that of their parents. It is for this reason that Job’s peers, when Job falls upon enormous misfortune, ask him what he has done to offend God.
And yet, Jesus does not cling to the consensus of his contemporaries when he articulates his vision for the Last Judgment. A first-century audience would have expected him to hold up the successful members of society as those selected to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, living examples worthy of emulation. Instead, Jesus rejects the world’s standards in favor of a criterion based on humility, generosity, and compassion for the very people the world deemed unfit to enter. Nor does he highlight those who have kept every letter of the Law, nor worshipped the right way at Temple, nor been tapped to serve as a leader in the faith community.
Rather, we see Jesus placing emphasis on how his followers treat those who cannot possibly repay them. Those whom the world has written off, forgotten, or oppressed. Of note is the fact that the condemned who protest, “When did we see you?” presumably would have behaved differently if they had known it was JESUS in front of them. But Jesus’ precise point is that it should not matter WHO is the person at our door. This remains an incisive challenge for us in our own day. Presumably, if the Pope or the President or the starting QB for the Patriots showed up at our door, asking to borrow a few bucks and use the bathroom, we would trip over ourselves to accommodate that prestigious individual. But what if the person showing up at our door is dirty and unpleasant? If, while we were attending a basketball game, a friend asked to borrow five bucks to buy a drink, would we oblige? What about if a homeless person asked, as we exited the arena that same night, for five dollars to get some dinner?
So what does this have to do with us?
The words from today’s Gospel bear every bit as much meaning for us today as they did for the early community of believers. The call to treat each person we encounter, particularly the poor and marginalized, as though that individual were Jesus himself, is one of the core tenets of the Gospel, and a central part of what it is to be a follower of Jesus. And here, more clearly than in any other place in all of the Bible, it is explicitly held up as the metric by which we will be judged at the end of our lives.
Simple though they be, the challenge of actually living these words is far more difficult. Nearly all of us struggle to make ends meet, be it to pay for college textbooks or purchase Christmas gifts for loved ones. In fact, most Americans carry substantial debt, from student loans and car payments to medical bills and mortgages. It can feel, at times, as though we do not have any money to spare. And yet, if we are truly honest with ourselves, we manage to indulge in little luxuries that put those financial anxieties to lie. $30 for a sweater we don’t absolutely need. $5 for a pumpkin spice latte. $20 for drinks with coworkers. These aren’t bad things, and no one would suggest that we need to live under the constant, suffocating oppression of guilt that our every expenditure ought to be weighed against the needs of starving refugees in Syria or homeless veterans in Detroit. But it is a call to self-scrutiny and to an audit of our consumer habits, vis-a-vis the very real needs of so many in the world.
Another facet is how individual acts of charity (“for I was hungry, and you gave me food”) are necessarily complemented by structural advocacy for justice. Soup kitchens and private philanthropic organizations are incapable of responding to massive social afflictions like hunger or homelessness, much less to the devastating effects of war and natural disasters, and so the Catholic Church has long insisted on the need for justice at the level of government to go along with charity provided by individuals and groups. We might well add to Jesus’ words, “For I was hungry, and you voted for a Congressman who promised to cut food stamps. A stranger, and you pressed for a border fence and increased deportations.”
To help us think about all of these issues, as they pertain not only to personal ethical decision-making, but to national legislative priorities, the US Conference of Bishops has entire offices devoted to informing faithful citizens and lobbying elected officials with respect to these pressing moral issues. In our own lives, we can not only donate an extra winter coat we might have as part of a clothing drive, but also demand to know how our government’s financial priorities permit us to find funding for military expenditures but not enough to provide access to housing and food for all its citizens.
Questions for Reflection
1. What are some ways you have volunteered in the past? How does it relate to your faith?
2. When we come face-to-face with someone who is homeless, ill, or otherwise at the margins of society, it reminds us that these are human persons, like ourselves. Have you ever had a powerful personal encounter with someone while doing service?
3. How can you integrate opportunities to practice charity and work for justice in your own life?