Whenever I’m invited to speak to a group about Catholic social teaching, I talk about one of my favorite Scripture passages: Matthew 25: 31-46.
In this famous story, Jesus describes the Last Judgment to his disciples. At the end of time, like a shepherd, he will place all people before him, and separate them into groups of sheep and goats.
Jesus places the sheep on his right and the goats on his left, turns to the sheep, and welcomes them into heaven: “For 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.”
The sheep are grateful and excited, but confused. They don’t think they’ve ever seen Jesus before. How could they have ministered to his needs?
Jesus says, “Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.”
The goats aren’t so lucky. Jesus condemns them, for they did not serve him when he was hungry, thirsty, a stranger, naked, ill, or in prison: “What you did not do for one of these least ones, you did not do for me.” They are sent away to eternal punishment.
There are two radical things about this passage I sometimes forget because the story is so familiar.
First, our salvation is directly related to how we respond to the needs of our sisters and brothers. This doesn’t mean that we are supposed to do good things and hope God notices, as if He were a cosmic Santa Claus. Instead, it is a powerful reminder that our faith demands action with and for those who are pushed to society’s margins. Work to build a more just world is not optional for Christians. It is at the heart of who we are.
Second, when Jesus says, “Whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me,” he is making a one-to-one identification with those who are hungry, thirsty, far from home. He is not saying that we do something good on his behalf when we feed the hungry. He is saying we feed Jesus himself. So if you want to see Jesus, look into the face of someone who is suffering. This is “Christ in his most distressing disguise,” as Mother Teresa would say.
A speaker I heard once reflected on this radical truth in a way that really challenged me. He talked about our reverence for the Eucharist in the tabernacle, which we display with a bow or by genuflecting. We make a physical motion to show our belief that Jesus Christ is fully present in the Blessed Sacrament. This is good and important.
However, Jesus also tells us that he is fully present in those who are in the greatest need.
“When was the last time you walked past a homeless person sleeping on the street and genuflected?” the speaker asked the audience.
Never, of course.
Perhaps we don’t need to use the same symbols of reverence when we encounter Christ in these two places, but we need the same level of respect. We need to find Christ in these two places and let him change our lives.
Next month, as a diocese, we will make an effort to respond to Christ in his most distressing disguise.
On Sunday, February 23, we will hold a one-day food drive called faithFULL. Bishop Sullivan has asked all Catholic parishes and schools in the diocese to participate. After the holiday season, food banks and pantries are traditionally low on food. Our support as a diocesan family is crucial.
The need in South Jersey is as clear as our Gospel mandate: We live in a region where one in four children are food insecure. This drive will benefit three indispensable organizations that fight hunger here everyday: Catholic Charities and their partner pantries, the Food Bank of South Jersey in Pennsauken, and the Community FoodBank of New Jersey in EggHarborTownship.
Of course, so many of our faith communities here respond generously to the needs of their neighbors all the time. But nothing can top the Catholic Church when we get organized. This united effort has the potential to be the largest single-day food drive in American history.
There are three things I ask you to help us with as faithFULL approaches:
1) Visit www.camdenfaithfull.com to learn more about the project and to watch a short video featuring a message from Bishop Sullivan.
2) Make sure your parish or school is participating. Ask around. Don’t be afraid to be a little bit annoying. But if it turns out your faith community needs someone to help coordinate the drive, be ready to volunteer!
3) Pray for those who are hungry and contribute however you can on February 23.
Thank you in advance for putting your faith into action. Let’s restock the shelves together.
Questions about the drive? Contact Mike at firstname.lastname@example.org.