The parable in today’s Gospel reading is the fourth and final of the parables about judgment addressed to the Church. Like all of Jesus’ parables, this one is intended to have a surprising, if not shocking, ending.
Many people today expect a Day of Judgment. This remains true despite the decline in participation in organized religion and the changing views about the afterlife. The fact of Divine judgment, as described in the parable, is probably not very controversial. Further, the fact that the Risen Jesus will be the One who passes judgment on the good and the bad probably isn’t very controversial. The first few generations of Christians waited actively for the Lord Jesus to return as Divine Judge; today, even those with a casual attachment to Christianity would probably accept this proposition. The aspect of the parable that was meant to be shocking is the criterion on which all people will be judged.
In the parable, Jesus identifies himself with the poor, the deprived, and the outcast. Jesus’ criterion for passing judgment on humanity, then, is how he (in the person of the poor, the deprived, and the outcast) was treated by the Church. The surprising nature of the sole criterion for judgement is not the way that people intended to treat Jesus, but the way they treated Jesus present in the unfortunate and suffering.
If I had to guess, I would guess that most people in our society, even non-believers, would say that they would be willing to give Jesus decent treatment if they met him in person. I would make one further guess and say that most of those people would be shocked to learn that they have already met Jesus in the person of those on the margins of society. The message of the parable is that it remains to be seen how many of those who intend to be good people can manage to be judged good on the Last Day.
There is a familiar hortatory saying, “Be the change you want to see in the world.” Various forms of this quote exist and various attributions. Its meaning is most often interpreted as an exhortation to positive action. I’d like to suggest that this quote is merely a description of what everyone already does.
Anyone brave enough to be honest will admit that her or his actions are accurate reflections of the world in which she or he chooses to live. Those who merely intend to do the right thing live in a world where there is no accountability. Those who ignore the needs of the burdened and the suffering live in a world where a person’s value is measured in materialistic terms. Those who do the right thing simply because it is the right thing live in a world where God is ever-present.
There is no effort required to “be the change that you want to see in the world” because everyone already makes essential changes to the world daily as the result of the way they choose to live. Anyone who is brave enough to be honest, however, might admit that there is a need for change in the way she or he chooses to live (and, thereby, change the world).
The parable in today’s Gospel reading is a warning to the complacent, the self-satisfied, the fearful, the uncharitable, and the irresponsible. Please note further that the parable is a parable of judgment addressed to the Church. As such, it is a warning from the Just Judge addressed to the complacent, the self-satisfied, the fearful, the uncharitable, and the irresponsible in the Church.
God’s call to repentance is always addressed directly to the one who hears it. The call to repentance is never addressed to someone else, to the world, or to those whom we judge sinners; it is always addressed solely to us as individuals.
Every person on the planet is already the change they want to see in the world. The desire for positive change is not the criterion that will be used to judge between the good and the evil on the Last Day. The criterion for judgment will be the way one changed the world, for good or for bad. Those who will be judged good are the ones who ministered to Jesus present in the unloved and neglected.
Despite the fact that it was meant to be shocking, the meaning of this parable is easily predicted by anyone who is familiar with Jesus and his teaching. Jesus humbled himself to bring salvation to the world; he was repaid for his faithfulness and generosity by being rejected, abandoned, and betrayed. It’s not at all surprising that he would see himself present in those who suffer a similar fate. The question remains, however, whether we can see him present in those who suffer.