Updated: Dec 13, 2020
Readings: 1st- Ezk. 34:11-12, 15-17; 2nd- 1 Cor. 15:20-26, 28;
Gospel - Matt. 25:31-46
IF ONLY I HAD KNOWN
Fr. Vincent Arisukwu
Today is the last Sunday of the Church’s liturgical year, so, we conclude with this parable which is last on the discourse of Jesus about end times. The metaphor used by Jesus is that of a shepherd separating his animals at the end of the day’s work. This conveys the picture in the Middle east where mixed flocks are separated one from the other. They designate the fate of every human being for acts of charity (the corporal and spiritual works of mercy) done or for failure to use those opportunities well. At the time of Jesus, both sheep and goats are useful. You must remember that the message of the scriptures was written for all people and all times but they were written in a specific moment in time. The Lord spoke these words 2000 years ago and thus He used examples that the people of that time would understand. Speaking to an audience that was mainly farmers and tradesmen, Jesus made them to understand well the separation of sheep from goats. Here, Jesus uses these two categories of animals to communicate the day of reckoning.
In this parable, we see the enthronement of the King. Scripture writes, “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit upon his glorious throne, and all the nations will be assembled before him.” Jesus is the Son of Man who sits on the throne in this parable, the “first-fruits of all who have fallen asleep.” (1 Cor. 15:20) He is the King to whom everything will be subject. This fulfills the mission of Christ which he revealed in his response to Pilate’s question, "Are you the King of the Jews?" Jesus answered, "You say that I am a king. In fact, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me." (Jn. 18:37) Today, the whole world declares Jesus King and proclaims his universal reign. The church professes in the Creed, “seated at the right hand of the Father, to judge the living and the dead.”
The words of the King to those gathered before him is clear and simple, “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.” Quite simple! These convey our day-to-day interhuman experiences and encounters with others, so it is simple. What is strange here rather is the reaction of those before the king, the sheep and the goats as they surprisingly respond, “When did we see you…?” These people are expecting a portrayal of Jesus in a mysterious imperial image, maybe an angel with wings appearing at some spot and seeking special attention. That’s not it, so the master answers, “Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of the least brothers of mine, you did for me.” The actions of those on the right while on earth vindicate them. On the contrary, those on his left failed to feed the hungry, give water to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, care for the ill. They failed to visit those in prison, so they failed to do it for Jesus. Their inactions indict them. It is about doing or not doing simple, little acts of love, doing the corporal works of mercy for the sake of Christ. Once Jesus exposed their acts of omission, surely, they would say to themselves, “If only I had known.”
Once Jesus exposed their acts of omission, surely, they would have said to themselves, “If only I had known.”
But what does it mean to feed the hungry or give drink to the thirsty? Yes, physical hunger and thirst are obvious. They are the corporal or physical works of mercy but what about the spiritual works of mercy? What about those who hunger and thirst for the truth! Remember the interaction with Jesus and the woman at the Jacob’s well. She was tending to the Lord’s physical thirst but he was giving her live giving water of truth, where she would never be thirsty again. Jesus told Pilate; I came to testify to the truth. How many people are starved of the truth? Today we’re told that those who speak Christ’s truth are hateful and intolerant. Speaking the truth isn’t intolerant. How many people are being fed lies and deceptions in these times of rancor? How many people are thirsting for the presence of Jesus Christ? How many strangers feel welcomed coming through our church doors or parish offices? Do we embody the loving gaze of Christ when we look at other people? Are we kind in our words and in our social media posts? Do we defend and protect the naked pre-born children in word and deed? Do we reach out to those imprisoned by fear and depression? The works of mercy are both corporal (or physical) and spiritual. Mother Teresa rightly observed that it’s often easier to give a cup of rice to a physically hungry person than it is to be patient and loving to the people right in our homes and within our own families.
Jesus says, “I was hungry and you gave me food.” On the corporal level, there are many opportunities to testify to the truth if we open our eyes. Those opportunities are not far away.
We call it practical Christianity, which invites us to see the needs of those around us.
The “least” in the parable are those who at one time or the other need our help, those exposed by the threats of injustice and “those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.” (Mtt. 5:6)
Since COVID 19 hit, times have gotten tougher, yet the opportunity to do good has become more visible. There are starving persons across the world. There are the elderly confined in their homes. There are those who have lost their employment. There are grieving families who have lost loved ones. There are those battling fears and anxieties. There are different people with vulnerabilities around us who can be described as the “least” of the brothers and sisters of Christ. Do you see them? Do you see the need to help them? Do you see the image of God in them? It can be easy to overlook these “least” if we operate by convenience. If you think about helping as a matter of convenience, you miss the opportunity. If also you see charity as favoring only the receiver, you will miss the reward.
It's time to become men and women who feed the poor in all their forms around us. We’re entering difficult times but God will give us all that we need to fight the battle. And we already know how the story ends. Some of you may be familiar with the great Christian writer C.S. Lewis. Among his many literary works, he wrote a fantasy children’s series called the Chronicles of Narnia. It’s about the adventures of the Pevensie children in a magical land called Narnia and chronicles the story of salvation history. The Jesus character in the book is a lion named Aslan. The last book in the series is called The Final Battle. Here are the closing lines of the book:
"And as He [Aslan] spoke He no longer looked to them like a lion; but the things that began to happen after that were so great and beautiful that I cannot write them. And for us this is the end of all the stories, and we can most truly say that they all lived happily ever after. But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at least they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story, which no one on earth has read: which goes on forever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.”
On this last Sunday of the year, it is good to remind ourselves of our ultimate destination when we would be classified either as sheep on the right or as goats on the left. Like the Mexican priest, Fr. Miguel Pro, we must fearlessly proclaim Christ, “¡Viva, Cristo Rey!” Long live Christ the King! Ours is to practice our faith through both spiritual and physical charity, and the King will declare, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” Let us take the opportunity now, else we become like the goats that regrettably exclaimed, “If only I had known.”
“¡Viva, Cristo Rey!”