November 22, 2020
Fr. Joseph Jacobi
We have reached the end of another liturgical year with this celebration of Christ as King of the Universe. This will be the last Sunday on which we will hear from the evangelist Matthew until we return to Matthew in our Church’s cycle of readings 2 years from now.
Matthew begins his Gospel with the angel announcing to Joseph in a dream that Mary will bear a son who he is to name Jesus because he will save his people from their sins. The angel then reveals that the Son of Mary will fulfill the prophecy of Isaiah, being born of a virgin and called “Emmanuel,” meaning “God-with-us” (Matthew 1: 18-23).
Matthew ends his Gospel with the Risen Jesus, before he ascends to the right hand of the Father in heaven, assuring his fearful disciples that he will be with them always, even until the end of the age (Mt. 28: 20). Emmanuel, God-with-us.
The Son of God, who became one with humankind forever as the Son of Mary, teaches us today how He is Emmanuel. By propelling us forward to our judgment day, he reveals how He is God-with-us in a very surprising way. Not in power and might, but in weakness and in great need. Not in success and glory, but in suffering and struggle. He says: Whatever you did to the least of my brothers (and we would add sisters today), you did to me. This is how the King of the Universe remains with us on earth, in the hungry and thirsty, the stranger and the naked, the ill and those in prison.
With this powerful teaching, the Son of God shows us in no uncertain way that He does not approach us indirectly, but has abolished all distance between himself and his beloved creatures. In his person, Christ Jesus has abolished all distance between God and man, with the result that, in the manner in which we treat one another, so too are we treating not just one another but God himself.
This truth is conveyed in how one little preposition is translated in this judgment day passage. It is not enough to say, “as you did it for one of these least ones…you did for me” as we hear in our translation from the New American Bible. Rather, the more correct and literal translation from the original Greek, as found in the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible is “as you did it to one of these least ones…you did it to me.”
Now you may be thinking, “What’s the big deal?” Well, the word “to” abolishes all distance between the subject and the object, between the one doing the deed of mercy and the one receiving the deed of mercy. If I were to say: “I am giving this gift to you for your mother,” I would certainly be doing something for the sake of your mother. However, I may never meet her or come into contact with her, as I am already doing with you, the person to whom I am physically giving the gift.
In the same way, God in Christ has not approached us indirectly, conveying benefits to us through a 3rd party, but approaches us directly in those who are in need. He identifies himself completely with them, so that whatever we do TO them, we do TO HIM. (The above exegesis on why “TO” is the better translation of the text can be found in Erasmo Merikakis’ book “The Heart of Mercy: Volume III” pp. 836-837.)
Thus, when St. Francis kissed the leper, he can emphatically state that he kissed Christ. Or, after St. Martin of Tours tore his cloak in half to clothe a beggar, in his dream Christ Jesus himself appeared wearing Martin’s cloak. When St. Lawrence the Deacon, as the treasurer for the Church, was commanded by the Emperor of Rome to bring him these priceless treasures, Lawrence showed up with the blind and the lame and the crippled and said to the Emperor: “Here is the treasure of the Church. Here is the body of Christ!”
So, this powerful scene of our judgment day is not a moral exhortation by the King of Kings to do good to others or to be charitable.
No, it is something much, much more. What we do to the least of our brothers and sisters, we do to him.
This complete identification with the least ones is matched by one other saying of Christ Jesus.
At the Last Supper, as he takes bread, says the blessing, breaks it, he gives it to his disciples saying, “This is my Body.” We encounter Christ’s broken body not only in the great Sacrament of the Eucharist but also in his broken and suffering body walking this earth, in the least of our brothers and sisters.
As we prepare to begin a new liturgical year with next Sunday’s celebration of Advent, we do not do so pretending that the Son of God has not come into our world, for he already has. Advent prepare us as individuals and as a Church to receive the Son of God as he comes to us in mystery today. Like a child hidden away in the womb of his mother, he comes in mystery now in the suffering need of another human being.
So, as we sing that popular Advent hymn, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” we realize from the perspective of the Last Judgment that God is with us whenever we encounter any fellow human being in need.
The Son of God keeps coming and coming and coming, asking us to love Him.
The Savior of the World saves us not by power and might, but by commanding us to give ourselves away in love of the other, especially the brother in need, the sister who is suffering.
Thus, salvation is not so much something we “get” as something we “give away”.