Many years ago, I heard somebody speaking in general about the Gospels and the impact they are meant to have on our lives and he said the following clever line: “The Gospels were given by Jesus to comfort the afflicted, while at the same time afflicting the comforted.” In other words, the message of the Gospel is both a source of peace and an invitation to ongoing conversion. Most of us are all for being comforted by the Gospel, but we are not so excited about being challenged by the Gospel, preferring to skip over those words or somehow concluding that they apply to somebody else.
I find Matthew 25 to be one of those sections of the Gospels that proves this anecdote to be true, especially verses 31-46 titled “The Judgement of the Nations.” Jesus begins by commending those who practice the works of mercy toward those in need, pointing to the following comforting conclusion: “whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.” (Mt 25:40) We can see Jesus in every person to whom we reach out in charity to serve, and the Lord makes it clear that this will be to our benefit, especially at the judgment we all must face at the end of our lives. Jesus then goes on to offer a very challenging teaching, as He concludes the following when we fail to serve those around us: “what you did not do for one of these least ones, you did not do for me.” (Mt 25:45)
I cannot read these words without feeling extremely uncomfortable, for I know there have been times when I have been guilty of not serving Jesus by turning away from those in need. And there are so many needs in the world around us. Here at the Cathedral, we see people regularly who are at a difficult point in their lives. It can be easy to just keep our head down and pass by. At the end of our lives, we will have to account for those intentional acts of dismissal, as we see in the case of the rich man who ignored Lazarus at his doorstep each day. So how should we respond?
I do not have the time or space to really address the material needs of those we encounter. We have an obligation, to be sure, but that does not necessarily mean directly giving money to everybody who asks, especially since there are several organizations in Springfield that exist to assist with meeting their various needs. One of the things that we can keep in mind is a fundamental principle that underlies all of the commandments that have to do with loving our neighbor – every human being has worth and is to be treated with dignity. One of the simplest ways to respect a person’s dignity is to acknowledge their existence. Looking somebody in the eye and smiling at them, perhaps even giving them a greeting, sends the simple but profound message: “I see you, and you are good.” We should not underestimate how this seemingly minor gesture can make a difference in somebody’s day, especially when their existence is virtually ignored by those who pass uncomfortably by. This is a practice that does not just have to be for those who are poor. We can do it with those we encounter at the grocery store, while going for a walk, or as we come in and out of church – anywhere! To be sure, the commandments invite us to many other forms of charity and service, but this simple practice can be a good way to cultivate an awareness of the goodness of those around us, seeing them through the eyes of Christ as a brother or sister in the Lord, and seeing the Lord Himself who is hiding, waiting to be served by us.