Sunday, November 26, 2017


When I was in Canada leading the priest convocation in Vancouver, British Columbia, recently, I took a picture of the "Homeless Jesus" sculpture on a park bench in front of the door of Holy Rosary Cathedral.
Notice the holes in his feet. It  makes quite a statement to those going in and coming out of the cathedral for Mass.

As long as you failed to do it for
these least ones, you failed to do
it for me.  
MATTHEW 25     

One of my favorite weekly laughs used to come from “News From The Weird,” a column in that free paper I used to see all over Louisville. It’s called LEO. They always had a few stories that proved “truth is stranger than fiction.” One of their regular themes is the fact that we human beings have a tendency to get our priorities all screwed up. Some time back, for instance, they told of a situation in Washington, DC - a domestic altercation which broke out between John Hardy and his wife. As they scuffled, their pit bull became so agitated that John Hardy pulled out a knife and fatally stabbed the dog to death.  Judge Fredrick Weisberg sentenced Mr. Hardy to three months in prison for assaulting his wife and twenty-four months for assaulting his dog! Talk about your priorities!

In the gospel today, we are presented with an imaginary courtroom scene where the priority of love, active love expressed and realized in deeds of kindness and mercy, is presented as the criteria upon which judgment will be rendered. The only law that counts in that courtroom is the law of unselfish love. The only question asked is “did you offer practical help and assistance to your fellow human beings?” Jesus sits on the judges bench. We are called in, one by one, to stand before him for judgment. When the witnesses are called, the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the ill and strangers, they will testify to the fact that they know us or to the fact that they have no idea who we are. It will be a biblical version of that old 60's quote that said, “If you were accused of being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?” In this judgment scene, Jesus is not some vindictive judge. Our own actions, rather the lack of them in this case, will convict us.

There was a movie a few years back where this parable was told in modern images. It was called “Defending Your Life.”  It’s about a man who was killed in a car wreck. After death he was transported to Judgment City to await trial where he would be called to defend his life. At his trial, all the different events of his life are shown to him on a giant TV screen, as well as how he handled them. His defense attorney and his prosecuting attorney take turns helping him with, or challenging, his defense.  The criterion for judgment was “what did you do to help others with all that you were given?”

Throughout this gospel, Jesus has been arguing with the religious authorities over the essence of religion.  They believed that the essence of religion was about celebrating rites and rituals, keeping endless rules and judging who was worthy and who wasn’t in God’s eyes. Jesus insisted, on the other hand, that the essence of religion was about intentionally lifting up the poor, actively respecting the dignity of everyone, and truly trusting the boundless goodness and mercy of God. The message of Jesus throughout this gospel has told us that actions count more than words. Jesus was clear when he said, “It is not those who say, "Lord, Lord," who will enter the kingdom of God, but those who "do the will of my Father.” 

This parable is normally read to promote such things as clothing drives, food pantries for the poor, prison visits and being kind to minorities, immigrants and strangers. All those things are good, but they do not go deep enough. This gospel is a lot more challenging than that. It asks us to address the causes of these conditions. It has to do, not just with handing out charity, but lifting up the poor in a way they can help themselves. Our charity should be looked at as a temporary solution, not a goal in itself. As a workshop that was advertised in The Record said recently, we need to “reinvent” charitable giving. What is really needed is the elimination of the conditions that cause a person to need charity. It has to do with education, affordable housing, access to health care, informed voting, immigration policies, a living wage, peace making, educational opportunities, national budget priorities and so on.  It is about recognizing the systems that produce these problems and committing to their elimination. In my mission work in the islands, I am determined not to make the people down there dependent on my charity, but help organizations who can help them lift themselves out of poverty. 

Over the next several weeks leading up to Christmas, giving to charity will enter its busiest time of the year.  The poor will certainly need that help, but that is not all that our parable is saying, by a long shot. It is much more revolutionary than that. What Jesus is asking for is an elimination of the need to do charity! That is much more complicated, much more demanding and much more serious.

Giving to charity, even though most people I believe do want to do good, is not always about caring for the poor. Sometimes we give to the poor for what it does for us and that is not necessarily bad either. It gives us a feel-good high, it makes us feel less guilty, it will insure that we are noticed and well thought of. I remember one Thanksgiving when I was pastor of this Cathedral. It was before the new dining room for the homeless was built. In those days, all we could do is give out turkey sandwiches and hot coffee. Because so many street people were addicted to alcohol and drugs, we discouraged people from giving them cash. Instead we suggested they give their money to our “street ministry committee” who paid for lodging, bought food and gave out warm clothes as needed, all year long.  That Thanksgiving Day we were giving out sandwiches from the front door of the rectory as usual, when a rich man in a fancy car drove up and got out. He told me he wanted to give everybody in line a silver dollar. It was embarrassing for the people in line. I would rather have taken the bag of silver dollars and bought food for the line next week and have him hand out the sandwiches. He was not mean, I am sure. He just was not thinking as much about the ones he wanted to give the silver dollars to, but how good he would feel when he got back into his car.

Jesus does not condemn wealth. As Margaret Thatcher put it, “Even the Good Samaritan had to have some extra money in his pocket!” It’s about those of us who do have, pulling the "have-nots" up, so that we can all be winners.  The best thing we can do for the poor and hungry and the sick and the imprisoned and the stranger is to help them not need us.      

Why care about the poor, hungry, sick, imprisoned and the stranger?  The parable hits the bulls-eye. It’s because they are Jesus in the flesh! “As long as you did it or failed to do it, you did it or failed to do it, for me!”  What’s the bottom line here? We will stand before Jesus someday and he will have the face of all the poor, sick, hungry, lonely and imprisoned people we failed to notice in our lifetime.  Did we have our priorities straight? Are the priorities of Jesus our priorities? Our own deeds or lack of them will judge us. What we have done may not be as important as what we have not done! That’s scary! 

Someone said to me recently, “There is always somebody these days with their hand out!” It went right through me! Since I am very involved in the Caribbean missions, it irritated me more than quite a bit. After some thought, I finally decided that there are two ways to look at it. (1) There are a lot of lazy beggars out there who want to be carried through life or (2) There are a lot of opportunities out there to prepare oneself to meet Jesus who said, “As long as you failed to do it to one of these least ones, you failed to do it for me!”

Yes, we need to be wise when it comes to charity. I don’t know about you, but I would rather run the risk of being taken advantage of once in a while, than spending the rest of my life taking care of myself, hoarding what I have, because somebody out there might take advantage of me once in a while.  I would much rather be labeled a "sucker" than a"tightwad!" 

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