Be holy, for I, the LORD, your God, am holy. Leviticus 19
‘Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.’ Matthew 25
It is so fitting that we begin this Lenten journey - which offers instruction for those preparing to join the Church at the Easter Vigil - with Jesus' parable of the last judgment. Jesus makes it so clear that the final judgment we experience is about how we have cared for those "little ones" on the margins of our society.
"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 Apostles were shocked, when the rich young man left Jesus' company "because his possessions were many." Jesus shocked them further when he said, "How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!" The Apostles asked him, "Then, Lord, who can be saved?" His response is comforting for us as we begin our Lenten journey: "What is impossible for human beings is possible for God." We can ask for the grace that God will make salvation possible in our lives.
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.
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