Let me begin with a confession. I sometimes cringe when I hear this Gospel (Mt 25:31-46) read at funerals. The homilist will begin by telling us that the deceased was a good person who cared about others and tried to help them. Fair enough. We should always attempt to speak well of the dead. The problem comes when the preacher draws a sweeping conclusion: that Jesus will judge us based on our works, whether we fed the hungry, welcomed the stranger, visited the sick and imprisoned.
Take a deep breath. While I certainly do not want to discourage the corporal works of mercy (see Catechism #2447) I must strenuously object to the equation of salvation with deeds. Sooner or later, usually sooner, that view negates faith, grace and the sacraments as essential to salvation. Jesus becomes relegated to the role of a hidden presence whose most significant activity is to observe (and to be "so pleased") with our compassion and kind acts.
The homily on Matthew 25 will often conclude with a sneer at “churchy” people. Because we focus explicitly on Jesus, we are sometimes accused of avoiding the real business of life (aiding others). I can live with the sneer, but I want to challenge what I consider a gross misreading of the Gospel.
To understand this passage correctly we must take into account what precedes and what follows. The last two Sundays we have heard what comes before, namely, the parables of the bridesmaids (vv. 1-13) and the talents (14-30). They illustrate how God will judge those who hear Jesus words. The parables apply directly to us Christians. We are members of the bridal party. Jesus has entrusted us with enormous resources (“talents”).
Today’s section (31-46) shifts the attention to the Gentiles (ethne, “nations” in our translation). They are in a different position than you and I because they have not heard the Gospel - nor have they had the opportunity to receive baptism and the other sacraments. Jesus will judge them according to the moral law, what St. Paul calls the “law written on the heart.” (Rom 2:15) In the judgment scene Jesus focuses on the most obvious and universally acknowledged part of that law - care for the weak, the defenseless.
In this light it might appear that things are easier for the Gentiles. However, care for the most defenseless is not as simple as it sounds. All of us tend to be selective in our compassion. For example, in our culture people often have great sympathy for a woman facing a difficult pregnancy, but not for the tiny child invisible to sight. Likewise we fail to see the dignity of the undocumented immigrant or the terminally ill. In his judgment on the Gentiles, Jesus presents a broad range of marginated folks and repeats the list four times so we will not miss his point.
Unfortunately today we are all influenced by the philosophy of Nietzsche which calls this care for the weak "sentimentality." He urged people to get realistic, that is, to side with the strong and, if possible, become the strongest one. We can see this way of thinking in the legal acceptance of abortion and, now, in the manipulation of human embryos. Let’s face it: Western society has reduced our tiniest brothers and sisters to the level of a consumer product. As I speak, technicians are forming human embryos in Petri dishes. They select some to implant and others to discard. Still others remain frozen for years or are used for medical experiments. If these are not the “least of Jesus’ brothers” I do not know who are. There will be surprises, and not all pleasant, when Jesus comes to judge the nations. Scales will fall from our eyes; the slogans we use to defend ourselves will catch in our throats.
The moral law, that law written on our hearts, will be the criteria for judging the Gentiles. In fact they will judge themselves. How often have you heard a person mocking someone else and then do the very thing he so angrily denounced. I remember visiting a man imprisoned for a hideous crime. Far from humbling himself, he only wanted to spew out his grievances against those who had abused him. We know the inner law well enough, but we have failed to live it.
On judgment day that deep law will not provide refuge. All of us have fallen short, many of us miserably so. But things are not totally bleak. While the universal judgment will involve the moral law, that will not be the whole story. Look at what comes immediately after Matthew 25. I quote:
"When Jesus finished all these sayings, he said to his disciples, 'You know that after two days the Passover is coming, and the Son of man will be delivered up to be crucified.'" (Mt 26:1-2)
The final judgment will ultimately require a response to Christ crucified. Mt 25: 31-46 is practically a description of Jesus on the cross: jailed, thirsty, naked, a stranger. The cross stands at the center of human history. Its shadow has in some way fallen upon our entire race. I believe that Jesus will provide all men an opportunity to throw themselves at the foot of the cross – or to flee.
Notice that the sheep cannot rely of the “pride of works.” They in fact were totally surprised by Jesus’ judgment. “When did we see you…?”
I will stop at that point. Beyond the moral law, which applies to all, Jesus gives us little basis for speculating about the salvation of non-believers. Rather he emphasizes our duty to bring them his teaching and his sacraments. (see Mt 28:19) The fact is you and I have heard Jesus’ voice. We have received his gifts, the sacraments. And we know the path he sets before us, the cross. That certainly involves leaving our comfort zone to do works of mercy. But doing them will not give us something to boast about. On the contrary they provide occasions for humility, to acknowledge Christ as our king.
From Archives (Christ the King, Year A):
Seapadre Homilies: Cycle A, Cycle B, Cycle C
Audio Files of Homilies (Simple Catholicism Blog)
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Fr. Brad's Homilies (well worth listening)
Bulletin (Commitment Sunday, Permanent Deacons Ordination, Bishops Meeting, Matter of the Heart)
Parish Picture Album
(Noviembre de 2011)
Bulletin (St. Mary's Parish)
Parish Picture Album
MBC - Mary Bloom Center, Puno, Peru