The ‘Law and Order’ Moment
November 24, 2002
There has always been a certain amount of fascination with courtroom dramas. Those of us who are old enough to remember the early days of television, can perhaps remember “Perry Mason”. Most of us today know of, and perhaps watch, shows such as “The Practice” and “Law and Order”. The best of these shows have a moment on which everything turns, a sentence which determines all else that follows. It is usually in the courtroom when a lawyer asks a particular question or a witness gives a particular response. Suddenly it becomes obvious who is guilty and who is innocent. In an instant we know the true nature of the characters. Perhaps, in honor of the leading television show, we should call this moment, “the Law and Order Moment.” For this is the moment when all the pieces fall into place, the sentence on which everything else depends,.
Today’s gospel gives us the ultimate “Law and Order Moment.” The courtroom is the entire world and Jesus is the judge, sitting on his royal throne.
We are the ones called before him to justify ourselves, and the sentence will be either eternal damnation or eternal life. We would be wise to hire the best lawyers and carefully examine both our plea and our defense. But the whole trial will be determined by one sentence, one “Law and Order Moment.” That sentence is: “Whatever you do for the least of my brothers or sisters, you do for me.” This is the moment that determines our destiny; the turning point that seals our fate.
It is crucial to recognize that the most important word in that sentence is the word “least.” Because what this “Law and Order Moment” tells us, is that we are not going to be judged on how well we love those who are closest to us, but rather on how we love those who do not seem to be connected to us. We are not going to be judged on how well we love those that we like, but rather on how we love those who are difficult to love—the least of our brothers and sisters. In this courtroom, it is not enough to come forward and say: “I have loved somebody.” Everybody loves somebody. It would be inhuman or monstrous to go through life, never loving anyone. In this courtroom we are expected to do more. As good as it is, loving our friends, our spouse, our children, is not the love that determines our fate. It is not the love that shapes the “Law and Order Moment.”
This Judge expects more from us. He expects us to accept the geeky kid at school who everyone else shuns. He expects us to be patient with a co-worker who irks us. He expects us to forgive the person who has hurt us and to welcome the relative who has disappointed us. He expects us to help those who have no connection to us, other than the fact that they stand in need of our help. He asks us to love the least among us.
Although that expectation may seem too demanding and a bit unfair, it is motivated by the best intention. Because this Judge has an agenda, an agenda for the world. This Judge wants to establish God’s Kingdom, a kingdom in which violence and hatred cease, a kingdom in which justice and peace reign, a kingdom in which all people can share a common life and joy. Jesus knows that that Kingdom will never be established if people simply love their own. The Kingdom of God can never take root as long as men and women love only those who love them in return. There is no hope for the world as long as we are willing only to love those who are easy to love. That is why this Judge calls for disciples who are willing to do more, who are willing to love those who are difficult and those who have no easy claim on our love. That is the norm to which Jesus will hold us accountable, to love the least of our brothers and sisters.
Today’s gospel reveals the measure against which we will be judged, to love the least among us. It is a measure which is difficult, but it is certainly not one which is hidden. Today’s gospel makes it crystal clear, as clear as the difference between innocence and guilt, as clear as the difference between sheep and goats. On that last day when we come before the Lord, there will be no surprise turns or revelations, such as we find on Perry Mason and Law and Order. We know the sentence against which our lives will be measured. So now is the time to start collecting the evidence. Now is the time to start preparing our defense. Now is the time when it might be necessary to start changing our lives.
What to See in the Last Judgment
November 20, 2005
Matthew 25: 31- 46
Today’s Gospel of the Last Judgment is not a parable. It is a revelation. It reveals to us the crux of the Gospel. It is perhaps the clearest passage in the scriptures to disclose what it means to be a follower of Jesus. Since this passage is so important, it is vital that we understand it correctly. Yet there is an aspect of this passage that is often overlooked.
This scene is not so much about doing as it is about seeing. Now of course we are called to do certain things: to feed the hungry, give drink to those who thirst, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, care for the sick and imprisoned. We are called to do all of this. But what is often overlooked is why we are called to do these things. This is why the most important word in this passage is the preposition “to.”
Jesus says whatever we do for the least of his brothers or sisters you do it to him. Jesus does not say whatever we do to the least of his brothers or sisters you do it for him. He does not say that when we care for the hungry we are acting for his sake. He does not say that when we show respect to the stranger or the imprisoned, we are being tested to prove that by loving them we love him.
No, the connection is closer than that. When we do these things, we do them to Jesus. What this passage is revealing is that Jesus is present in those to whom we show ministry and love. That is what we are called to see: Jesus’ presence in others. This presence is certainly in the least among us, but not only in them. This passage reveals the intimate connection which Jesus has with all people—the young and old, the attractive and the repulsive, those who are successful, those who are destitute. Jesus is present in all people. Therefore what we do to anyone we do to him.
This revelation requires faith. Only faith will allow such a wide scope to Jesus’ presence. We tend to limit Christ’s presence to those who look Christ-like, to those who are good and honest, to those who are polite and responsible, to those who are hardworking and respectable. But this revelation says that such a view is too narrow. Whenever we encounter any person, there is something Christ-like in that person. Jesus is present in everyone.
It is a profound challenge in believing this truth. We know that people are not equally good or trustworthy. There are some people who are manipulative and abusive. We sometimes need to distance ourselves from such people, to hold them at arms length. But even these least among us retain some presence of Christ in them. Therefore, the shocking revelation is that we must relate to each person as we relate to Christ.
Perhaps it is easier to understand this challenge from another angle: Christ never lets go of anyone. Christ chooses to remain even in people who make disastrous decisions, in people who are untrustworthy, in people with whom we dare not associate. Christ lets go of no one. The Catholic tradition knows this truth. It insists that each person has a value and a worth that cannot be taken away. Every person retains a Christ-likeness. This is why the Catholic tradition is opposed to abortion, capital punishment, and war. Even in the limited situations where these things can be tolerated, the extinguishing of any life is extinguishing Christ.
Believing the revelation of the Last Judgment can change us. We can forgive our enemies, if we remember that Christ is in our enemies. Even if we cannot see that Christ-likeness, we can choose to believe that somehow it is still there. We can become more patient with people who annoy us, if we believe that Jesus remains in those we find difficult. We can become less critical, less judgmental, less prejudiced, if we realize that we do not need to see Christ’s presence in others before we believe it is there.
Each time we accept this revelation it expands our vision. We begin to see Christ everywhere, in a thousand faces. Whenever we see good qualities and virtues, we will automatically say, “Yes, there is a reflection of Jesus.” Whenever those qualities seem absent, we will choose to believe that somehow there is still a Christ-likeness there.
The revelation of the Last Judgment attempts to change our vision. Of course such vision will lead to action—to feeding the hungry and welcoming the stranger. But action is not the first step. The first step is not doing but seeing. If we see where Christ is, doing will follow. If we recognize that Christ is present in everyone, we cannot help but serve every brother and sister.
Thy Will Be Done on Earth
November 23, 2008
Today we conclude our liturgical year with the feast of Christ the King. Of course this feast is about Christ. But it’s not simply about who Christ is but also about what Christ does. We believe that through Christ, God brings about God’s Kingdom. So today’s feast is not simply about the King; it’s also about the Kingdom.
What is the Kingdom? What is the Kingdom of God? We are always talking about the Kingdom of God. The Kingdom of God describes that time when God’s power and God’s will extend to everything, when, as Paul says in today’s second reading, “God is all in all.” When the Kingdom comes, everything that is will be as God wants it to be. Everything will be good and just and perfect. That is the Kingdom of God.
There are two things to remember about the Kingdom of God. The first is this: the Kingdom of God is not the same as heaven. We believe in heaven. We believe that our beloved dead are with Christ in heaven. We believe that when we die we will join them in heaven. But the Kingdom of God is not the same as heaven. The Kingdom of God is a step beyond heaven. We believe that when the Kingdom of God comes, the perfection of heaven will extend to this world. We believe that when the Kingdom of God comes, God’s will, which is perfectly followed in heaven, will be perfectly followed on earth. When Christ comes on that last day, all of creation, all that is, including our physical body, will share in the glory of God. So it is very important for us not to spiritualize the Kingdom, not to imagine that it only pertains to spiritual things. The precise meaning of the Kingdom is that when God’s Kingdom comes, all that exists, both spiritual and material, both our souls and our bodies, will be caught up in the perfection of God. Now this truth is at the center of what we believe, but we often forget it. Yet we pray for it every day. We pray, “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Each time we say the Lord’s Prayer, we pray that the perfection of heaven would come to earth, that God’s reign and God’s glory would now characterize all of creation. That is why I say that the Kingdom is a step beyond heaven. We believe that heaven will eventually come to earth. That is the first thing to remember about the Kingdom.
The second is this: the Kingdom is already but not yet. The Kingdom of God is already begun but not yet complete. We believe that through the death and resurrection of Jesus, God has already begun to establish the Kingdom in our world. But we also admit that that work of establishing the Kingdom is not yet complete. It will not be complete until Christ returns in glory. So the Kingdom is already begun but not yet completed.
It is important for us to claim both of these truths. Every time something good happens in our world, we believe that it is a sign of God already at work to establish the Kingdom. Every time that science conquers a new disease, every time nations move towards peace, every time hope emerges out of chaos, or reconciliation happens in our families, or our children take a step toward maturity and wisdom, we as believers do not simply imagine these are some random good things happening. We believe that these good things are part of God’s action through Christ the King, to move history towards that day when heaven comes to earth, when God’s Kingdom will be established. We believe that already God is working in our world in that way, but we also admit that that work of establishing the Kingdom is not yet complete. We admit how much of our world still stands in rebellion against God’s will, how much of our world is still characterized by violence and greed, prejudice and injustice. We know that these evils that are present among us are not a sign that God has forgotten us but the simple truth that the Kingdom of God is not yet finished. God’s kingdom remains incomplete.
That incompleteness is our calling, our invitation. For if we follow Christ the King, we are called to participate in building God’s Kingdom, to work against the incompleteness of God’s will in our midst. Following Jesus involves working to see that peace and justice occur in our world. This is our calling, and this is what it means to follow Christ.
Today’s feast is about the Kingdom of God and about the King who brings that kingdom to us. The Kingdom is not the same as heaven. The Kingdom extends the perfection of heaven to the world in which we live. We claim that that work of Christ has already begun in every good event that occurs in our midst. We are not discouraged when we still see evil remaining because we know that we are not alone. We know that Christ our King is working in us and through us to bring us to that day when God is all in all.
This is a startling vision, a revelation of what God is about. But people of faith are not afraid to claim it. We, as believers, continue to pray for that time when God’s will, will characterize all that is. “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.”
The Goats Speak Back
November 20, 2011
Matthew 25: 31-46
Today’s Gospel passage is one of the most famous in the New Testament. It has left a deep impression upon our imaginations and upon Christian art. Throughout the world, in cathedrals and art museums, you can see depictions of the scene that was just proclaimed: Jesus seated on his royal throne with the world gathered before him. He divides all the nations into two groups, the sheep and the goats, the just and the unjust, the blessed and the damned.
It is also clear on what criterion the division is made. It is giving, or not giving, to the least among us. This is a heavy Gospel because it tells us that our relationship to Jesus, now and forever, is determined on how we serve the hungry, the stranger, the sick, or imprisoned. Whatever we give or fail to give to them, we give or fail to give to Jesus.
Now, the message of this Gospel is so powerful and clear that you might imagine that there is no additional insight we can find in this passage. But the Scriptures are so rich that with a little effort we can find something more. What if we were to imagine that the story went on a bit longer? What if we were to imagine that the goats spoke back? After Jesus accused them of failing to serve him because they did not feed the hungry, welcome the stranger, and visit the imprisoned, what the if goats said, “Lord, we tried to serve the least among us but they would not accept it!”
Giving is important and this passage tells us that giving is eternally important. Yet it is impossible to give unless someone is willing to receive, and receiving is an attitude that is really not that popular. It may be true, as the old saying goes, “It is better to give than to receive.” But it is also true that it is easier to give than to receive. Giving puts us in a position of strength. We are in control and we receive deep satisfaction from giving to others. Receiving places us in an attitude of weakness. It emphasizes our dependency and it makes us feel indebted. Receiving shakes our pride in our self-sufficiency and in our success. That is why most of us resist receiving. In fact, we are at times willing to deny our need rather than to accept something from another. Now, this attitude is false and destructive. Anyone recovering from drugs or alcohol could make this clear to us. Owning our need and our dependency on others is the way to healing and the way to life. Yet we find it difficult to accept help from another.
How many times might a family member or friend say to us, “How are you doing? Is there something wrong? Do you need to talk?” and our response is, “No, I’m fine. I’m going to deal with this on my own.” How many times when we are sick or grieving will someone say, “Are you okay? Is there anything that I can do? Can I stop over and pay you a visit?” and our response is, “No, I’m OK. I don’t want to bother you.” We find it so hard to ask for help, so hard to say, “Could you show me how to do this? I don’t understand. Could you stop over? I just need someone to talk to. Could I have a few dollars? I’m short this month.”
Jesus says that we must give to the least among us, but none of us want to be the least among us. We all want to be the givers. But, if everybody is a giver, then there will not be enough receivers to go around. So today’s Gospel is clear: When we have a need, we should admit that need. We should put our pride aside and accept from another. Then, if we receive from others, maybe they will receive from us, and in time, all of us will have a chance to give. Receiving is important. We might think that refusing to accept from another is a sign of nobleness, but it is actually a form of selfishness. When we refuse to receive from others, we are denying them the opportunity of serving Christ himself. So when you are in need, allow yourself to receive from others. It might be uncomfortable to accept their services, but doing so is important. In fact, their salvation depends upon it.
The Least, the Lost, and the Last
November 23, 2014
Today’s gospel presents Jesus as the judge of the entire world. It reminds us that a day will come where we will stand before the Lord to give an accounting of our own life. Then we will either be invited to join Jesus’s flock or banished to be among the goats. Since this story holds our eternal happiness in the balance, it would be wise for us to read it carefully.
A casual reading of this story might conclude that we are going to be judged on the way that we love other people. But the story is much more specific. In fact, this teaching of Jesus goes further than his other teachings on love and service. It goes further than saying we are to love our neighbor as ourselves. It goes beyond saying that we are to love others as Jesus has loved us. This story tells us that we are to love the least among us. Jesus says that what we do or do not do to the least among us is what we do or do not do to him.
This story calls us to serve the least, the lost, and the last. This is not our usual practice. We are comfortable serving those who we love and those who are close to us. It makes sense to us to love those who we like or who will love us in return. But Jesus is asking us to serve the least, the lost, and the last, and that means we have some searching out to do. Because the truth is that you and I do not usually live surrounded by the least, the lost, and the last. We have to find out where they are.
For some of us, the search is close at hand. It might be in our very families. There might be a son or daughter who is always last, who struggles to keep up or a grandchild that falls time and time again by abusing drugs or alcohol. There might be a brother or sister that has run afoul of the law. In this week of Thanksgiving, when we think so much of family, Jesus is telling us that it is our role to feed and to clothe the least, the lost, and the last in our own families.
Who is the least at school or at work? Jesus is asking us to do more than simply love our friends and care for those who everyone admires. Who is the person that people shun or ridicule, the person that they avoid or dismiss? That is the person that Jesus is asking us to care for and to visit.
Who is the least in our country? It is not often that we will find those least in the middle class and socially responsible circles in which we live. We have to seek them out in the inner city, in a hunger center, at the borders of our country looking to come in and be a part of our society. We need to seek them out because these are the ones that Jesus wants us to care for and to welcome. We have to search around the margins of society so that we can stand in solidarity with those who others considered disposable.
In today’s first reading, God is revealed as the one who seeks out the lost, who brings back those who have strayed, who binds up the injured, who heals the sick. This is why we must go out and search for the least, the lost, and the last. When we find them, we will find God. And—if we can trust today’s gospel—we will also find eternal life.
Serving the Least
November 26, 2017
Today’s gospel is one of the most dramatic scenes in the bible. Jesus comes at the end of time and judges who is worthy of eternal life and who is not. And, since the stakes are so high, it is crucial for us to appreciate what is the criterion on which Jesus bases his judgement. Surprisingly enough that criterion does not include many of the things we associate with holiness. Jesus does not ask whether we go to church on Sunday, whether we have made our confirmation, whether we have an annulment. He does not seem to be concerned about whether we are married or single, rich or poor, Republican or Democrat, gay or straight. His only focus is to inquire what we did or failed to do in serving others. Because this criterion is so singular and necessary, it is important for us to appreciate how Jesus describes those we are to serve: He asks us to serve the least among us. Jesus is not asking us to serve people in some general way. He has a specific category in mind. Who then are the least among us? They certainly include the categories that Jesus mentions: the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick and imprisoned. But, these are only examples of the least. The category of the least is broad enough that it can include at least one more member: those who are the least for us.
This parable asks us who do we consider the least, those whose value is the hardest for us to see, those whose actions confuse and disturb us, those whose attitude and beliefs can anger and frighten us. Jesus says that the basis of our judgement on the last day will depend on how we serve those we consider the least. Then in a move that surprises both the sheep and the goats, Jesus says that whatever we do for the least among us, we do for him.
The expectation that Jesus places before us is not an easy one. He asks us to serve those who appear to be the least to us. This can be very difficult. But no one said that entry into heaven would be a free ride. Jesus places this expectation before us not to frighten us but to clarify what he expects from us and what it means to follow him.
There might be a member of your family who in your eyes is the least: a son or daughter who has greatly disappointed you, a brother or sister who has done shameful things and to whom you have not spoken in years. Jesus wants you to know that it is a good and beautiful thing during this holiday season to gather with your children and your grandchildren and celebrate all the blessings that you have received. But that is simply loving the people you love. It is when you reach out to least in your family that you are loving Jesus.
There might be someone at school or work who is definitely the least in your eyes: a person who is always negative and critical of everything, a person who has the ability to strangle the joy out of any situation. Jesus want you to know that when you return to school or work this week and share what you did for Thanksgiving and enjoy the stories you have to tell, that is only enjoying the people you enjoy. But when you walk over to that least person and ask him or her with a smile, “How was your Thanksgiving?” then you are serving Jesus.
People who are different from us can make us wary and uncomfortable. When we approach someone of a different culture or religion, we can become suspicious. We can consider them the least in our eyes. Jesus wants us to know that it is a blessing to gather with our friends, who look like us and think like us. But that is only caring for those we care for. It is when we open the door at the mall for the woman in burka or wish “Merry Christmas” to the Afro-American gentleman in front of us in the checkout line that we are caring for Jesus.
So that is the challenge that is placed before us today. To love, not the people we already love, but to serve those who are least to us. Such a challenge is difficult to meet. But this much is clear: if we are able to see in the faces of those who we consider the least the face of Jesus, it will be easier to serve them. And that will be a blessing for us—both now and when we are gathered among the sheep on the last day.
When the King Comes
November 22, 2020
We are all familiar with the great Last Judgement scene from Matthew’s Gospel. Jesus comes at the end of time and separates people into two groups, like a shepherd separating the sheep from the goats. The sheep go to eternal life and the goats to punishment. But the most important thing about this gospel passage is that it gives us the criterion on which that division is going to take place. It will be determined by how much we serve Jesus who is present in the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, and the imprisoned. When you and I look at that list, we probably say to ourselves that we are doing rather well. After all, if we meet a starving person, we will give him or her a sandwich. If people we know are sick, we visit and care for them. It is not all that often that we run into strangers or prisoners. So, all in all, we are probably confident that we will be counted among the sheep.
But there is one word in today’s gospel that can radically change that perspective. Did you notice what that word was? Listen again: “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit upon his glorious throne, and all the nations will be assembled before him. The word is “nations.” Who is assembled before the king? All the nations. This text is telling us that we will not simply be judged as individuals. We will be judged as a nation. We will be judged not only for what we do or do not do, but what our country does or does not do for those in need. That is a significant difference.
When Jesus comes on the last day, he is not just going to ask us whether we gave a sandwich to the hungry person that knocked on our front door. He is going to ask why in 2019, in the wealthiest country on Earth, there were 30 million Americans who did not have sufficient nourishment. This year, because of Covid, that number is pushing 50 million. 17 million are children.
When Jesus comes with all the angels, he is not just going to ask if we mistreated a stranger at work or at school. He is going to bring up our national policy on immigration, a policy that the United States bishops have termed as “broken.” Our bishops have called for reforms, so that immigrant families will not be separated from one another and a legal path to citizenship be established for the undocumented who are already working in our country.
When Jesus takes his seat on his glorious throne, he is not just going to ask us whether we cared for our elderly parents or visited Aunt Louise in the hospital. He will want to know why 12.5% of Americans have no access to health care and 30.8% have insufficient access. That means that over 43% of Americans do not have the resources to fully address needs of sickness and disease.
When Jesus comes at the end of time, he is not simply going to ask us whether we once hired somebody who had a prison record. He will want to know why there are more imprisoned people in the United States than any other country, and why our programs for rehabilitation of those prisoners are so weak that over 80% of those released return to prison.
So, if you’ve been keeping score with me, our presence among the sheep is becoming somewhat tenuous. Now of course, none of us as individuals can change national policy with a snap of our fingers. But today’s gospel insists that our concern for those who are in need must extend beyond the circle of our immediate family and friends. Our responsibility to care for the most vulnerable members of society is woven into the gospel. This is why we as Christians must do our best to stay informed of these social realities and use whatever political leverage we have to shape policies that will meet the basic needs of the least among us.
The gospel today has warned us to be ready, because when Jesus comes on the last day, he is not just going to ask about you and me. He is going to ask about America.