Several years ago the Diocesan Chancery staff scheduled a last-minute meeting for priests. The meeting was about an administrative issue in the Chancery offices. The last-minute timing of the meeting was rather inconvenient as the meeting was scheduled to occur about two weeks before Easter. In order for the priests of the Diocese to attend the meeting Lenten Penance Services, and other such events, had to be cancelled in parishes on that day.
When we arrived for the meeting we were greeted by a volunteer member of a Diocesan committee; the volunteer was in charge of the meeting. He made an impassioned speech about the importance of the administrative issue that had occasioned the meeting. His passion for the issue seemed to get the better of him. At one point, he asked the priests attending the meeting to close their eyes, and imagine being greeted by Jesus at the Gates of Heaven on the day of our individual deaths. He asked us to imagine what it would be like to be judged on the merits of the lives we had led. Then, he suggested that we might not be admitted to Heaven if we hadn’t given our enthusiastic support to the particular administrative issue that was being discussed at the meeting.
At that point, I think I let my imagination run wild. I imagined myself standing before the Gates of Heaven; several people were ahead of me in line. I could see Jesus greeting each one, and passing judgment on their life on earth. “Welcome,” said the Lord to one person. “I see that you scheduled meetings to conflict with Lenten Confessions for Catholic School children. Well done, good and faithful servant! Come share your Master’s joy.” “Welcome,” said the Lord to another. “I see that you scheduled meetings to interfere with administering the Sacrament of the Sick at Nursing Homes. Well done, good and faithful servant! Come share your Master’s joy.” Then a priest stepped forward to greet Jesus. “Hello, Father,” said the Lord to the priest. “I see you didn’t take much interest in Diocesan administrative issues. Out of my sight, you evil doer. You will be thrown into the darkness outside, where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth.” I guess I definitely let my imagination get the better of me.
Admittedly, I am no expert on the Last Judgment. Judgment belongs to God, alone. I wouldn’t pretend to know the mind of God with regard to that issue. Nonetheless, I feel fairly certain that the volunteer committee member’s criterion for the Last Judgment was a little too idiosyncratic. If we were going to try to identify the sort of criteria God will use to pass judgment on our lives, where would we look? How about starting with Jesus’ own statements about judgment?
We have one of those statements in this Sunday’s Gospel reading. It is very popular to interpret this allegorical story in Matthew’s Gospel as being instruction about issues of personal or public morals.(*) However, if we can allow ourselves to read the story, and not jump to unwarranted conclusions about its meaning, a very different picture emerges.
Jesus described the Last Judgment as being like a king who separated a large crowd of people into two groups: those who were citizens of the kingdom, and those who were not. The king made his decision based on the nature of the welcome that each individual had given to him personally. At first, the people were confused, and asked, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink?” (Matthew 25:37) Then, the king explained that the welcome given to his ambassadors and emissaries was the welcome given to him as king. “Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.” (Matthew 25:40)
There are several iterations of this theme (hunger, thirst, foreigner, ill and prisoner), but all have the same meaning. Likewise, the inverse versions of the criterion, in which some failed to provide an appropriate welcome for the king, have the same meaning as the others. The criterion for judgment is the same one used by Jesus to define discipleship. Earlier in Matthew’s Gospel Jesus said, “Whoever does the will of my heavenly Father is my brother, and sister, and mother.” (Matthew 12:50). Citizens of the Kingdom (both in the allegory and in a person’s life), are those who welcome the will of God.
We might well ask whether this criterion admits everyone to the Kingdom. I’m sure it is true that most people want to live good lives; many would say that they intend to follow God’s will. If the general religious orientation of most people in society is equivalent to following God’s will, we might ask if there is any real need for a Last Judgment. Shouldn’t we just assume that everyone will be admitted to the Kingdom?
The Scriptures are quite clear on the issue of judgment: it will happen, but not all will be judged as righteous. I am reminded of a television commercial for an eyeglass retailer. A woman opens the back door of her house and calls her cat, “Here, kitty, kitty; come snuggle with Mama.” A racoon responds to her call, and enters the house. The woman says, “That’s a good kitty.” Then the voice of an announcer asks, “Missing something?” We might be missing something if we assume that everyone with good intentions (or even good works), will be admitted to God’s Kingdom.
A house guest left standing outside one’s door has been given no welcome. A guest who is left alone, and ignored, will not feel welcome – even in a familiar home. Welcome means attention and inclusion. To welcome Jesus’ word means to give our attention to the Word, and to include it in our daily lives. To welcome God’s will means to give it a place of prominence in our lives. The “something” that makes the difference between citizenship in the Kingdom of God, or not, is our concrete actions with regard to God. Neither our feelings for God, nor our intentions, matter unless they are expressed in a lifetime of actually being faithful.
We live in a culture that prizes egalitarianism and homogeneity. Our cultural egalitarianism leads us to believe that our primary mission in life is to be kind to all, and that all who are decent will merit eternal life. The Scriptures proclaim a very different message. The Scriptures say that we will be judged on whether or not we welcomed Jesus’ teaching. The teaching of Jesus is this: there will be a Day of Judgment on which God will separate the good from the evil.
Jesus’ criterion for judgment is terrifyingly simple: we will be judged based on whether or not we have believed that God will, in fact, judge the world. Those who will be judged as “good” will be the ones who lived as if they would be judged by the Eternal; they alone will find a warm welcome from the Eternal.
(*) A note on the Gospel reading:
The conventional interpretation of this passage of Matthew’s Gospel portrays these sayings of Jesus (Matthew 25:35-40), as instruction regarding what used to be called the Corporal Works of Mercy, and more recently are referred to as Social Justice issues. This popular interpretation is actually closer to what Smith and Denton have characterized as “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism” (Soul Searching, 2005), than it is to the preaching of Jesus.
The Church’s social justice teaching has great value, and is ever in need of implementation. Nonetheless, the “social justice” interpretation of this passage obscures the message that the Gospel intends to communicate. The inaccuracy of the conventional “social justice” interpretation is rather easy to perceive.
This passage of Matthew’s Gospel is set within a large body of apocalyptic material that begins in the previous chapter of the Gospel. The tone of these two chapters (24 & 25), is clearly eschatological rather than historical. The several parables and sayings in these two chapters deal with the Last Judgment. The “social justice” interpretation focuses on moral actions to be performed during the course of normal history, while the context of these sayings in Jesus’ teaching was the parousia, the end of normal time.
Another unmistakeable piece of evidence is the use of the technical term “brothers,” here in the form of “least brothers.” “Brothers” was a self-identification that the followers of Jesus used, in imitation of his own description of his disciples. “Whoever does the will of my heavenly Father is my brother, and sister, and mother.” (Matthew 12:50). “Brothers,” in Matthew’s Gospel, refers to members of the church community. It was an exclusive reference; it was used to distinguish between insiders and outsiders. “Brothers” were insiders, those who shared faith in Jesus as Messiah; all others were outsiders. These sayings do not have the structure of social justice instructions as they do not refer to treatment owed to the general population; rather, they refer to the treatment of chosen disciples.
An abbreviated version of these sayings appears earlier in the Gospel. “Whoever receives you receives me, and whoever receives me receives the one who sent me. Whoever receives a prophet because he is a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward, and whoever receives a righteous man because he is righteous will receive a righteous man’s reward. And whoever gives only a cup of cold water to one of these little ones to drink because he is a disciple, amen, I say to you, he will surely not lose his reward.” (Matthew 10:40-42) Not coincidentally, these sayings are located at the end of a collection of apocalyptic material.
Similar sayings appear in the other Synoptic Gospels. In Mark’s Gospel Jesus says, “Anyone who gives you a cup of water to drink because you belong to Christ, amen, I say to you, will surely not lose his reward. Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were put around his neck and he were thrown into the sea.” (Mark 9:41-42) In Luke, Jesus says, “I tell you, everyone who acknowledges me before others the Son of Man will acknowledge before the angels of God. But whoever denies me before others will be denied before the angels of God. Everyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but the one who blasphemes against the holy Spirit will not be forgiven.” (Luke 12:8-10) The surrounding material in these two instances is eschatological, just as it is in Matthew.
These sayings embody a common middle eastern value: a representative is the vicarious presence of the one represented. Jesus entrusted his disciples with spreading his preaching to places that he could not reach. He understood these representatives as being his actual presence in the places to which he sent them. The welcome they received was the welcome given his word; therefore, the welcome given to his representatives was the welcome given to him, albeit vicariously. When Jesus said, “Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of the least brothers of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:40), he meant this in a literal sense. The welcome given to his representatives was the welcome given to him; the host who welcomed his representative would be welcomed by him. Conversely, the one who rejected his emissary rejected him, personally.
The tendency to misinterpret Jesus’ words is a result of culturally based prejudices. Among those prejudices is the notion that God is distant from the universe. The distance of God from the universe manifests itself as a sentimental notion that the materially poor have a moral power to be reminders of the Crucified Christ. The moral power of this reminder, according to the “social justice” interpretation, places a moral obligation on believers to act in a certain way toward those in need. While this proposition can be defended on moral grounds, it obscures the more important issue of the source of true righteousness. In the teaching of Jesus true righteousness is the result of one’s relationship to Jesus himself rather than the result of one’s social relationships.
Jesus’ teaching requires his disciples to put their faith in his glorious return and the day of General Resurrection. For the most part, these beliefs have been abandoned today in favor of more immanentist and practical propositions. Our culture’s highest values include a moderate altruism and generic polite manners. These, in themselves, are innocuous. However, when they become substitutes (as they have), for a personal orientation to the Eternal, they become falsehoods. This is what Augustine meant in City of God, where he wrote that the virtues of the pagans are admirable sins; virtuous acts (the Corporal Works of Mercy, Social Justice work, etc.), are virtuous and salutary because of the faith of the believer who performs them. The virtue of a generous action derives from faith rather than from human generosity.
Jesus’ words, in their original meaning, are considered to be something like a mortal sin in American popular culture. This is due to the fact that Jesus’ message requires that we avoid making sentimentality a goal unto itself. Who, then, are the “least brothers” who today speak the words of Jesus, and merit the same welcome that is due to the Lord himself? If there are such emissaries of the Lord today, they would be speaking a message of fidelity to Jesus, repentance from sin and perseverance despite persecution. Three such “least brothers” come immediately to mind.
Cardinal Walter Kasper, along with other German Bishops in 1989, invited all divorced and remarried Catholics to return to the reception of Holy Communion and the practice of the Faith. He was rebuked and marginalized by the Church’s leadership because of his efforts to make Catholics feel welcomed by their Church.
Cardinal Sean O’Malley has been the Bishop of a series of deeply troubled Dioceses. In each of his episcopal assignments he dedicated himself to reconciling estranged and rejected Catholics with their local Church community. Recently, he characterized the Vatican’s treatment of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious as shameful. Because of their concern for faithful Catholics, both Cardinal Kasper and Cardinal O’Malley have been called “liberals,” a profanity in contemporary Catholicism.
Maronite Eparch Gregory Mansour has put himself in harm’s way by calling attention to the plight of middle eastern Christians. Recently, a U.S. Senator accused Eparch Mansour of anti-semitism because the Eparch called upon all Christians worldwide to take a united stand against terrorism, and specifically, against ISIS (the Islamic State).
These are three examples of believers who are embarrassed neither by their own human weakness nor by the weaknesses of fellow believers. These “least brothers” are emissaries of the Crucified Lord, sent to pasture the Lord’s own flock. Their virtue lies not in their sentimental concern for others, but in their conviction that, in the end, each person will be judged on the basis of the welcome given to Jesus’ teaching in this life.
Although we are inclined to interpret these sayings of Jesus as moral instruction about daily behavior, they are Jesus’ explanation of the criterion that will be used to judge between the righteous and the unrighteous on the Last Day; the sole criterion is perseverance in the Faith until the end. For this reason, this reading was chosen as an explication of the eschatological nature of the final Sunday of the Liturgical year and the initial Sundays of Advent. In this life, persevering until the end requires that our individual, daily actions have a focus that goes beyond the temporal and practical. Works of mercy and social justice issues do not create righteousness in a person’s life; they are righteous acts only when done as expressions of one’s belief in Jesus’ Resurrection.