The Divine Makes Itself Felt in the Poor
It is hard to imagine a more profound set of readings with which to end the liturgical year and transition into the Advent season. On this Sunday, when the church celebrates the risen Christ as king of the universe, Matthew identifies the Son of Man with the destitute. The powerful imagery in this Sunday’s Gospel leads many scholars to ask just how close Christians should understand this identification. As two scholars wonder in their commentary on this passage, “Do we have here the real personal presence of the Son of Man in the poor?” (David and Allison, International Critical Commentary, 2004). If the answer is yes, then we must accept that God reveals at least part of the mystery of divine being through the experience of the poor.
For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me. (Mt 25:35)
How might you identify with the poor the way that Christ teaches in today’s Gospel?
Are you the one “saving others” or the one in need of saving?
How can you allow the experience of our broken world to prepare you for Advent?
This is not a concept foreign to the Judeo-Christian tradition, as demonstrated by today’s readings. “I myself,” says the Lord God, “will look after and tend my sheep” (Ez 34:11). The strayed sheep that Ezekiel mentions are those Israelites who found themselves lost, injured and sick. In other words, they have strayed because they were neglected by false shepherds. This Sunday’s responsorial psalm continues this concern for the needy, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want” (Ps 23:1). In both cases, however, although God attends to the needs of the poor, God is not one of the poor. It is in Matthew’s Gospel that Jesus reveals the intimate identification between God and these lost, injured and sick sheep.
The parable in this Sunday’s Gospel is often referred to as the “Judgment of the Nations.” The Son of Man will sit on a glorious throne and call “the nations” to a final examination of their deeds, separating them like a shepherd separates sheep from goats. In a surprising move, the criterion of this judgment is specific: “Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me” (Mt 25:40). Questions remain, however. Who are these “nations” being judged? Who are the “needy” being served or being neglected?
There are several ways to interpret this parable, but two interpretations are particularly helpful. The first rests on Matthew’s repeated references to “the nations.” Some Christian thinkers believe that he is referring to people throughout the world that have yet to hear the message of Christ. The passage thus suggests a path to salvation for those outside the believing community. As the Catholic Catechism states, God makes special provision for those who “seek God with a sincere heart, and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it” (CCC 847). For those who have not encountered the faith, care for the poor is the action that pleases the God whom they seek. This interpretation, although rarely heard, merits reflection as it finds in one of our faith’s earliest texts an open path to salvation for non-Christians.
In the second interpretation, the “nations” under judgment represent all humanity. For many of us, this might be the more helpful way to pray with this Gospel passage as we transition into Advent. We are preparing for the arrival of the one who will raise humanity up, and yet, at the same time, suffers within the least of his brothers and sisters. “For I was hungry and you gave me food,” says Christ, king of the universe, “thirsty and you gave me a drink, a stranger and you welcomed me” (Mt 25:35). The divine mystery revealed in this passage is one of radical humility, an identification with the concrete experience of humanity in its pain, hunger and neglect. Advent prepares us for the humility that Christmas reveals. The mystery of the poor is also somehow the mystery of God at the center of our faith.