23 Nov 2008
“‘“Whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.”’” (Mt. 25:40) +
Fr. Randy Calvo
About a year ago I joined the Masons. There’s a lot of ritual involved with that organization, and I like ritual. As a newer member, and therefore a low man on the totem pole, this year I took on the ritual of the Tyler. The Tyler’s job is to stand outside of the door of the lodge-room and guard against anyone trying to enter or leave at inappropriate times. The symbol of the Tyler is the ceremonial sword, which symbolically should be used to protect the lodge from intruders. But look at me. How intimidating am I? I’ve never been in a real fight in all my life. I’ve never thrown a punch in anger. And on top of that, I attend all the Mason meetings wearing my priest’s collar! My best defense of the lodge-room wouldn’t be to use the sword, but to immobilize the would-be intruder with their laughter as they saw this priest coming at them with a ceremonial sword in hand. Sharon mentioned all this to a friend of hers. This past Tuesday was our monthly meeting, and her friend was meeting her parents in Amherst for dinner across the street from our Lodge. I was waiting at the traffic light at Pleasant and Main Streets in Amherst when she sees the Screaming-Yellow Ford Focus. Out of the corner of my eye I catch this woman gesturing on the sidewalk. It’s Sharon’s friend acting like a sammarri warrior. To be taken seriously, the person has to fit the role.
That’s exactly what Jesus is saying to us today. If we really want to be followers of Jesus, if we want to take the name Christian seriously, then we have to give evidence of it. If people cannot tell what our faith is by the way we lead our lives, by the choices we make, by the way we act, by the way we talk, by what we avoid, then our faith may be as real as I am threatening in my role as Tyler. If we are to be real followers of Christ, then we have to do more than believe in God, as surprising as that may sound. All of the people in this morning’s parable believe in God: the good and the bad, the ones praised by Jesus and the ones condemned by Him. The difference between the two is not their belief, but what they do with it. The ones condemned by Jesus offer the defense that if they had known that Jesus was hungry or thirsty, that if He was homeless or ill-clothed, that they would definitely have offered to help. They love Jesus! They’d do anything for Jesus. They believe in Jesus. But their belief was not enough because their belief didn’t make any difference in the way they led their lives. Jesus puts it as bluntly as He can so that there can be no mistaking its importance: “‘What you did not do for one of these least ones, you did not do for me.’” (25:45)
I am constantly impressed by how selfless our God is, but I am also constantly fearful that when I mention this topic some people will get it wrong. They will only hear what they want to hear and not what God is trying to say. Here we have a parable of Jesus defining the difference between those who enter heaven and those who are excluded. And in this definition there is no explicit mention of God. What Jesus says here has so little to do directly with God, but in reality it has everything to do with God. In Jesus’ parable of the Last Judgment, the determination of who is to enter heaven and who is to be excluded is not based on explicit religious observance, but on our charity toward others. This is when people who don’t understand the power and purpose of faith stop listening, and I think it’s because sometimes we underestimate God.
Some people tell themselves that all God needs is eternal praise, that God is happiest when He is told over and over again how great He is, as if He needs our affirmation. That’s a kind of small god when you really think about it. This parable makes absolutely clear, however, that God’s ego doesn’t need to be shined by our praise. God is so selfless that He opens His kingdom to those whose faith in Him leads them to acts of selfless charity for the benefit of others, but still it is an act of faith, still it flows forth as our worship.
We’re in a recession now, probably the worst economic downturn since the 1930’s. People are hurting across the economic spectrum. All of us are cutting back in one way or another. In these tough times, the Boston Globe Magazine ran a whole issue behind the cover “Is this really a time for generosity? More than ever.” Inside were stories like the one submitted by a salesclerk at the Mall of New Hampshire. A mother of three children had made an impulse purchase of a watch for herself as she began her shopping. Then after shopping for all of the kids’ needs, the mother realized that the watch was not within her budget and she went back to the salesclerk to return it. When asked about the return, the mother said that her kids come first. A shopper ahead of her overheard the conversation. When the mother handed in the completed returns-form, the salesclerk handed it and the watch back, telling her that the other woman had paid for the watch for her and just wanted her to know that she had been in her shoes once and that things will get better. But charity is not limited to the kindness of those with money. The Globe Magazine went on to talk of 96 year old Josephine Worrell of Roxbury who plays with the children in the cardiac unit of Children’s Hospital; a taxi company in Somerville that donates free rides to women and families who are threatened by abuse; and Lydia Labreque who is homeless, but who donates $1 a week to a group that helps the homeless. As we prepare for Christmas here in our church all of us have the opportunity of donating to Adopt-a-Family or to the USO, to St. Jude’s Hospital, the Survival Center or even to our own church. Christian charity can be expressed in so many ways, and each one of them is holy in the eyes of God as a part of our worship.
But when I preach this message based on Jesus’ own words of a selfless God, I’m always afraid that people will think charity replaces worship. What we do here is for us and God. It builds relationship between us as believers and us with God. It is upon what we do here that charity becomes an act of faith. It is upon what we do here that charity becomes more than a tax-exemption and becomes a sign of our trying to be like Jesus, a Jesus who went away in prayer because He found it refreshing, rewarding and needed, and the source of His strength to try and make this world a better place. Charity expresses faith; it does not replace it. That or faith in Christ may be deepened by our charity toward others, for this we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen. (+)