Today we celebrate the Solemnity of Christ the King. It is the last Sunday of the church year, and we begin Advent next week. We will also switch gospels from Matthew to Mark. Mark will have much to offer us, but Matthew was particularly pertinent for this year. St. Matthew was a pastor of a new parish at the dawn of the church. We are a well-established one which will need to rebuild after COVID, but the challenges are strikingly similar.
Matthew has shown us the importance of forgiveness, the practicality of the Beatitudes and need for a Church structure. These issues were urgent then and now. Today’s message may not seem as immediate, but you may find a longer look worthwhile.
Matthew’s community was divided between those born Jews and those born Gentiles. They did not hold much in common. Perhaps one common reality was that most of their families, friends, and neighbors would not have been Christians. We know we are saved by Jesus, so what would happen to them?
Today we see that Jesus calling “the nations” together. These are essentially the Gentiles, and He will separate them, sheep from goats: the saved from the damned. Think of these not as unnamed and unknown strangers, but as family, neighbors and friends. Although they did not profess Jesus, we are told today that some are clearly destined for life with Him, while others for destruction. What is the dividing line?
The answer is breathtakingly simple: how they treated the least imposing Christian is how they will be treated by Jesus. This undoubtedly caused great surprise both among the righteous Gentiles and the Christians. It should not. He has already told them earlier in the gospel, “Whoever receives you receives me, and whoever receives me receives the one who sent me”. (Mt 10:40) Followers of Jesus caused great difficulty to their pagan family and friends. (10:32-39) but those who did not abandon the Christians, but indeed supported them, will be rewarded.
This may not be as immediately important for us as for Matthew’s community, but let us look at it closer.
First, for Matthew, the identification between Jesus and the community of Christians is total. Those Gentiles who support Christians – particularly those in need – will be so united to Jesus that they will share the salvation of the Baptized. Jesus is happy to extend His hand for all eternity to those who rejected it in this world. He makes it clear that by their care of his brothers and sisters they accepted him, even if they did not realize it at the time.
Second, it is assumed here that when a person became a Christian, he or she lost status and perhaps profession, income and security. The Gentiles are rewarded for seeing the needs and the humanity of the Christian, although they may have brought disgrace upon their families and communities by their conversion. The early Christians were among the marginalized of their day. Can we learn from this?
The Thursday night Book Club has been reading Pope Francis’ encyclical “Fratelli Tutti”. It opens with the story of St. Francis’ pilgrimage to the Holy Land during the height of the crusades. There he met Sultan Malik-el-Kaml, the leader of the enemy forces. Rather than engaging in arguments or disputes, they both spoke of their love for God and desire for peace. This is the spirit Matthew shows today. The early Christians were very odd indeed. Because they would not sacrifice to the emperor, they were considered atheists and a threat to public order. And yet there were righteous Gentiles who would not only refrain from turning them in but help them in their need. In Francis’ terms, these were people who built bridges, not walls.
Although the 20th Century saw the greatest persecution of Christians in history, that was not the case in the Global North. Here, we Christians are the dominant group. How have we acted? In the encyclical Pope Francis speaks again of a throwaway world. It is easy to judge others by our own sense of merit and success. Those who do not rise to this level may often sink from view and become invisible. Reading this section, I could not help remembering that the sin of the goats was blindness. They did not “do” anything consciously evil. They did not take the food from a poor person’s table, nor strip them of their clothes. They simply didn’t see them, and their actions caused pain and destruction. Pope Francis urges us to look at our own lives and see what it takes to maintain them. In many of his writings, he asks the question “Does our lifestyle degrade the environment to the point where the very weather rebels”? This may be inconvenient for us, but it is deadly for others. If the LORD is so hard on people who did not know his word nor receive his body and blood, what will he say to us?
Have we become the Gentiles, the nations of today’s Gospel and more to the point are we the sheep or the goats? If we have pushed people to the margins of life, then we have joined the goats. This is especially true of the financially distressed. We are called to a double vision of them. First that they exist. This is now especially difficult to hide. We see people who are obviously homeless and in need of direct assistance. There are others who are not yet homeless but who are food insecure. Our own food pantry distributed food to over 160 families last week and Msgr told me that the line for Thanksgiving turkeys at one of the pop ups was almost one mile long. Even factoring social distancing that is an impressive image. There is however another kind of blindness: “How does the way we live, affect poorer people?” What do others loose so I can gain? As long as Francis is Pope, this imperative will not be hidden and not disappear.
These are inevitable questions for a Catholic Christian. I find asking them difficult and answering them painful, but today’s feast and readings give me encouragement and hope.
To know the greatest king, I must embrace his poorest subject.