Without question, this week’s Gospel reading of Matthew 25: 31-46 is one of the most important Gospel readings for those Christians involved in work of charity and justice around the world. Countless websites, mission statements, and organizational brochures quote the teaching and millions of Christians around the world have found nourishment in these words of Jesus in their evangelizing work with the poor, the hungry, the migrants, and those in prison.
Because of its popularity and pastoral images of sheep and goats foreign to us city dwellers, the depth and import of Jesus’ teaching might get lost.
The message here is critically important for Christian faith and life. In this passage, we encounter an unsettling truth that appears frequently in Scripture: the ways in which we relate to others, or fail to relate to others, especially those who are poor and in need, impacts our relationship with God.
In this passage, one can hear the judgment of the prophets calling to task the wealthy and the powerful as they “trample on the poor” (Amos 5:11) and the passionate plea of James that faith must come alive in action on behalf of marginalized (James 2).
For me, one of the striking aspects of Matthew 25 is the blindness on the part of the unrighteous. As we listen to the words of Jesus about the last judgment, we can feel the confusion of both the righteous and unrighteous who ask: “When did we see you?” While both parties might not have “seen” God in the poor, the righteous not only see the poor, but they discern their needs and take action.
In the Gospel of Luke we can see a similar message in the story of Lazarus and the rich man (Luke 16:19–31). God’s judgment on the rich man is harsh because he does not see the desperate Lazarus on his doorstep nor does he act to address his needs. If one really does see a person in need, how can one not act? As Christians, we cannot ignore or be blind to the needs of the poor. “The poor,” in the words of Pope John Paul II, “must always be in our memory and form our conscience.”
In our present context it is very easy to overlook the concerns of the poor and the needs of what the Occupy Wall Street movement has called the “99%.” The social sins of consumerism, fear, greed, nationalism and individualism all blind us to the needs and realities of people around us, especially the marginalized. Herein lies the power of these social sins. In blinding us to the reality of injustice and suffering, these social sins foster apathy and inaction to the needs of the marginalized.
In the Gospels, Jesus challenges us to be opened [Ephphatha – Mark 7:3] and see the reality of those around us. The problem with seeing in this way—and indeed with the entire Christian mission—is that it is uncomfortable and challenging. The Christian mission, to which we are all called to participate, is a call to continual conversion. Mission challenges us to open our eyes and go beyond ourselves and the social idols that blind us. Mission calls us not only to see the needs of other but also challenges us to express our faith in God in works of charity and justice.
This year, Maryknoll, the US Catholic Mission movement of priests, brothers, sisters, and lay people, celebrated its 100th anniversary. For over century now, countless women and men have had their eyes opened by the work of Maryknoll around the world. In their many diverse forms of service, few organizations have answered the call of Matthew 25 as Maryknoll movement has over the past century.
While not all of us are called to be missionaries along the lines of Maryknoll; all of us by our baptism are called to mission. All of us are called to go beyond ourselves and to witness to Christ in word, witness, and action. All of us are challenged to open our eyes, evaluate the needs of those around us, and take action in a spirit of solidarity. In the words of the Second Vatican Council’s Decree on Mission:
“All Chirstians by example of their lives and the witness to the world, wherever they live, have an obligation to manifest the new man which they put on in baptism, and to reveal the power of the Holy Spirit by whom they were strnegthend at confirmation, so that others, seeing their good works, might glorify the Father (cf. Matt. 5:16) and more perfectly perceive the true meaning of human life and the universal solidarity of mankind.” (Ad Gentes, 11)
Some questions for reflection:
- What in our lives and society blinds us from seeing? (seeing God, seeing those in need, our personal faults, our gifts, etc)
- What in our lives helps us to see? (to see God in the world, to see the reality of the marginalized)
- What concretely can we do locally, nationally, and globally to transform our context so that the needs of the strangers, the sick, the poor, and the imprisoned are addressed?
- How do we participate in the Christian mission?