Having been raised a Roman Catholic, and having been educated in a Roman Catholic seminary (albeit at the Catholic University of America back in the liberal days), I am familiar with minute distinctions that have sometimes enveloped the church in furious debate. How many angels can dance on the head of a pin? One of my favorite stories of seminary debate involves the late Clement Thibodeau, who recently died very tragically in the Maine woods, most likely as a result of suicide. Clem and I lived together at Notre Dame in Waterville for a brief time when I was the co-director of youth ministry for the Catholic diocese. He tells the story of the debates that they would have at the grand seminary in Montreal. A professor once asked him, “How much meat, in broth, is permissible on Friday?” His response was legendary, and was repeated by many of the seminary classmates over the years. “How much meat? Not to worry with the broth served in this place. I’ve yet to find meat in broth, even on a Thursday.”
There are distinctions made about sin, and we can equivocate. In the Catholic tradition there are venial sins and mortal sins. Now, sin is sin, although there are certainly degrees of sin ranging from a small lie to committing murder. Today’s gospel gets at those who equivocate, and it takes its listeners by surprise. I’d like to talk briefly about these characteristics of the story of the sheep and goats, as well as the audience for whom it is intended.
It is a mortal characteristic, I suppose, or more aptly a function of our sinful nature, to equivocate. Al Franken says, “I feel terribly that I’ve made some women feel badly, and for that I am so sorry, and I want to make sure that never happens again.” I feel terribly that I’ve made some people feel badly. Let’s suspend reality for a moment here. I cannot, in a million years, think of a time when I would knowingly or purposefully harm a friend, but again let’s suspend reality. I walk up to Leslie, and I punch her in the shoulder. I then apologize for making her feel badly, or for making her shoulder hurt. Really? Because, what I should be apologizing for is my action, and not how she is feeling. While hitting her would make her hurt, the issue of her pain is secondary to the issue of my action. The only proper response is, “I’m sorry that I hit you.” So, Mr. Franken, the appropriate response to what you have done is, “I’m sorry that I grabbed you inappropriately. It is my action that I am sorry for, and I am secondarily sorry for how it made you feel.” But, you will likely never hear such a direct apology from him or any of the many, many people in power now being accused of inappropriate physical and sexual behavior and contact. Now back to the gospel.
You will notice that in Matthew’s Gospel, there is no blaming the victim for how they feel, and there is no using the victim’s feelings as a way to distance oneself even slightly, from one’s actions. The Lord does not say, “…for I was hungry, and what you did made me feel bad.” No. He says, “You didn’t feed me. You didn’t come visit me when I was sick or in prison. You didn’t welcome me when I was a stranger or give me clothing when I was naked. This is on you; this is your behavior. You didn’t do things you were supposed to do. I have bad feelings about it, but that isn’t the issue. The issue is what you did or didn’t do.
We all do this; I have done it. I can talk about how my privilege or lack of action has created some sort of existential crisis like hunger or disease or discrimination. But there is a distinction here, and it is very different for me to say that I have done stuff or haven’t done stuff, and the suffering of others is a direct consequence of my choices and actions. I haven’t fed the hungry. I haven’t welcomed the stranger or clothed the naked or visited those who are down and out. I haven’t done those things, and that’s on me. Jesus cuts to the chase in this cautionary narrative. In the final analysis, to be among the godly means to take ownership of one’s behaviors, and to modify them accordingly. Saying to God, ” I’m really sorry about the way I made you feel” means nothing when there’s just a lot of crap that I needed to do and didn’t do.
In her commentary on this passage, Dr. Lindsay Armstrong, a Presbyterian scholar who is currently the outreach ministry director for the Presbyterians in Atlanta, says that this passage provides “a warning to those living in unhealthy, self-centered ways. Likening this passage to a medical checkup, she says that it is akin to measuring weight or blood pressure insofar as the emphasis on freely sharing with strangers, prisoners, and all who are hungry, thirsty, naked, and or sick, is a key diagnostic tool to help us assess our righteousness and health. If we cannot share freely and fully, or if we do not make ourselves available to do so, this indicates that our relationship with God and the world is not as healthy and whole as Jesus’ triumph on the cross makes possible.”
There is also an element of shock and surprise in the gospel passage today, and this must not be lost on us at all. Because there is a complacency at work. The unrighteous are shocked that they missed opportunities to show love; had they known God was in their midst, they would’ve done the right thing. They are shocked. Indeed, when we are forced to take ownership for what we have done and what we have not done, it can be shocking. When we take the time to realize that God is here, in our midst, among the poor. It is shocking. Had I only known?
The other surprise that we might even miss in the gospel passage today is verse 32. Well, let me start with verse 31. “When the Son of Man comes in his glory and all the angels with him then he will sit on the throne of his glory. (Now verse 32). All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.” All the nations. While Jesus is likely preaching to a large number of his disciples, he is speaking of a universal truth, a universal human reality. This would suggest that feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, clothing the naked, etc., is not a thing we do because it’s a Christian thing. It’s something we do because it’s a human thing. It’s universal. Acting in responsible ways towards others is something for the peoples of all the nations to do. It is the fundamentally human thing to do.
We go back to chapter 5 of Matthew to find the sermon on the mount. And in chapter 25, Jesus does a check in. How are we humans doing with all of that stuff? In what ways have our lives reflected principles of meekness, humility, generosity, and radical acceptance of one another. How are we humans doing with all that?
This is the last day of the liturgical year. And in this upcoming season of Advent and beyond, we have an opportunity here to ask ourselves where we might next find the hungry, the homeless, the prisoner, the outsider. We have an opportunity to ask, once again how we as this small Christian community of faith fit into the larger human reality that bids us to take full responsibility for what we do or don’t do. We have an opportunity to talk about how the gospel impacts us and drives us, and not just in the confines of our four walls. This gospel passage is intended for panta ta ethne, all the nations. It is not confined, nor can it be confined to a parish, or a diocese, or pages and pages of canon law, or the sad realities of clericalism or imperialism. It’s not a Christian thing or an Episcopal thing or a Jewish thing or a Muslim thing. It’s a human thing.
What makes us righteous in the eyes of God? We can’t do everything. But we can do human. We CANdo human. The fundamental question before us is how are we most human, and how we can continue to push beyond our artificial limits, to be better humans together.