Once again, the president and congress are mired in an epic battle of wills, not just on the recent matter of immigration, but on a long list of challenging issues that have severely divided our fellow citizens for many years, thus dimming any hope we would see our country’s most pressing needs ever addressed. So what’s new? I’m guessing it would be easier to identify issues on which they might actually agree. But then again, even that is just a figure of speech. Sadly, their more partisan supporters would be more determined to find ways of dispelling the mere suggestion they might actually agree on anything. Images of flying pigs and hell freezing over come to mind.
But if we try just this once to set politics aside, and I know for some people that would be as distasteful as chopping off their own leg, the message of today’s gospel reading might perhaps come into clearer focus. We can choose to take from the lessons of scripture only what brings us comfort, or we can examine deeper Jesus’ teaching and discover his message challenging us to live more faithfully and authentically our Christian discipleship, no matter our political persuasion.
We come upon Jesus on his way to Jerusalem with his disciples eager to bring to fulfillment the purpose for which he took our nature upon himself—his passion and death in obedience to the Father’s will. So he takes the occasion to speak of the final judgment at the end of time, when we shall all come before God, who alone determines what eternity holds for us. It is quite a scene: all the nations assembled before the Son of Man who is seated on his glorious throne and attended by his angels. Then he will separate those gathered into two groups. To one group he will proclaim a grand welcome into an eternal inheritance, “the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” To the other he will proclaim an equally grand dismissal, “Depart from me, you accursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the Devil and his angels. And these will go off to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”
So each one will have to examine their own journey, and ultimately the crucial choices they made in the face of their neighbor’s suffering and need. “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.” And each one will ask the same question, unaware, it seems, that it was Jesus himself who came to them in the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the ill, and those in prison. “Whatever you did for these least brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” The list is not exhaustive, although it covers a great many of broken humanity. But there is much to examine who else he could have meant when he singled out the hungry, the thirsty, and the rest. Easily, these are not just bodily afflictions and physical miseries.
There are many, for instance, who hunger and thirst for basic sustenance, for nourishing food and drink. But there are others also who hunger and thirst for justice and righteousness, for compassionate acceptance and gentle recognition, for respectful acknowledgement of their dignity as created in the image and likeness of God. Do we notice these who also hunger and thirst?
Many are strangers to us, who live on the fringes of society, who are disparaged and mistreated for their unusual ways. They don’t have to be strange in any obvious way, just different from what we consider comfortable or familiar. They might speak a different language, listen to different music, practice unfamiliar customs, and live by a different set of values and priorities. If you are older, they might be younger. If you are younger, they might be older. They might prefer the old ways, and are uneasy with innovation and creativity. Or they might despise your traditions, eagerly embracing every flashy and new-fangled technology. They might be well-respected in the community, and have an outstanding credit history. Or they might be recent arrivals and as yet without clout and influence in the marketplace. Do we see these strangers in our midst?
We imagine the naked among us would be easy to spot. Yet they are not limited to the inappropriately attired, or in need of more coverage. It seems some of them might not necessarily be naked by choice, but find themselves so rather by circumstance. Their nakedness and exposure results from poverty, from a lack of opportunity, from abuse and exploitation. They are led to believe they are beneath the dignity of those created in the image and likeness of God, perhaps because they have been badly damaged by neglect or abuse, or they have done harm to society by involvement in criminal activity. They do not recognize their own brokenness. So they are unable to shield themselves from those who would take advantage. Do we see the naked among us?
The sick we frequently remember and pray for each time we gather in church. We like to mention them by name, and send them cheerful greeting cards. But they are often hidden from view. Maybe they make us uncomfortable. The silence can be very awkward when we run out of things to say. So we make excuses for why we don’t visit. But that’s just those whose affliction we understand. We are not as accommodating of those with mental illness. We struggle to feel compassion for them until we realize they do not choose their cross. We will not see them unless we go to them. What will it take?
Getting involved with those in prison is a challenging ministry. As with all other human miseries, knowing someone on the inside opens the door. Family ties are not the best incentive, but it can serve as a reluctant starting point. All other attempts to recast those already considered unfit for society are suspect. They have nowhere to go. And like the sick, we will not see them unless we go to them.
“Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty, or a stranger or naked, or ill or in prison, and did not minister to your needs?” Our failure would stem from our inability to see Jesus in the suffering and those in need. It is quite unfortunate that our politics probably commands a stronger response than the challenge of the gospel. Who among us would welcome political alienation for the sake of the gospel? We might be better prepared for that final judgment if we cared less about politics and more about living the gospel.
“When did we see you?” they asked the eternal judge. “Whatever you did for these least brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” The suffering and need of our sisters and brothers stare us in the face. But do we see Jesus in their faces?
Rolo B Castillo © 2014