At last a clear, unambiguous statement about what ought to characterize those who truly believe in the God revealed in Jesus. To be in right relation with that God, to be truly a follower of the Christ, is to be in right relation with those fellow creatures whom that God has created. It came to be known as the sacramental principle; the creature is sacrament or outward sign of the inner presence of God. "Whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me." Whatever I do for those who share the world with me is done for God, and it is not by accident that Matthew names explicitly those underprivileged who frequently have no voice to call on us. Today’s gospel calls on us all shockingly and clearly. Whatever I do for and to those around me is done for and to God. It is a lesson to ponder.
Today’s text, which is found late in Matthew’s gospel, is not Matthew’s first attempt to highlight the equivalence of neighbor and God. He had already tried early in his gospel, in his report of the Sermon on the Mount. If you are offering your gift at the altar, he had written, that is, if you are seeking to be in relationship with God, and you remember that your brother has something against you, "leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled with your brother and then come and offer your gift" (5:23-24). It is the same message: right relationship with God demands right relationship with neighbor. You can’t have one without the other. But this early message is put abstractly. It needs translation to the concrete and practical, and where there is need for translation there is always the danger of mistranslation.
Not so in today’s gospel. It could not be more concrete and practical. Feed the hungry (and take them off the street); give drink to the thirsty (and sobriety to the drunk); offer hospitality to the stranger (and the stranger is not always the one who comes from afar); visit the imprisoned (or the chronic "shut in’); clothe the ill-clothed (even if you have to give up your dream of a designer label). And there are a thousand other unnamed concrete services that are needed, which each of us will individually recognize, and which demonstrate our genuine devotion to God through genuine devotion to neighbor. Today’s text always shocks me into thinking of those needs anew. It does so again today. I invite you to think with me. And remember why we are invited to this behavior: "I am the Lord."
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