The Face of the Poor Is the Face of Jesus

the JudgmentThe last judgment scene in Matthew 25 seems surely to be a perfect Gospel for the “Feast of Christ the King.” The “Son of Man” (a designation for the Messiah and indeed for Jesus himself in his suffering as well as his glory) is in this parable imagined coming in power and glory, the entire human race summoned for a definitive final judgment:

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. (Matthew 25.31-33)

Grand indeed — though remember that the “Last Judgment” is only a parable. It is no more a prediction of the future than the parable of the young women with oil lamps, or the parable of the servants receiving ten talents, five talents, and one talent. Both come right before the third, last judgment parable.

What follows is a quick moving and neatly symmetrical judgment scene, approbation and condemnation taking the same form:

“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.

These slightly perplexed good people speak freely:

“Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?

They seem to know him, and so they speak with a certain intimacy. Of course we know you; what surprises us is only the implication that we’d unknowingly cared for you — so magnificent a king on a throne! — amid the endless crowds of poor and needy people around us. But he reassures them:

“Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me. (25.34-40)

hellThe condemnation is exactly parallel — except of course that these people, similarly clueless as to where the King was and what he cared about, seem to have ignored those in need, as if saving their charity for some celebrity moment. Unfortunately, they too get an immediate response:

“Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’ (25.41-43)

The conversation is cut short by judgments passed down with a stark finality that cannot be appealed or bargained down:

“Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life. (25.46)

Such an ending is harsh — but it is in keeping with the two earlier parables in the chapter: the door is unreasonably slammed in the face of the young women who came late to the wedding feast, and the timid third servant who buried his talent is tossed into the outer darkness. Here in Jerusalem, only several days before the crucifixion, no time is wasted on diplomacy.

As if to drive home the point that God is not what and where we expected, the next scene, opening Matthew 26, begins with Jesus himself tossing aside any tinge of splendor and magnificence:

“When Jesus had finished saying all these things, he said to his disciples, “As you know, the Passover is two days away—and the Son of Man will be handed over to be crucified.” (26.1-2)

The same Son of Man, but no throne, no glory, only the cross. The test for the disciples is to learn to “un-see” the scenes of power and magnificence they had been expecting. Not only is Jesus right there in the needy and marginalized — but the real Son of Man — no longer a figure in a parable — is about to join the ranks of criminals, those horribly condemned and killed by the thuggish Roman occupiers of Israel: "See him on the cross, see him in every condemned person, see him in every criminal on death row."

The key lesson of today's parable is not the duty to feed the poor, or visit the sick and imprisoned. These paramount truths are driven over and over again in the Bible, but they are not the point here. Rather, the lesson of this third parable is that knowing about God, and knowing about those in need, is not enough. Seeing God right there, among and in the needy, is what the kingdom of God is about. Faith is not just piously or righteously waiting for a Son of Man who will come some time later; it is a matter of seeing Jesus here, now. (This too resonates with the earlier two parables: the young women didn't know when he was coming; the three servants had to figure out what to do during his long absence; and here, people find out that he'd never actually gone away.)

Teresa and Day Mother Teresa got it right:

“Seeking the face of God in everything, everyone, all the time, and his hand in every happening. This is what it means to be contemplative in the heart of the world. Seeing and adoring the presence of Jesus, especially in the lowly appearance of bread, and in the distressing disguise of the poor. (In the Heart of the World)

But closer to home: more often than we realize, the clearest living of the Gospel is already mirrored in the lives of people we already know, in our neighbors. We all know people who quietly and steadfastly work for the needy, visit or befriend people in prison, work for change in our unjust society, give financial help to others when they do not have enough for themselves. These are ordinary people like ourselves who are extraordinary, who really do see the face of Jesus in the face of every person in need. Our Lady of Sorrows parish is blessed with many such saints, including you who read these words!

Dorothy DayQuoting Mother Teresa might ordinarily be enough, but I cannot resist adding to the mix another saint of our times, Dorothy Day. After all, she died 40 years ago next week, on November 29, 1980. She was the founder of The Catholic Worker, a lifelong defender of the poor, proponent of nonviolence, a staunch Catholic, a critic of capitalist selfishness, and clear-eyed in the wisdom of seeing Jesus in the face of every person in need. Thus the closing words of her autobiography:

“The most significant thing about The Catholic Worker is poverty, some say. The most significant thing is community, others say. We are not alone anymore. But the final word is love. At times it has been, in the words of Father Zossima [in The Brothers Karamazov ], a harsh and dreadful thing, and our very faith in love has been tried through fire. We cannot love God unless we love each other, and to love we must know each other. We know him in the breaking of bread, and we are not alone anymore. Heaven is a banquet and life is a banquet, too, even with a crust, where there is companionship. We have all known the long loneliness and we have learned that the only solution is love and that love comes with community."

a soup kitchenThe vision is not for a special day far in the future, but right now, here:

"It all happened while we sat there talking, and it is still going on." (The Long Loneliness)

On the feast of Christ the King, at Thanksgiving during this pandemic year, at next week’s dawning of Advent, let us take to heart this simple truth: when we meet someone in need, it is Jesus himself who is needing us. Today, not tomorrow, is judgment day.


You’re invited: The Dorothy Day Guild is hosting a national program marking the 40th anniversary of Dorothy Day’s death on November 29 at 6pm. David Brooks, Anne Snyder, and Paul Elie will speak. The event is online and free, but you need to register here.