By: Michel Côté, OP
Today’s gospel is certainly one of my favorites and a favorite of any person of compassion. For all of its concreteness and practicality, the message here could still be seen by some as full of ambiguity. The Pharisees of the time would have gone crazy with the implications of this parable. Because for them Jesus is completely changing the rules of the game. He’s saying: It’s not only what you believe [in] anymore, it’s what you DO that counts. If you humanize/take care of my brothers and sisters, it’s like doing it for me, like doing it to me. That now is true godliness, true holiness.
In this text, to their surprise, those who think that they are IN find themselves OUT and those who might have thought themselves OUT didn’t even know that they were IN. Another famous biblical reversal.
Of course the importance of DOING what God wants was not new in Matthew. Already in the earlier Sermon on the Mount in chapter 7, Jesus had introduced this concept when he said: 20 “Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them. 21 Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.
22 Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’ [I mean: Lord, look! we’re on YOUR side! Aren’t we???]”
23 Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’
24 Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise person who built their house on the rock.
In all of this Jesus favours ortho-praxy [doing the right thing] to ortho-doxy [believing the right thing]. People of religion talk a lot about orthodoxy. But what about orthopraxy! Now in practice these two have to go together: it’s simply a case of doing what you believe in. But this is a world where often spiritual and temporal are divided: some are led to think that the spiritual outweighs the temporal. Jesus indicates that the real proof of the pudding will not be in the words one uses but in the actions on does. And it is on this that one is judged. Ultimately, the doing outweighs the believing. Because by specifically putting it into action, the doing is actually fulfilling/implementing the believing.
This scene is often called the Last Judgment. It should not be called that, because when you think of it, it’s not about the end times at all. It’s a parable in the future reflecting on what one should have done in the past. Now, what is the future’s past? It’s TODAY. This parable is not about tomorrow or yesterday; it’s about how we plan to act today.
Remember Matthew 7 : “21 Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” So we are all called to be doing as Jesus did…
So who is this Jesus who seems to care so much about the down and outs?
Kings don’t usually care about trivial matters such as the concerns of the common folk, the peasants, the rabble.
In fact in this reading today, Jesus is not called king, but in the New Testament Greek he is the Uios anthropou – literally : “child of humanity” [or Son of human] who sits on a throne to judge. [even in John’s Gospel, when Jesus answers Pilate’s statement saying “You are a king, then!” Jesus answered, “You are right in saying I am a king.” – but Jesus does not say of himself that he IS king.”]
The kind of leadership Jesus expects of his followers is to be found in the analogy of the shepherd that we find in the passage of Ezechiel that we first read today:
16 “I will search for the lost and bring back the strays. I will bind up the injured and strengthen the weak, but the sleek and the strong I will destroy. I will shepherd the flock with justice.
17 [And Ezechiel concludes:] ‘As for you, my flock, this is what the Sovereign LORD says: I will judge between one sheep and another, and between rams and goats”. [you can see here a reference to today’s Gospel]
Did you know that the very first images we have of Jesus in the first centuries is not one of a king but of a shepherd. It’s only when the Christians take over the western world (and get a feeling for power and influence) with the help of the emperor Constantine that we get the images of the Christ Pantocrator (Creator of all) with kingly overtones. If we truly want to be Christ-like, it has to be as Albert Nolan, a South African Dominican, writes in his Book “Christ before Christianity”, we need to look at the time when Christians were persecuted, isolated, and powerless.
Jesus’ lordship is not one of oppressive autocratic power over others, but one of loving service. Matthew 20 reminds us of this when he repeats the passage found in Mark 10: “26 If you want to be great, you must be the servant of all the others. 27 And if you want to be first, you must be the slave of the rest. 28 The Son of Man did not come to be a slave master, but a slave who will give his life to rescue many people. Now being a slave is certainly a far cry from being king as we understand it.
Even the messianic king that the Psalms talk about [Ps 72] show very clearly what is the role of the king:
“God, help the king to be honest and fair just like you, our God, with all your people, especially with the poor.
4 Let the king defend the poor, rescue the homeless,
and crush everyone who hurts them.
The king rescues the homeless when they cry out,
and he helps everyone who is poor and in need.
13 The king has pity on the weak and the helpless.
14 He cares when they hurt, and saves them from cruel and violent deaths.”
Yes, “Let the king be just like you, o God…”a king whose power is used to promote compassion and justice for all, a king who cares for all, and who shepherds his flock.
What this passage of Matthew shows us is that justice and compassion are not even an option for Jesus: they are the only royal way. And dealing exclusively in spirituality and sacraments and prayers and devotions is not only limited, it is possibly and ultimately laden with idolatry and heresy.
The Gospel writer John would write in his first letter [1Jn 4:20]: “For a person cannot claim to love God whom they have not seen if they do not love (through their actions) their brother or sister whom they do see.”
In a way, we – each one of us — are the hands, the heart, the mind, the feet and the alternate presence of God in this world.
This parable (of Mt 25) then is an invitation to look concretely at how we are following the call of Jesus.
It is also an invitation to look at the one who is our leader, Jesus, a model for us who sought to be possessionless, prestigeless and powerless. A leader who in his life and practice turned the world’s values upside-down, a leader who cared enough for God’s dream of milk and honey for all of God’s children that he went around Galilee touching and caring for the marginalized and giving them back their innate dignity.
Truly, our God — acting through Jesus — is an awesome, mysterious, surprizing, caring and a very close God !
Let us now, this morning and in all our days ahead, give thanks and praise to this amazing God !