“Man says that time passes. Time says that man passes.” – T. Terzani
The most important things are said at the end: at the end, when you say goodbye to someone you love knowing that you might not see them again; at the end of your life, when you have to decide how you want to use your dying breath; at the end of a conversation, when you know that there won’t be another chance to explain yourself better later…
We often have the experience of reaching the end and we are convinced that hope is gone. In the end we always come back to what is essential, to what really matters.
This week’s passage of the Gospel contains the final words of Jesus before entering into the time of His Passion. Jesus speaks about the end times and thus, about the most important things. But the most important things are also the simplest, everyday things: eating, drinking, dressing and visiting… After so many words, this is what remains, the profound and essential simplicity of life.
These words of Jesus were chosen by the Church to help us live the end of the liturgical year. It is the end of the path that we began last Advent: like a shepherd, Ezekiel says, God has accompanied us through this past year. He brought us back from where we had strayed. His path has led us somewhere new. We are pilgrims, not drifters. God has accompanied us towards a goal. Our life has a meaning. In fact, the end times also point to the end, the objective, the goal that we have been walking towards. This final page of the Gospel sets us before a question: what has changed in my life during this pilgrimage? Where have I walked? Have I been a pilgrim or a drifter?
In the end, what are left are the simple gestures, as if the fundamental meaning of life was to simply recognize the need of the other, without projecting our anxieties or ideas onto him.
It has always moved me to see that when Caravaggio painted the works of mercy listed in this passage of the Gospel, of which there are six, he adds a seventh: bury the dead. Looking back we realize that his was exactly what was needed in 17th century Naples, suffering a terrible plague. Caravaggio understood the essence of mercy: recognizing the need of the other.
At the end of his preaching, Jesus reinforces this one teaching, as if the entire path traveled with Him ought to bring us fundamentally to this: to open our eyes. It is in this ordinariness that we can rediscover God. The shepherd and the King let themselves be found in the least of these.
The scandal or the paradox of this text is precisely this: Jesus identifies himself with the least of these. He’s not simply telling us to recognize what is human, nor even to take up a deeper social commitment, because it is not about philanthropy. It is about the essence of theo-logy: the dialogue about God and the dialogue about the least of these, His brothers and sisters. The encounter with God is precisely an encounter with the most needy among us. The other question that this passage asks of us is: who, around me in this moment, is the most needy? Pay attention! Because it is there that God lets you find Him.
On the feast in which we celebrate God’s Kingship, the Church asks us to read a passage in which God identifies Himself with the most needy. It is the paradox of God, a paradox that should provoke us and make us question the way we look at history. Here the perspective is backwards: history is not regarded from the point of view of the powerful. The Bible often shows us how God works within history through those who seem to be the least, the last, the useless, the servants, the children, the humble.
Authentic mercy is that which is unselfconscious: when, Lord, did we do this for you? The authentic life is that in which we are always turning towards the needs of others. The more our lives are turned in upon ourselves, the less authentic our lives are, and the less fulfilled we feel as people.
Christ is the authentic man, He who lives completely turned towards humanity. But pay attention, because this Gospel passage tells us that we can also live unaware of our inhumanity! Those who have never given a glass of water to someone who needed one have never realized their own poverty. Thus, we must educate ourselves so that mercy becomes a way of life, so that we can take back our lives.
Jesus said to his disciples:”When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit upon his glorious throne, and all the nations will be assembled before him. And he will separate them one from another, as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will place the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. Then the king will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me,
in prison and you visited me.’
Then the righteous will answer him and say, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? When did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? When did we see you ill or in prison, and visit you?’
And the king will say to them in reply, ‘Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of the least brothers of mine, you did for me.’ Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you accursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.
For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, a stranger and you gave me no welcome,
naked and you gave me no clothing, ill and in prison, and you did not care for me.’
Then they will answer and say, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or ill or in prison, and not minister to your needs?’ He will answer them, ‘Amen, I say to you, what you did not do for one of these least ones, you did not do for me.’ And these will go off to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”
The Gospel of the Lord
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