Monday, March 14, 2011

Blessed be Jesus in the Poorest of the Poor

“Someone once told me that not even for a million dollars would they touch a leper. I responded: "Neither would I. If it were the case of money, I would not even do it for two million. On the other hand, I do it gladly for the love of God." – Blessed Teresa of Calcutta

(Mt 25:31-46) Jesus said to his disciples:
“When the Son of Man comes in his glory,
and all the angels with him,
he will sit upon his glorious throne,
and all the nations will be assembled before him.
And he will separate them one from another,
as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.
He will place the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.
Then the king will say to those on his right,
‘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,
naked and you clothed me,
ill and you cared for me,
in prison and you visited me.’
Then the righteous will answer him and say,
‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you,
or thirsty and give you drink?
When did we see you a stranger and welcome you,
or naked and clothe you?
When did we see you ill or in prison, and visit you?’
And the king will say to them in reply,
‘Amen, I say to you, whatever you did
for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.’
Then he will say to those on his left,
‘Depart from me, you accursed,
into the eternal fire prepared for the Devil and his angels.
For I was hungry and you gave me no food,
I was thirsty and you gave me no drink,
a stranger and you gave me no welcome,
naked and you gave me no clothing,
ill and in prison, and you did not care for me.’
Then they will answer and say,
‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty
or a stranger or naked or ill or in prison,
and not minister to your needs?’
He will answer them, ‘Amen, I say to you,
what you did not do for one of these least ones,
you did not do for me.’
And these will go off to eternal punishment,
but the righteous to eternal life.”

"When did we see you hungry or thirsty? When did we see you naked or homeless? When did we encounter you sick or imprisioned?" It appears that these will be the questions we will all ask on Judgment Day. However, some of us will say that though we didn't know it was Jesus, we fed the hungry, gave drink to the thirsty, clothed the naked and gave refuge to the homeless. Without knowing it was Jesus, we took care of the sick and visited those in prison. And, the rest of us will say, that because we didn't know it was him, we failed to do these things. That's the parable. And, what a relief it is that Jesus tells us this story revealing to us, that whenever we care in this way to the "least" of our brothers and sisters, we care for him. He has so identified himself with us, all of us, that he can make this powerful revelation.

The stunning reality now is, that at the Last Judgment, there will be a lot of us who have heard this parable. We heard what he said about what will be asked of us in this life for our salvation. What will our defense be, if we haven't cared for the hungery, thirsty, naken, homeless, sick or imprisioned? We'll probably have to say, "I guess I forgot." Or, we might say, "I guess it didn't sink in or I didn't believe you that we'd really be judged by this neglect of the poor." "We might get very honest and say, "In spite of the parable I heard year after year, I never really believed I was my brother's keeper. I believed every person should take care of himself or herself. I believed that I worked hard for what I got and I just didn't think I owed anything to any one, other than the taxes I pay and the donations I make to charity. I guess I even judged the poor as somehow deserving of their fate." Some of us might try to bargain with God, saying, "Lord, I don't think the priests and the bishops made a big enough case about the poor, as I remember it. I never got the message that you really meant this. I got more wrapped up in worrying about my own pocketbook, about thinking my taxes were too high, that it wasn't my responsibility to care for the poor."

Does Jesus really mean this? I think he does. I think that if we listen to his whole message, if we watch the witness of his whole life, this is all of one consistent message. When we step back and look at the world around us, it can't be possible that it is God's will that the world stay the way it is now - with a few having so much and the vast majority of humanity having so little. It can't be that this is exactly the way God wants it. When we pray, "May your Kingdom come. May your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven," we are praying for a radical change in our world, for a radical change in our hearts.

As far as the teaching of the Church goes, the clear and consistent message of Catholic Social Teaching and in dozens of encyclicals going back hundreds of years, most especially by Pope John Paul II, clearly call us to live this message Jesus in our world today. The II Vatican Council, in the Gaudium et spes, when explaining the demands of Christian charity, which confer a meaning to the so called social assistance, says: «In our time, it becomes especially pressing our duty to come as close as possible to any man in need and to serve him with affection, whether the elder forsaken by all, or the baby, born out of an illegitimate union, who is exposed to pay for a sin he has not committed, or the starving, who appeals to our conscience by bringing to our memory the words of our Lord: ‘Truly, I say to you: whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me’ (Mt 25:40)».

Certainly, none of us can change the world alone. But, in this first week of Lent, we have something to pray about. Our first lesson for Lent is about what we are called to do, in order to receive the gift of everylasting life. We can ask for the grace to be renewed, to be made freer. And we can begin to practice noticing the hungry, thirsty, naked, homeless, sick and imprisoned among us. They are not our enemy. They are the Body of Christ with us. We can let ourselves be drawn to the new face of Jesus we see. How can we get to know people who are poor? Where can we visit them or learn more about them? What will this renewed compassion and understanding mean for our standing up for the poor, for our positions on programs for the poor, for the renewal of the way we care for the sick and the imprisoned? We can practice, perhaps through almsgiving, perhaps with a self-examination and some research these weeks, of how we can realign some of our priorities, perhaps live more simply, and act more justly on behalf of those in need. It is not only the right thing to do, but Jesus tells us that if we try to save ourselves, we will lose ourselves, but it we lose ourselves, we will find ourselves. As we hear today, our salvation depends upon it.

Let us beg the Virgin Mary for her help in our acts of service to her Son in our brothers.

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