Monday, March 2, 2020

Lent 2020: Tough Love and "The Least of These"

"Then the King will turn to those on the left and say, 'Away with you, you cursed ones, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his demons. For I was hungry, and you didn't feed me. I was thirsty, and you didn't give me a drink. I was a stranger, and you didn't invite me into your home. I was naked, and you didn't give me clothing. I was sick and in prison, and you didn't visit me.' Then they will reply, 'Lord, when did we ever see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and not help you?' And he will answer, 'I tell you the truth, when you refused to help the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were refusing to help me.' And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous will go into eternal life."
Michael Adams
Far too many modern Christians, especially American Christians, are eager to cast other sinners into hell for their transgressions -- especially, it seems, gay people. Let's just admit this right up front: Some corners of Christianity are obsessed with this subject. It sometimes seems as though Christianity is being reduced to two topics: opposing abortion, and condemning gay people, as if Jesus never spoke about anything else.

And that's the problem. He did speak about other things (and in fact never uttered a single word about abortion or homosexuality in any of the four Gospels). In particular, he tells us in Matthew 25 that one's eternal reward or punishment will be contingent on how one treated the "least of these," for when you refuse to help to a person in need, you refuse help to Christ himself. And that's because Christ sides with those in need, those whom the systems of injustice in this world have turned their backs on. We have seen this theme repeated over and over in the readings in this young Lenten season.

On the words of Matthew 25 hang the Seven Corporal Works of Mercy, which all Catholics are expected to live out to the best of their ability: Feed the poor, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, visit the sick, visit the prisoner, and bury the dead.

This is not optional in the Christian life, as Sister Theresa Aletheia Noble writes today:
God's children are called to have hearts of compassion for every person in need and to acknowledge the countless cries of sorrow and terrified faces of desperation in our world. ... Saint John Chrysostom, commenting on this Gospel, wrote with similar bluntness and emphasis, "There is no pardon, no, none for him who does not do works of mercy." The road to heaven is paved with works of mercy, and these works are just as much for our well-being as they are for others. In serving the poor, we find Christ in our life. In serving the vulnerable, we evade death and find true and lasting life.
We can argue all day about the "clobber" verses with regard to same-sex attraction. The fact is that their original intent is not always clear and that they have to be understood in the context of their time and culture. What is clear is that condemning others to hell for their sexual orientation is not our job. Our job is to remember that we will be judged to the same degree we judge others, and that we need to tend to the log in our own eye before we notice the speck in our neighbor's eye (Matthew 7:1-5).

Moreover, Jesus laid out quite plainly what will condemn a person to be eternally cast out of his presence: the neglect of the very people whom so many homosexuality-condemning "pro-life" Chriatians commonly deride as lazy bums, thieves, freeloaders, criminals, animals. Think about how the average Christian talks about migrants, the homeless, those using public assistance, those who are sick because they can't afford healthcare, those on death row. Then go and read Matthew 25. The disconnect is not only hypocritical; it's tragic. We cannot expect to become Christ-like if we don't first follow in his footsteps and see the image of God in all our brothers and sisters.

"Why do you call me 'Lord, Lord' and not do as I say?" Christ's pointed question from Luke 6:46 unfortunately remains far too relevant today.

"The mystery of the poor is this," Dorothy Day once said: "That they are Jesus, and what you do for them you do for him. It is the only way we have of knowing and believing in our love."

May we all do better, for our own sake as well as for those in need.

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