Liturgical feast implications

Published 3:38 pm Friday, November 21, 2008

We scripturally oriented people know where God stands in relation to the poor. Both the Hebrew scriptures and the New Testament make that abundantly clear—God’s heart is turned toward the poor. (There are more than 2,000 verses in the Bible that relate to the poor.)

Thus, Ezekiel 34, 11-17 voices God’s frustrations with the people’s appointed leaders and expresses God’s determination to take over the task of tending the scattered, injured and sick sheep.

“I myself will pasture my sheep, I myself will give them rest.” Ezekiel depicts God as a loving and tender shepherd whose primary concern is the care of the flock; unlike the corrupt leaders who placed themselves and their own profit first. The sheep they were supposed to shepherd had been scattered, and now God will tend them and heal their wounds.

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A courtroom can be a place of high drama where guilt or innocence, imprisonment or freedom, hang in the balance. That explains, in part, the long line of television courtroom dramas going back to the first days of television, remember Matlock—right up to the long-running Law and Order.

This past liturgical year has had a special emphasis on Matthew’s gospel. Today, the last Sunday in the year, we have an imaginative courtroom scene, a parable that is unique to Matthew.

It is a good closing to our liturgical year and to Jesus’ ministry, because immediately after the parable Matthew begins to develop the Passion Narrative. Thus, Matthew is emphasizing the importance of this parable’s teaching in the light of Jesus’ public ministry. Next Sunday begins Advent and the parable suggests the kind of behavior that must engage Jesus’ disciples as we await his return in glory.

A month ago, we heard Jesus sum up our responsibility to love God with all our heart, soul and mind and to love neighbor as self. This, he said, sums up the whole law and the prophets. If we want to love and serve the God we cannot see then, Jesus instructs us, we must serve and love the neighbor we can see.

Today Jesus continues and reaffirms his message that he is to be found among the poor and suffering—and he continues to suffer in them. Since this is Jesus’ final teaching, it is as if he is delivering his last will and testament.

When judgment is passed, it will be based, Jesus tells us, on how we showed our love for those in need. This love isn’t just expressed in words, but also in concrete actions. Jesus, the judge, highlights just a few examples of those who should be the recipients of his disciples’ care and concern.

Christians aren’t just a group who share a common belief system, liturgical practices and religious vocabulary. We are also called to express our belief through concrete acts that address the needs of those within our physical sight and also those brought close to us through modern media—television, newspapers, the Internet, etc.

If we clothe the naked, feed the hungry and visit the sick and imprisoned today—what will we do tomorrow and next week when they are again hungry, naked, still imprisoned? Our immediate response to their needs is important, but more is required of disciples whom the Master in last week’s parable called, “good and faithful servants.”

Faithful servants don’t give up after initial attempts to help the most needy and vulnerable: They “keep on keepin’ on.” And the really “clever” disciples, whom Jesus praises elsewhere in the gospel, will continue to address the poor’s ongoing needs by organizing others in their charitable projects. Thus, in many parishes there are all kinds of helping hands for food pantries, clothing drives, prison and jail visitation, etc. But still more is needed. Many professional parishioners, such as lawyers, counselors, teachers, doctors, builders, nurses, etc., give their time pro bono to people with special needs beyond food, clothing and water.

But the needs of the poor, sick and prisoners are often greater than a few volunteers and ministerial staff can address.

Still more is needed and that’s why some who hear today’s parable address the problem through community, state and national programs. (In many dioceses today, there will be donations to the American bishops’ Campaign for Human Development—a national program to address a very large need.)

There are also people who, in response to today’s scriptures, keep an eye out when legislation to help the poor comes up for discussion and votes. Those of us linked to the Internet have access to charitable organizations that can keep us current about legislative issues that affect the poor. Informed Christians make sure their voices on behalf of the poor and least influential are heard, for we know that we cannot overlook the ones with whom Jesus identifies—”the least.”

We certainly must address the needs of those at our doorstep and in our local community. But we can’t be nearsighted; we can’t claim ignorance to the desperate needs of the poor in our globalized world.

For example, when Pope Benedict visited America, he drew our attention to the plight of global migration and the presence in our country of the large immigrant population. The bishops have also spoken out and said that our current immigration system is broken and needs reform.

While recognizing the need for a nation to protect its borders, the bishops in their meetings last week, called for a path to citizenship for the 11 million to 12 million undocumented who live and work in the shadows of our nation. The church has taken a position on immigration because human welfare and rights are affected by this issue—we are talking about today’s “hungry, thirsty, stranger, naked, ill and imprisoned.”

There is no adequate and workable immigration process today that will enable people to come to this country to work and meet our needs for labor.

Certainly Jesus would add to today’s parable, “I was an immigrant and you provided ‘guest worker’ status for me and a path to citizenship.”