Seventy-five years ago (Nov. 23, 1927) Miguel Pro, S.J., shouted “Long live Christ the King” moments before he was executed by a firing squad in Mexico City. At age 37 and only two years ordained, he was condemned for ministering to people despite a government ban on the Catholic Church. The feast and Gospel today herald Jesus as king, but one identified, like Father Pro, with the poor and persecuted, and who himself was executed with the mocking title “King of the Jews.”
Two themes resonate through the readings: the shepherding care of God—“As a shepherd tends his flock, when he finds himself among his scattered sheep, so I will tend my sheep” (Ezek. 34:11, see Psalm 23)—and the vision of the end time, when Jesus, as king and Son of Man, will separate the evildoers from good people the way a shepherd separates the sheep and the goats.
Matthew’s grand pageant of the last judgment has become the “Gospel within the Gospel” for people dedicated to works of charity and justice for the multitudes today suffering hunger, thirst, horrible illness and imprisonment. Most surprising in this parable is that Jesus is identified with such people and is unknown even to those who ministered to him. A “universalistic” interpretation has become commonplace: anyone (Christian or non-Christian) who does such works of mercy to another person is doing them to Christ and will be rewarded by Christ.
Many recent commentators are not at ease with this universalistic interpretation. The narrative concludes a long discourse to disciples telling them how they are to live during Jesus’ absence. When Jesus departs after the resurrection he commissions his disciples as missionaries to the ends of the earth, sent to baptize in the name of the Father, Son and Spirit and to spread his teaching, but always with the consciousness that he would be “with them” until the end of the age (Mt. 28:16-20). The event of “The Sheep and the Goats” takes place at the end of the age, when we learn that Jesus was always “with them,” among the least of his brothers and sisters. These least are called “brothers,” a term Matthew reserves for disciples of Jesus. The gentile nations will be judged on how they received Christian disciples, the least of Jesus’ brothers and sisters, who carry the presence of the absent Jesus.
Over the years I have vacillated between these two interpretations but have come to favor the “discipleship” interpretation. The least of Jesus’ brothers and sisters are disciples, who bear the same kinds of apostolic suffering that Paul speaks of: hunger, thirst, living as a stranger, nakedness, sickness, imprisonment (1 Cor. 4:8-13; 2 Cor. 11:23-29). Paul sees these as signs that “the transcendent power belongs to me” (Christ), or “power is made perfect in weakness.” Apostolic sufferings hide the power and presence of Christ.
Matthew is not simply concerned about punishment of resistant Gentiles. Those Gentiles who ministered to Christ hidden in the missionaries are called just. The horizon of this narrative is apocalyptic. In apocalyptic thought scenes of judgment disclose the transcendent values that should have been operative prior to the end of history. Apocalyptic is a view of history and human life from God’s side. The parable reveals that justice is constituted by acts of loving kindness and mercy to those in need; the world will be made “right” or “just” when the way the least are treated becomes the norm of action. What is done positively for them is not to be limited to them.
Does all this make a difference to the church today? The sufferings borne by the least of the brothers and sisters of the Son of Man summon the church to be an authentic and faithful witness of the Gospel. The church cannot preach acts of loving kindness to the hungry, the thirsty, the imprisoned and the naked unless it too is a church in mission that bears these same sufferings. No Gospel is harsher than Matthew’s on an ethics of words without deeds. The church today suffers from a massive credibility gap, and the values it proposes to the nations must be those to which the church itself witnesses in the midst of the nations.
In recent decades a river of statements on injustice, the dangers of wealth, care for immigrants, concern for the homeless and a wide variety of human rights issues has flowed, from powerful statements of Pope John Paul II and from local bishops conferences. Yet “social justice” is often for external consumption rather than internal assimilation. Concern for social justice seems a marginal qualification among many episcopal appointees. While there have been protests against violations of human rights throughout the world, there has been a progressive retrenchment of such rights within the church, sadly illustrated by the statement of Bernard Häring, C.Ss.R., that though tried four times on capital charges by Nazi courts, he would prefer to stand again before a “court of war of Hitler” than before the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
Today, Cristo Rey truly reigns among those whose authentic witness reminds us of the demands of justice in the world. These embrace not only the multitude of martyrs for justice who, like Father Pro, stretched out their arms to death, but a cloud of witnesses at work in homeless shelters and in classrooms, in prison cells and retreat houses, in lobbying for the poor and in confronting the prosperous. They show us what justice means, and how Christ reigns in their lives as they “guide us in right paths for his name’s sake” (Ps. 23:3).
Ave atque vale! I now complete a three-year stint of writing “The Word,” with gratitude to Thomas Reese, S.J., for inviting me to write this column, and especially to Robert Collins, S.J., for his weekly editing and helpful suggestions. Above all I thank you readers for your interest and comments both critical and appreciative, and I apologize for not always responding to them. May God’s word continue to be a light to your paths (Ps. 118:105).